Smithsonian Institution’s name and unusual founding

The Smithsonian Institution did not start out as the “nation’s attic.”

It began as the storage house for the relics and collections of a British scientist whose connection with the United States is unclear.

James Smithson

James Smithson was born in Paris in 1765, the illegitimate son of an English duke. He obtained British citizenship but traveled extensively and never had a permanent home.

As a scientist, he studied and collected a wide variety of materials. He also accumulated substantial wealth, apparently through wise investments.

When he died in 1829 in Genoa, Italy, he left his estate to a nephew, son of a half brother, with the stipulation if the nephew died without heirs, the estate was to be given to the United States of America for the founding of a museum in Washington, D.C.

No one knows why he did that.

Fortunately for the U.S., the nephew never married. He died in 1835.

The U.S. government was informed of the bequest the next year. Smithson had left enough money to fund the transfer of the estate and the building of a building in Washington, and that is the castle-like structure that you can see on the Mall today.

No self-respecting tourist comes to D.C. and passes by the Smithsonian, but few know of its origins.


Thanks to Chris Stanford in the New York Times’ Morning Briefing for Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017, his brief article on this unusual beginning to a great American legacy. North Korea, Paul Manafort, Flying ‘Squirrels’: Your Thursday Briefing – The New York Times

Smithsonian archives website: https://siarchives.si.edu/history/james-smithson


My interest in the Smithsonian Institution currently comes from the fact that it is the repository for a large number of combat artworks, particularly from World War I. More on that later.

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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One Response to Smithsonian Institution’s name and unusual founding

  1. Melissa August 25, 2017 at 7:23 pm #

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