A Gift for the Ages

Trevor Levere reviews Heather Ewing’s The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian.

By Trevor Levere | May 22, 2008
Portrait of James Smithson

Portrait of James Smithson (ca. 1765–1829) by Henri-Joseph Johns, 1816.

Heather Ewing. The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2007. x + 432 pp. $26.95.

Heather Ewing has given us a lively, engrossing, and beautifully written account of the life of James Smithson (1765–1829). In the process she has illuminated the political, scientific, and social contexts in which this chemist and unlikely benefactor and founding father of the Smithsonian Institution lived. She has done so in the face of a major obstacle: a fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865 destroyed Smithson’s manuscripts, his personal library and scientific instruments, and most of his mineral collection, reputed once to have been the finest in the United States. Indeed, the prologue to this book begins with a dramatic and circumstantial account of that conflagration, in which not only Smithson's papers but also Joseph Henry’s great collections were lost.

There are literary and scientific precedents for writing a biography when much of the direct evidence that would inform it has turned to smoke and ashes. John Dalton’s manuscripts were destroyed in 1940, when a bomb fell on the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, yet many Dalton biographies have been published since. Smithson was in his own day a less prominent figure than Dalton had been, and so Ewing has had to explore his life through records that define him in the way that Aristotle defined place—as the “limit of the surrounding body at which it is in contact with the thing surrounded.”

Ewing’s task has been all the more challenging because Smithson was of illegitimate birth, the natural son of Hugh Smithson Percy, the first Duke of Northumberland. His mother, Elizabeth Macie, bore him in Paris, and even if his birth had been registered there, the record of it would have been destroyed in the burning of the Paris city hall in the Commune of 1871. Illegitimacy weighed heavily on Smithson throughout his life, and he sought but failed to obtain recognition by his father. Perhaps because of his illegitimacy he was defensive and prickly, jealous of his father’s reputation. Money and inheritance concerned both Smithson and his mother, and both engaged in lawsuits in chancery. The rolls of that English court are huge and dusty sheets minutely penned, making Charles Dickens’s account of the court in Bleak House only too credible. But they yield important evidence, and Ewing has diligently secured it. She has also tracked Smithson through passports, correspondence (Smithson was a disconcertingly erratic correspondent), the papers of learned societies, county record offices, and a host of other sources.

Ewing begins with a family history in a chapter titled “Descended from Kings.” She traces Smithson through his years as a student at Oxford, where he became an accomplished mineralogist. Then comes a portrait of his London years and the rage for chemistry and the story of his grand tour of Europe, imprisonment abroad during the Napoleonic wars, and return to London. Further chapters relate Smithson’s involvement in the new French chemistry; his relocation to Paris; his extraordinary will; and the Smithsonian bequest, which led to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution in the United States, a country he never visited.

Smithson’s career spanned the Chemical Revolution spearheaded by Lavoisier, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror during which Lavoisier was guillotined, and the Napoleonic Wars, in which Smithson was twice held as a prisoner of war. He was a scientific traveler in Britain and Europe; he went to live in Paris following the Bourbon restoration in 1815 and he had an impressively wide scientific network, which Ewing has largely reconstructed. His scientific reputation was principally as a mineralogist, and he was an experimental chemist of some note. Mineralogy involved collection and analysis, principally using the blowpipe, a remarkably sensitive instrument in skilled hands like Smithson’s. Ewing has not merely read the documentary record but has also learned to use the blowpipe as part of her research; this is typical of her thoroughness and lends immediacy to her zestful narrative.

Ewing has documented Smithson’s involvement with several scientific institutions. In 1784 he was elected to membership in the London Society for the Promotion of Natural History. In 1786 he was elected to the Chapter Coffee House Philosophical Society, where chemistry and mineralogy were often discussed and where the Irish chemist Richard Kirwan, who for a decade was the principal defender of the phlogiston theory, was the moving spirit. Jointly with Henry Cavendish, Kirwan nominated Smithson and secured his election to the Royal Society of London. In 1799 Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, invited him to become a proprietor of the new Royal Institution of Great Britain. Smithson published his first paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1791, on the chemical analysis of a compound found in bamboo. His analysis of calamines, zinc ores from different sources, showed that some of them were mainly zinc carbonate, which in 1832 was named “smithsonite.” He seems to have intended that the Royal Society would be the principal beneficiary from his estate, but he had a precipitous and immoderate falling out with them, changed the designated beneficiary, and published his last paper in Philosophical Transactions in 1817, thereafter making a point of publishing all his future papers elsewhere. Many of his papers continued to be on chemical subjects.

Ewing shows how much Smithson cared about, and indeed was obsessed by, his scientific reputation in life and posthumously. His chemical and mineralogical research, which Ewing places in their context of scientific debate and of the publications that reported on them, have earned Smithson a minor but secure place in the history of science. But his astonishing and unanticipated bequest of some half a million dollars for the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution has given him greater and even more enduring fame.

In England, the United States was seen as a haven for “democrats” (a very loaded term in the years following the French Revolution) and for dissenters, including the fiery chemist Joseph Priestley. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey had briefly contemplated relocating there as an experiment in social and political reform. Smithson, who emerges in Ewing’s account as heir to the Enlightenment, saw great potential in the United States, which had fought for and won its independence during his adolescence. Smithson never married, and when he died in Genoa he left his estate to his nephew and to that nephew’s heirs. The nephew died without issue six years after Smithson; and so, according to the terms of his will, the estate passed to the U.S. government, “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Now one of the United States’ greatest treasures and repositories of knowledge, the Smithsonian Institution has been fulfilling this mission for over 150 years.

Heather Ewing has given us by far the fullest account to date of James Smithson’s life, his personality, his scientific achievements, and the British and European contexts in which he lived.