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1 July 2004 The Mysterious Mr. Smithson
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The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America's Greatest Museum: The Smithsonian. Nina Burleigh. William Morrow, New York, 2003. 320 pp., illus., $24.95 (ISBN 0060002417).

In late August 1838, after an arduous six-week voyage, the American lawyer and diplomat Richard Rush finally stepped off the packet ship Mediator and onto terra firma in New York. He did so with a sense of immense relief, for he was finally leaving behind not only the seasickness that had plagued him since the ship left London but also the long ordeal preceding his grueling transatlantic passage. For the previous two years Rush had patiently, methodically, and (in the end) successfully struggled to gain control of a bequest that the British scientist James Smithson had granted to the US government. Among the items in Rush's possession on his triumphant return home were Smithson's extensive mineral collection, a modest library, scientific notes, various personal effects, and the most compelling reason for his lengthy stay in England: 105 sacks of gold sovereigns valued at more than $500,000, the proceeds from the liquidation of Smithson's extensive property holdings. Within a decade after Rush's return, Smithson's bequest led to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. Today that organization boasts an annual budget more than a thousand times greater than Smithson's initial gift, a visitation rate that is approaching 30 million people each year, and a reputation as one of the premier museum complexes in the world.

Written in vibrant, accessible prose, The Stranger and the Statesman presents the story of James Smithson, his unusual bequest, and the controversy it engendered. Smithson, born in Paris, France, in 1765, was named James Lewis Macie by his mother, Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie, a widow with aristocratic blood. 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. His father, who never publicly acknowledged his paternity, was renowned for his excesses, including ostentatious displays of wealth and many illegitimate progeny. His mother, who was quite adept at using the courts to protect her financial interests, was apparently the source of young Macie's fortune. She was also the one who urged him to adopt the name of Smithson, which he did after her death in 1800.

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” (p. 105). Within a year after his graduation from Oxford in 1786, he gained election as a fellow of the Royal Society of London. 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). In 1832 a form of calamine was renamed “smithsonite” in his honor.

Smithson, who had “always straddled the divide between curious gentleman and scientific professional” (p. 161), would probably rate little more than a footnote in the history of science were it not for the will he drew up when he was 61 years old. In it he left his entire estate to his nephew, the illegitimate son of his brother. If this young man were to die without a proper will, however, Smithson wanted his property to pass on 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”(quoted on p. 168).When his nephew died unexpectedly in 1835, this clause in Smithson's will came into effect.

Many mysteries surrounding Smithson's life remain, but perhaps the greatest is why he left his vast fortune to a nation he had never even visited. Also puzzling is exactly what kind of institution he hoped to see established under his name. Nina Burleigh, author of The Stranger and the Statesman, suggests that a clue to his intentions may be found in Smithson's role as a charter member of the Royal Institution, a scientific organization designed to bring scientific knowledge to the masses, with the hope of making them more efficient workers. Burleigh speculates that Smithson may have been motivated also by a desire to render his adopted name more famous than the Percy surname his absent, unsupportive father had eventually taken.

Whatever his intention, news of his will provoked intense controversy in the United States. Former president and later congressional representative John Quincy Adams had long hoped to see the federal government actively promote the pursuit of science in America. Consistent with that aim, he led a group of Northerners and Westerners who welcomed Smithson's bequest with open arms. However, they offered a bewildering variety of proposals for spending the money, ranging from an astronomical observatory to an agricultural college and from a national library to a national university. Most Southerners, on the other hand, strongly opposed accepting the money. They couched their opposition in terms of fears that the gift represented an affront to American honor, but the real source of their resistance was grounded in their staunchly proslavery, anti-federal views.

Ironically, the money that Rush brought over from England was lost when the federal government invested in a series of Arkansas state bonds that slid into default. An infuriated Adams then led a successful campaign to force the federal government to restore the Smithson fund to its original level, plus interest. Not until 1846, however, following long and sometimes acrimonious debate, did Congress finally agree to the terms establishing the Smithsonian Institution.

Journalist Nina Burleigh, who has written many popular articles and another book, A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Mary Meyer, has done a wonderful job of mining fresh archival sources to illuminate Smithson's life. Even so, her protagonist will probably always remain an enigmatic character, for the bulk of his personal papers were destroyed in a fire that engulfed “the Castle,” the Smithsonian Institution's first building, in 1865. While much remains to be learned about exactly what made Smithson tick, Burleigh has provided a much richer sense of the social, political, and cultural context that produced him and the marvelous institution that bears his name.

MARK V. BARROW "The Mysterious Mr. Smithson," BioScience 54(7), (1 July 2004). https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2004)054[0696:TMMS]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 July 2004
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