The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian by Heather Ewing
Reviewed by David Lindley
The Wilson Quarterly
Gracing the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with several splendid buildings, the Smithsonian Institution is a huge tourist attraction, a repository of art and culture, and a pioneering center of scientific research. As is well known, this singular American institution, encompassing 19 museums and nine research centers, came about because of a quirk in the will of an Englishman who gallivanted around Europe all his life but never crossed the Atlantic. Luckily for us, the man born Jacques Louis Macie changed his name in midlife to James Smithson, hoping to gain an ounce more respect in the salons of London and Paris. It would have been hard to turn "Macie" into a mellifluous name to etch into stone.
Architectural historian Heather Ewing cannot be faulted for failing to summon a full portrait of the man. A disastrous 1865 fire at the Smithsonian destroyed Smithson's letters and notes along with his scientific collections. Scouring libraries and private collections throughout Europe, Ewing has made a remarkable effort to gather up what documentary evidence remains of his existence.
Macie was born in Paris in 1764 or 1765 to Elizabeth Macie, mistress to Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland. When, at about age 35, he changed his name to Smithson, he was only making official a parentage that was already widely known. He never met his father.
Smithson had a passion for science, and by age 22 was a fellow of the Royal Society of London. It didn't hurt that he was well connected and well off, though the origin of that wealth never becomes clear in Ewing's account. Taking life as an extended grand tour, Smithson popped up over the years in Germany, Italy, and Denmark, as well as England and France. Unable to say much about the man himself, Ewing instead gives a rich account of the origins of the Royal Society and the rise of chemistry, fashionable society in the capital cities and tourist resorts of Europe, and the chaos that enveloped France during the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras.
Against this ornate background the enigmatic Smithson flits back and forth. He traveled to Paris in 1788, for example, with a letter of introduction from the botanist Sir Joseph Banks to the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, whose scientific importance and grisly demise on the guillotine Ewing duly recounts. Did Smithson actually meet Lavoisier? We can't be sure. Judging by his brief appearances in the letters and diaries of such notables, Smithson was a charming, well-liked man, and a clever but hardly profound scientist, publishing mainly on chemistry and mineralogy.
Ewing makes a slender case that Smithson saw in the American and French revolutions the promise of a fresh, utopian future—until the blood began to flow in Paris, leaving the United States the sole unblemished example of a new society, free of the snobbery and condescension of the old. Upon his death in 1829, he bequeathed a good living to his nephew and the bulk of his fortune to that nephew's issue. When the nephew died, childless, in 1835, a proviso in Smithson's will sent roughly £100,000 (about $510,000) "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 among men."
Some proud Americans declared that their country should refuse this Old World largesse. When the money finally did reach Washington, bickering ensued over what sort of establishment it should support. Not until 1846 did Congress charter the Smithsonian; the cornerstone of its castle home, which symbolizes the institution to this day, was laid the following year.
If Ewing can't turn Smithson into a substantial character or explain precisely why he left his famous legacy, she is nonetheless persuasive that the bequest wasn't merely whimsical, as popular legend sometimes has it. Smithson was a true scientific enthusiast, and something of an idealist. He would be happy with the institution that bears his name.
David Lindley is the author, most recently, of Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, published earlier this year.