Monday, August 10, 2015

BIRTHDAY: Smithsonian Institution, Founded by Oxonian James Smithson

James Smithson (Pembroke, Oxford),
founder of the Smithsonian.
On this day was signed the law that created the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The money and initial collection of artifacts was donated by an Oxford man who had never been to the United States.

The founder was James Smithson, MA (Oxon.), FRS (c. 1765-June 27, 1829), English chemist and mineralogist who attended Pembroke College, Oxford.

I first learned that Smithson was an Oxonian at the New York City Boat Race Dinner on April 23, 2009, when Lord Selkirk of Douglas told us about the founding of the Smithsonian in a speech that was the best Boat Race Dinner speech I have ever heard.

Smithson was the natural child of the 1st Duke of Northumberland, born in Paris, it is said in Pentemont Abbey. He had the given name of Jacques-Louis Macie, later anglicized to James Louis Macie.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas (Balliol, Oxford), gggg-nephew of
James Smithson MA (Pembroke, Oxford), donor of the
Smithsonian Institution.
He became an English citizen and went to Oxford, studying chemistry and mineralogy. At  22, he changed his surname from Macie to Smithson, his father's pre-marriage surname, living from  inheritances from his mother and other relatives.

Smithson traveled extensively throughout Europe publishing papers about his findings. In 1802, he  proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, and one such zinc carbonate was later named smithsonite in his honor.

Smithson never married and was childless. He left his estate to his nephew Henry James Hungerford, or his estate. If his nephew was to die without heirs, however, Smithson's will stipulated that his estate be donated to the founding of "an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” in Washington, D.C. In 1835, his nephew died and so could not claim to be the recipient of his estate.

After a decade of debate about how best to spend the money, President James K. Polk signed the Smithsonian Institution Act.

President Andrew Jackson sent diplomat Richard Rush to England to negotiate for transfer of the funds, and two years later Rush set sail for home with 11 boxes containing a total of 104,960 gold sovereigns, 8 shillings, and 7 pence, as well as Smithson’s mineral collection,scientific notes, and personal effects.

After the gold was melted down, it added up a fortune, well over $500,000. On August 10, 1846, the act establishing the Smithsonian Institution was signed into law by President Polk. Today, the Smithsonian is composed of 19 museums and galleries including the recently announced National Museum of African American History and Culture, nine research facilities throughout the United States and the world, and the national zoo.

Besides the original Smithsonian Institution Building, popularly known as the “Castle,” visitors to Washington, D.C., tour the National Museum of Natural History, which houses the natural science collections, the National Zoological Park, and the National Portrait Gallery.

The National Museum of American History houses the original Star-Spangled Banner and other artifacts of U.S. history. The National Air and Space Museum has the distinction of being the most visited museum in the world, exhibiting such marvels of aviation and space history as the Wright brothers’ plane and Freedom 7, the space capsule that took the first American into space. John Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution’s great benefactor, is interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building.

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