Death in 1829 of James Smithson, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, whose bequest founded the Smithsonian Institution.
James Smithson cared about, and indeed was obsessed by, his scientific reputation in life and posthumously. His chemical and mineralogical research has earned Smithson a minor but secure place in the history of science. But his astonishing and unanticipated bequest of some half a million dollars for the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution has given him greater and even more enduring fame.
In England, the United States was seen as a haven for “democrats” (a very loaded term in the years following the French Revolution) and for dissenters, including the fiery chemist Joseph Priestley. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey had briefly contemplated relocating there as an experiment in social and political reform. Smithson saw great potential in the United States, which had fought for and won its independence during his adolescence. Smithson never married, and when he died in Genoa he left his estate to his nephew and to that nephew’s heirs. The nephew died without issue six years after Smithson; and so, according to the terms of his will, the estate passed to the U.S. government, “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Now one of the United States’ greatest treasures and repositories of knowledge, the Smithsonian Institution has been fulfilling this mission for over 150 years.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation