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The lost world of James Smithson : science, revolution, and the birth of the Smithsonian

by Heather P Ewing

  Print book : Biography

The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution...   (2011-03-10)


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by wppalmer

Review of The lost world of James Smithson: science, revolution and the birth of the Smithsonian by Heather Ewing
Reviewed by Dr Bill Palmer, Associate, Curtin University, Australia.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Place: London
Price: £20.00

Heather Ewing provides her readers with a portrait of James Smithson, who was in his time well known as a scientist, but who is now better known as the founder of Washington's Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian has become the largest museum and research complex in the world.

However the book is largely about James Smithson himself (born James Macie) and how he came to leave a large sum of money to a country that he had never visited. Ewing explains in the Prologue that much of the information that the Institution had about Smithson including his papers was destroyed in a terrible fire in 1865, before the contents had been properly catalogued and summarised; this has made the task of writing a Smithson biography very difficult. Quite frequently during the narrative there are places where it is really not known where Smithson was at a particular time or whom he met. Even the way in which he gained his fortune is far from clear. However the difficulty does provide an advantage which Ewing uses to good effect by employing a wide variety of sources, carefully referenced; these provide a wider background to the biography in her examination of motivation and custom, so that the reader is brought into an understanding of the science and the social customs of the times. Factual uncertainties about James Smithson include the date of his birth, the details of his schooling and the cause of his death.

James Smithson was born as an illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland, with whom his mother, Elizabeth Macie, recently widowed, had had an affair. He was not recognised by the Duke and one of the driving ambitions of his life was to be recognised by the Northumberland family. Smithson was intelligent, articulate and prone to lengthy bouts of ill-health. He never married, was a hard-working gentleman scientist and collector of geological specimens; he liked to travel on the Continent meeting other scientists whilst playing the part of a `Seigneur Anglais', never purchasing property but renting accommodation as required. His other major activity was gambling at cards at which he seemed quite successful. It is said that Smithson travelled on the Continent because he did not feel the stigma of his illegitimacy so heavily when abroad.

In England Smithson was recognised early on as a young scientist of promise, but he never achieved the greatness as a scientist which he so much desired. His interests were in chemistry and he became extremely skilled in chemical analysis, particularly where only small quantities of the substance to be analysed were available. His first scientific publication was an analysis of Tabasheer, a hard crystalline substance found in the joints of the bamboo and used in medicine. He was hand-picked for the investigation by Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society; he carried out his analyses accurately and promptly and the resulting paper was well received. Altogether Smithson published twenty-seven papers and these were collected and published posthumously by the Smithsonian Institute (Collection #21, 1881).

Some of his trips to the Continent coincided the French Revolution and some with times when Britain was at war with Napoleon. Smithson believed that the ideas of science should be recognised as a higher calling and that he should be allowed to travel as he wished as was customary. Unfortunately not all the belligerents subscribed to this view. In general he managed to move around Europe without challenge but at one stage in his travels he was imprisoned for more than three years and when released he was very ill. He returned to England for a few years, but when the monarchy was re-established in France he made Paris his home. His scientific activity increased and he published seventeen of his twenty-seven known papers in the next six years, though he seems to have quarrelled with the Royal Society and no longer published in Philosophical Transactions. For the last year of his life he lived in Genoa with only some of his possessions; the others were left in storage in Paris or London.

Smithson died in Genoa on June 27th, 1829, without close family, but he had made a clear and detailed will which left most of his fortune of about £100,000 to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, with the provision that if his nephew died without issue, the remaining estate should be used to found an institution; this was to be called the Smithsonian Institution and to be built in Washington in the United States. The aim of the Institute would be `the increase and diffusion of knowledge amongst men'. On receipt of his inheritance, Henry James Hungerford spent his allowance of £4000 per annum on a lavish lifestyle and he died unmarried about six years after his uncle. The last section of the book tells how Smithson's will resulted in the delivery, in September, 1838, of £104,960 in gold sovereigns to the US Government and how eventually the Smithsonian Institution was established under the care of its first secretary, Joseph Henry.

The book, The lost world of James Smithson: science, revolution and the birth of the Smithsonian, tells an interesting story well; it is attractively illustrated and thoroughly referenced. The book is 349 pages long, nicely printed with a further 82 pages of appendices and references, including a good index. Overall the story exemplifies the large part which chance played in the founding of an institution with the solemn purpose of the increase and diffusion of knowledge amongst men.

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