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Who Is That Man, Anyway?
Subject: James Smithson
Location: The Mall
( Jefferson Drive & 10th )
Englishman James Smithson (1765-1829) was born James Macie, an illegitimate son of a duke. He became a distinguished scientist and mineralogist.
He wrote in his will that if his nephew and primary heir died without children, he wanted his entire fortune to be given to the United States Government "to found, in Washington, a Smithsonian Institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge..." (No one has ever figured out why Smithson made this legacy since he never expressed any interest in the United States and never visited the country while he was alive.)
The nephew died in 1836 without children. It took the U.S. Congress eleven years to decide to accept the legacy, which arrived in Philadelphia in the form of 105 bags of gold sovereigns, worth at that time $500,000 (the 20th century equivalent in purchasing power is approximately $10 million).
Smithson died in Genoa, Italy and was buried there. Upon hearing that the Italian authorities intended to dig up the cemetery, the Smithsonian officials arranged for Smithson's remains to be transported to the United States. Among his escorts was Smithsonian trustee Alexander Graham Bell. Smithson's remains now lie in the Crypt of the Smithsonian "Castle" and his legacy has led to the establishment of over 19 Smithsonian Institutions and five Smithsonian research facilities.
Photos and text copyright © 2001 Jean K. Rosales and Michael R. Jobe, All Rights Reserved
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