Monday, 30 August 2010

The Smithsonian Museum and its North-East Connection

I can’t possibly leave the subject of the life of the 1st Duke of Northumberland without claiming a neat little piece of glory for the region. For the very famous Smithsonian Institute and all its related museums and educational centres throughout the US owes its very foundation to the man – or rather, the man’s son.

Or, to put it more brusquely, the Duke’s illegitimate son.

The mighty American organisation was founded thanks to a bequest left in the will of one James Smithson, a British mineralogist and chemist, who died in 1829. Smithson had been a wise investor, amassing a huge fortune which he left, initially, to his nephew. However, it was stipulated in the will that if the beneficiary were to die without issue (which he thoughtfully did, in 1835), then the money should be passed “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

James Smithson – or Jacques Louis Macie, as he was originally known – was born in Paris in 1764 to one Elizabeth Hungerford Macie (nee Keate), following an affair with a prominent English landowner, Sir Hugh Smithson. Sir Hugh, who would eventually become the 1st Duke of Northumberland, was, at this time, married to Elizabeth Seymour, a Percy heiress, and had actually changed his name to Hugh Percy in order to inhert the earldom of Northumberland on his father-in-law’s death in 1750 – and would eventually be created 1st Duke in 1766.

Heavily influenced by his mother’s side of the family (his father, Hugh, never acknowledged him), James took the scientific route, being elected to the Royal Society in 1787 aged only 22. In 1802, a little after his mother’s death, he changed his name from Macie to Smithson. He died in Genoa in 1829, his remains being later moved and reburied in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian Institution Building.

Astonishingly, James Smithson had never set foot in the US during his lifetime, and the reason for his bequest is unknown.

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