Melodrama at the Smithsonian

But there is a reason I’m running this down for you. Remember those names – Northumberland and Percy –and keep reading.

We don’t know much about James’s early life in Paris, but as a youngster he was brought to England and became a naturalized British citizen. After his parents died, James Macie took his birth father’s birth name, and became James Smithson.  

James studied at the University of Oxford, where he gravitated to chemistry and mineralogy. Soon after graduation, he was invited to join the Royal Society, England’s premier scientific organization; for a young man of 22, it was as astonishing honor.

As an adult, James spent much of his time in Europe, hanging out with scientists from many countries. But minerals were his first love. He thought nothing of climbing down into mines or trekking up and down volcanoes to collect new specimens. One innkeeper charged him extra for the mess of “stones and dirt” he left behind.

His friends knew him as a compulsive gambler, but clearly he was also a very smart investor. (Some people think they’re the same thing.) He took a small inheritance from his Hungerford relatives and built it into a fortune. And now we come to the heart of the story.

James Smithson never married. In his will he left his fortune to his only living relative, the son of his deceased half-brother, and then on to that nephew’s children. The will was clear: if the nephew died without an heir, the estate was to go “to the united states of America to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” 

And that’s exactly what happened. The nephew died in 1837, eight years after James’s death in 1829, without an heir. So the money came to America.

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