The Lost World of James Smithson Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian

Heather Ewing

Bloomsbury USA




448 Pages


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In 1836, the United States government received a strange and unprecedented gift—a half-million dollar bequest to establish a foundation in Washington "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." The Smithsonian Institution, as it would be called, eventually grew into the largest museum and research complex in the world. Yet the man behind what became "America's attic," James Smithson, has remained a shadowy figure for more than 150 years.

Drawing on unpublished diaries and letters from across Europe and the United States, historian Heather Ewing tells his compelling story in full. The illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland, Smithson was the youngest member of Britain's Royal Society and a talented chemist admired by the greatest scientists of his age. At the same time, however, he was also a suspected spy, an inveterate gambler, and a radical revolutionary during the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars. But at the heart of Smithson's story is his bequest—worth $9 million in today's currency—which sparked an international lawsuit and a decade-long congressional battle, featuring a dizzying cast of historical figures, including John Quincy Adams and Alexander Graham Bell, both of whom grappled with how—and even whether—to put Smithson's endowment to use.

Fascinating and magisterial, Ewing's biography presents a sweeping portrait of a remarkable man at the center of the English Enlightenment and the creation of America's greatest museum.


Praise for The Lost World of James Smithson

"If [Smithson] has now been brought back to life in this book, it is because Ewing has had the ingenuity and perseverance to seek out his story not merely in such papers of Smithson's that survive but in the stories of others. In 'the libraries and archives of Europe, Britain, and the United States,' in 'the papers and diaries of others,' in his bank records and other sources, Ewing—an architectural historian who has worked at the Smithsonian and now lives in New York—has assembled enough evidence so that 'the protean blur of Smithson' gives way to 'a man of infectious exuberance and ambition,' a person with a fascinating (if still essentially mysterious) private life and a scientist of genuine standing and consequence at a time when chemistry, to which he devoted much of his life, was just coming into its own."—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

"The Smithsonian is known to most Americans, whether or not they have visited its main Castle or any of the attendant museums. However, Englishman James Smithson (born James Louis Macie), whose bequest created the Smithsonian, is an enigma. A disastrous fire at the Smithsonian in 1865 destroyed his on-site papers, manuscripts, diaries, equipment, and more. Seeking to build a picture of this man and discover what prompted his bequest to the United States, architectural historian Ewing has little to work with as she digs deep into the past, but she follows every scrap of information, from letters to bank records, and comes up with a vigorous picture of Smithson as a son, friend, companion, man, uncle, and scientist. She also marvelously re-creates the age in which Smithson lived, detailing his travels, his friends and their complicated relationships in society, his scientific contributions and connections, the politics of his times, the excitement new discoveries brought to science, as well as the excitement in society generally, with events such as the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Required for history of science collections and highly recommended for all libraries."—Library Journal

"This pleasing biography . . . tells the story of the enigmatic Englishman who left the United States a vast sum of money to found 'an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.' Ewing, an architectural historian who has worked at the Smithsonian, traces John Smithson's development as a 'gentleman-scientist,' describing his study of chemistry at Oxford in the 1780s; his membership in the Coffee House Philosophical Society, where learned men discussed scientific news; and his well-received scientific papers. Two of the most fascinating chapters focus on Smithson's will. Ewing hazards a few suggestions about why an English scientist would leave a huge bequest to the United States government, and she examines the controversy Smithson's gift set off—some argued against accepting what they viewed as Smithson's self-aggrandizing bequest. This book is possible only because Ewing is a dogged researcher in countless archives. References to Smithson in his friends' letters and diaries reveal not the dour recluse historians had once thought him to be but an exuberant if eccentric man with a zeal for learning and for life. Ewing ably conveys all this as well as the mysterious roots of the institution that bears his name."—Publishers Weekly

"Smithson (1765-1829) was the British chemist, mineralogist, and philanthropist whose $500,000 gift to the U.S. helped establish the Smithsonian Institution in 1836. The bequest to build the foundation in Washington 'for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men' resulted in an international lawsuit and a decade-long congressional feud. Ewing, an architectural historian, found documents relevant to Smithson's story that revealed facts concerning his mother (lawsuits exposed her manic profligacy and made clear that she left her son much less than she might have) and uncovered his writings on the subject of chemistry, to which he dedicated his life. Most of them were written in an antique language now indecipherable except to a few specialists. As background, Ewing recounts the history of England from 1782 to 1807, much of it focused on Oxford University, where Smithson studied. Ewing has written a hugely ambitious biography that is likely to be the definitive one on the subject."—George Cohen, Booklist

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  • Heather Ewing

  • Heather Ewing is an architectural historian. She has worked for the Smithsonian and the Ringling Museum of Art. She lives in New York.