"The best blood of England flows in my veins; on my father's side I am a Northumberland, on my mother's I am related to Kings, but this avails me not. My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten." Years after he wrote these bitter, boastful words, James Smithson, son of an English aristocrat denied rank and privilege because he was illegitimate, bequeathed his entire estate -- about $15 million in today's money -- to a country he would never see for a purpose he personally could never achieve. Smithson's will stipulated that the money go to the fledgling United States "to found at Washington, under the name Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Today, the Smithsonian, 150 years old this year, is one of the premier educational and cultural resources in the nation. While his name lives prominently through the institution, much of the life of James Smithson remains a mystery. Sketches survive, including bits of his vast scientific pursuits, but details remain frustratingly elusive. What does seem clear, however, is that the mysterious Smithsonian benefactor's keen desire for an enduring memorial to himself was shaped in some part by the circumstances of his birth in 1765. He was born James Lewis Macie in Paris, where his mother, Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a widow reportedly descended from King Henry VII, had gone to hide after becoming pregnant in an illicit rendezvous. His father was Hugh Smithson, who had married nobility, been created the first Duke of Northumberland and granted the ancient and honorable name of Percy. Denied his father's name, the child also was ineligible to benefit from the duke's vast estates or social standing. Father and son probably never met. He was naturalized a British citizen at age 9 after his mother returned with him to England but, because of his stigmatized birth, was barred from entering the army, church, civil service or politics. The young man attended Pembroke College, Oxford, where he excelled in the developing sciences of chemistry and mineralogy, forming a lifelong interest after graduating in 1786. The following year, he was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge under the tutelage of his friend and sponsor, Henry Cavendish, the scientist who discovered the properties of hydrogen and identified it as an element in water. Three years after admission, James Macie, as he was still known, published his first scientific paper on the chemical properties of tabasheer, a substance found in bamboo. He would go on to write more than 200 papers, at least 27 of them published. Along the way, Smithson was granted the right to assume his father's name of Smithson. Unfortunately, most of his writings, which had been deposited at the Smithsonian Castle, were destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1865. What survives clearly indicates a broad range of interests, including papers on how to make a better cup of coffee and improved methods of lamp construction. Historian Pamela Henson, of the Smithsonian Institution, notes that, while Smithson was not a particularly brilliant theoretician, he was very good at chemical analysis. Indeed, the mineral smithsonite, a form of zinc carbonate, was discovered by him and is named in his honor. James Conaway, author of The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder, writes that, although "uninterested in theory ... his method was modern in the sense that he understood the law of definite proportions -- that compounds always contain proportionately the same elements -- before the atomic theory had been proposed." As keen about science as Smithson may have been, this pursuit was not destined to make him famous, an awareness he perhaps embraced while growing older. He became a chronic gambler. He also wrote his will, the document that provokes the most tantalizing questions about him. Why would someone who had never even visited the United States leave virtually all of his money to the young nation? What did he mean by the "increase and diffusion of knowledge"? Did he wish to achieve fame, which science denied him, by stipulating that a scientific institution be named for him?
Henson says the language of the will is the type "found all over the Royal Society" of which he was a member, adding that Smithson "had the post-Enlightenment mentality that the pursuit of knowledge was not only intrinsically fascinating but could be used to advance the human condition." Author Conaway notes that the Royal Society reportedly had declined to publish Smithson's later papers, though the reasons are unknown. Perhaps feeling slighted, Smithson may have left the organization out of his will, doubling the insult by giving the money not just to an upstart country but to one that had rebelled successfully against England. Although raised primarily in England, Smithson spent most of his adult life on the European continent, where he was born. There, his egalitarian views were shaped and nourished. He was deeply opposed to the aristocratic elitism that had largely rejected him because of his blemished birth, a system represented most vividly by monarchies. "Men of every rank are joining the chorus," he wrote from France in 1792, three years after the fall of the Bastille. "Stupidity and guilt have had a long reign, and it begins, indeed, to be time for justice and common sense to have their turn.... May other nations, at the time of their reforms, be wise enough to cast off, at first, the contemptible incumbrance."
Smithson's contempt for monarchies no doubt extended to emperors, especially after he was imprisoned in 1807 under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Detained while traveling in Denmark, possibly as a suspected spy, Smithson spent five years in in a squalid prison that "threw me into a state of dangerous illness and brought on a spitting of blood," as he wrote to the president of the Royal Society in a plea for help. Perhaps Smithson admired America's democratic ideals or individualism and sense of purpose. He certainly had some knowledge of the new nation. His half-brother, Hugh Percy, second Duke of Northumberland, had fought for the British during the Revolutionary War and expressed a certain admiration for his adversaries. "Whoever looks upon them as merely an irregular mob will find himself much mistaken," Percy wrote, "nor are their men devoid of the spirit of enthusiasm." Joseph Priestly, a contemporary of Smithson's who discovered oxygen, found asylum in America after being forced from England because of political beliefs. Conaway writes that Priestly had predicted that greater scientific discoveries would be made in the new country, a viewpoint with which Smithson surely was familiar. Conaway also notes that, while Smithson's library seldom referred to America, Isaac Weld, secretary of the Royal Society, speculated in a book about Washington D.C.: "If the affairs of the United States go on as rapidly as they have done, it will become the grand emporium of the West and rival in magnitude and splendor the cities of the whole world." Whatever Smithson's motives, his will was clear. Smithson never married and had no children, so he left his money to a nephew. Should the nephew die without heirs, the will said, all of the money would go to the United States. James Smithson died June 26, 1829, and, six years later, so did his childless nephew. America, therefore, was to be the beneficiary of about $500,000 inherited by Smithson from his mother's family -- an enormous sum at the time. Smithson's American beneficiaries received the gift with prickly congressional dissention (see accompanying article). Still, the endowment led former president John Quincy Adams to remark, in words that would surely have pleased Smithson: "Renowned as is the name of Percy in the historical annals of England ... let the trust of James Smithson to the United States of America be faithfully executed ... let the result accomplish his object, the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men, and a wreath more unfading shall entwine itself, in the lapse of future ages, around the name of Smithson than the united hands of history and poetry have braided around the name of Percy through the long ages past." So it has. CAPTION: The Smithsonian's "Castle."