This Week in History: The Founding of the Smithsonian Institution

A new segment I am rolling out slowly but surely is a quick snapshot of an important event in history each week. This week, I will be discussing the creation of the Smithsonian Institution. Comprised of nineteen museums, galleries, etc., the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world. It was founded in the mid-nineteenth century with a bequest from James Smithson, an English chemist and mineralogist.

The first question one might ask when exploring the history of the Smithsonian is, why in the world would an English scientist donate his entire estate to the United States?

The truth is, no one really knows.

Born around 1765, James Smithson was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the Duke of Northumberland, and the wealthy widow Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie. He was born in Paris and eventually became a fellow in the Royal Society of London, one of the most prestigious gatherings of scientific minds at the time. Arguably his primary contributions to science occurred in mineralogy, especially in his identification of zinc carbonate (one kind of which was named smithsonite in his honor). Over his lifetime, Smithson published twenty-seven papers of varying topics. He died in Italy in 1829 with no heirs; on top of that, he was wealthy, having inherited lands from his wealthy mother. His will requested a substantial amount of money be donated to the United States for the purpose of “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” It was to be called the Smithsonian Institution. But, as economics and politics ever mingle, there were some complications.

First of all, the American government was skeptical of receiving such a gift from a foreign country. Why did Smithson leave so much money to a country he never visited? Yes, I wrote that correctly! Smithson traveled the world but never set foot on American soil. In her book The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Founding of America’s Greatest Museum, the Smithsonian, author Nina Burleigh considers a few different theories:

  1. Perhaps he thought his money would stretch further in a country with few philanthropists and little money;
  2. Perhaps he thought scientific and technological innovation would thrive here; (source)
  3. A third theory, not expressed by Burleigh, is that he donated the money because he received nothing from his father due to his bastard status. (source)
  4. And a fourth theory could be American democracy inspired him (source)

Unfortunately we may never know because fire destroyed his papers and collections in 1865.

Secondly, what was to be done to create the to-be-named “Smithsonian Institution”? In the debates surrounding this institution, people purposed creating a national library, a national university, an agriculture college and national farm, a national museum, and a national education center. These debates ran in roundabouts from 1838 (when diplomat Richard Rush received the money) until 1846 when it was decided to create the Institution for the advancement of science.

Interestingly, there was a push to separate a national museum from the Institution for its use as a solely scientific entity. But, in the end, the Institution became what it is today, an integral part of American history and the preservation of our past, present, and future.

If you have been there, please feel free to share your stories in the comments below!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.