America’s Attic

James was born as an illegitimate child in 1765 in Paris. His birth was a secret, as his father was a member of royalty in England. He was educated in England. He trained as a scientist and traveled extensively.

With substantial wealth, he was free to pursue a number of diverse subjects. His most serious interest was in geology and chemistry. He was nominated to the Royal Society of England at age 26. His research made several breakthroughs, challenging popular misconceptions.

James never married and when he passed away he left his sizeable estate to a nephew. A provision of his will stated that should his nephew have no heirs the estate would be used to found an institution in Washington DC to increase the diffusion of knowledge. His nephew died six years after James, leaving no heirs.

When the U.S. government found out about the bequest, President Andrew Jackson informed Congress. Following normal practices, the Congress formed a committee to decide what to do. After extensive debate, Congress accepted the gift of the estate. The institution was subsequently named for James, and in 1847 the Smithsonian Institution was created in recognition of the gift of James Smithson.

James’ papers were also transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. James was buried in Italy. The cemetery where he was buried was going to be moved to expand a quarry nearby. Alexander Graham Bell, a regent of the Smithsonian, proposed that James’ remains be brought to the U.S. In 1904 James’ remains were placed under the Regent’s Room of the institution he helped create. It was James first time to be in the United States.

People often create legacies that go far beyond anything they ever dreamed about. Surely James Smithson could never have envisioned his bequest to America would become one of the most beloved institutions in the country he never visited when he was alive.

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I then bequeath the whole of my property…to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” – James Smithson (statement in his will)


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