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A Brief History of the Smithsonian

The creation of the Smithsonian is based on a mystery.  

James Smithson specified in his will that should his nephew die without heirs – which he did in 1835 – his estate would go to the United States, a country Smithson never visited and a place where he had no known friends or associates.  The will called for the establishment “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge...”  

We do know enough about James Smithson to admire his curiosity and dedication to exploration. He was a naturalized English citizen and a graduate of Pembroke College, Oxford. At the very young age of 23 Smithson was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He was interested in almost everything and studied a wide range of natural phenomena: the venom of snakes, the chemistry of volcanoes, the constituents of a lady’s tear and even the fundamental nature of electricity. He published twenty-seven scientific papers in his lifetime, ranging from an improved method of making coffee to an analysis of the mineral calamine, critical in the manufacture of brass. The latter led to the discovery of a mineral which was named Smithsonite in his honor.   

It is possible that his unexpected and generous gift was the result of Smithson’s status as the illegitimate child of the Duke of Northumberland who never acknowledged his son, James. Smithson predicted his own fate when he wrote about his hope that his name would live on even after the title of Northumberland became extinct and forgotten.  

When James Smithson’s gift was converted into dollars in 1846, it totaled a little over $508,000. After much heated debate on how to implement the mandate in the Smithson will, it was eventually determined that research would “increase knowledge” while museums would “diffuse knowledge.” The Smithsonian’s dual mission was realized.  

For more information on James Smithson view the article from the Smithsonian Archives.  

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