Thursday, July 22, 2021

James Smithson – English scientist and philanthropist

James Smithson was born as James Lewis Macie in England about the year 1754. He was a natural son of Hugh Smithson, first Duke of Northumberland, his mother being a Mrs. Elizabeth Macie, of an old family in Wiltshire of the name of Hungerford.

He was the illegitimate offspring of Hugh Smithson, later known as Sir Hugh Percy, who rose from a merchant class background to become the Duke of Northumberland after marrying advantageously.

Hugh Smithson, his father, was distinguished as a member of one of the most illustrious houses of Great Britain, and also because of his alliance with the renowned family of Percy.

James Smithson has been known as the wealthy and eccentric Englishman who bequeathed his fortune to the US government ‘to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge’.

When he was 17 years old, James Lewis Macie matriculated at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he not only showed an aptitude for chemistry and mineralogy but also engaged in his first serious fieldwork. The brilliant physicist Henry Cavendish, for whom Macie briefly worked as a laboratory assistant, served as one of his scientific mentors. Macie soon positioned himself as “a serious scientist” with a reputation for “scrupulous laboratory methods”.

While still attending college, he managed to join the prominent French geologist Barthélemy Faujas de St. Fond on his tour of Scotland, with a group of distinguished scientists.

Within a year after his graduation from Oxford in 1786, he gained election as a fellow of the Royal Society of London.

Smithson died in Genoa, Italy on 27 June 1829. By the time he died in 1829, he had published 29 scientific papers, most of which detailed the chemical composition of minerals and various other substances (including a human tear).
James Smithson – English scientist and philanthropist

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