The Smithsonian Institute: The Backstory.

June 27, 2023
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June 27, 1829

James Smithson passes away, putting in motion a surprising story of how this British scientist — who never set foot in the U.S. — funded one of America's most famous museums and research facilities: the Smithsonian Institution.

Who Is James Smithson?

  • Born in 1765 in Paris as an illegitimate child. His mother was a widow and reportedly a descendent of King Henry VII; his father was a married, wealthy duke.
  • He excelled in the sciences from a young age & had a particular interest in chemistry.
  • He immersed himself in the scientific communities of London & Paris, publishing 27 papers ranging from mineral analyses to methods for making a better cup of coffee.
  • Smithson dedicated his life to science, incl. its accessibility & its application in everyday life.

An Unexpected Endowment

  • 1826: As Smithson got older and sensed his health worsening, he traveled to London to write his will.
  • He left his estate to his nephew, who was in his early 20s — adding that if his nephew died without an heir, his estate would go to the U.S. in order to fund the development of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
  • Smithson died three years after writing his will. His nephew died six years later — without an heir.
"… to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.

The clause in Smithson’s will. The estate was valued at more than $500,000 (more than $3 million in today’s dollars) & was awarded to the U.S. in 1838. Congress debated for eight years on what to do with the money before reaching an agreement in 1846, when Pres. James Polk signed legislation establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a series of museums & research facilities.

The Smithsonian Institution

  • Consists of 21 museums (two of which are in development), a zoo, & 9 research facilities.
  • The Smithsonian is home to approx. 155 million objects, works of art, & specimens. Nearly 146 million are scientific specimens at the National Museum of Natural History.
  • The annual budget for fiscal year 2023 is about $1.14 billion, over 60% of which is federally funded.
  • Items on display are wide-ranging, including Dorothy’s famous “Ruby Slippers” & a jar of pickled woolly mammoth flesh.

James Smithson passed away on this day in 1829. His unexpected endowment resulted in one of the world’s most well-known museums… but *why* he did it still remains a mystery. Some believe his donation was intended to be a retaliation against the rigid scientific community of England; others think it served as a way to make his name known after being claimed illegitimate as a child. It’s also thought to reflect his passion for democracy and access to education.

An in-depth biographies on the life of James Smithson

Smithsonian Fact Sheet

Some of the Smithsonian’s oddest objects on display

by Jenna Lee,

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