Smithsonian Institution Castle: James Smithson
James Smithson’s legacy to the United States
created the world’s largest museum and research complex, yet he never visited this country
during his lifetime. Almost as mysterious as his motives and intentions for the institution
he founded was the man himself. The story of James Smithson’s life is sketchy, but it
is known that he was born in 1765, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Macie.
After he earned a master of arts degree from Pembroke College, Oxford, he embarked on a
life of scientific research, ultimately publishing 27 papers on chemistry, geology, and mineralogy.
His topics ranged from a chemical analysis of calamines to an improved method of making
coffee. James Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, in 1829, and the wealth he had inherited from
his mother passed to his nephew. Because his nephew died without heirs, the estate went
to the U.S. government, as Smithson had specified in his will. When the Genoa cemetery was to
be relocated in 1904, Alexander Graham Bell, then a Regent of the Smithsonian, traveled
to Italy to retrieve Smithson’s remains and bring them here to rest, in a room specially
reconfigured in the building where the Smithsonian Institution had its beginning.