James Smithson was a British scientist with no obvious connection to the United States. He had no family in the New World, had never visited, and had built his successful professional life entirely in Europe as a chemist and geologist. It came as a surprise, therefore, when in 1836 President Andrew Jackson informed Congress that Smithson had bequeathed half a million dollars to the government of the United States.
Smithson had inherited the money from his aristocrat mother, and in the absence of an heir he left instructions to build, “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithson was active in the Royal Society of London, and had close friends who were interested in the education of the lower classes. But why he planted his learned benevolence in America, we don’t know.
Whatever the reason, Congress accepted the bequest, and after nearly a decade of wrangling, established the institution in 1846. The Smithsonian would operate independently, being governed by a board of regents and a secretary, and would be a relatively unique hybrid of museum and research institution. The phrase “national university” was frequently used, although the debate over what precisely that meant was heated. Ultimately, an act of Congress allowed for the creation of a building that would house an art gallery, a lecture hall, a library, two laboratories, and a science museum. Renowned architect James Renwick was commissioned to design the building, which still stands on the National Mall today. Over time, further philanthropy allowed for the creation of additional buildings, museums, libraries, laboratories, art and science collections, and programs for popular education and elite investigation.
Today, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest complex of the type, comprised of 19 art, science, and history museums, the National Zoo, and nine research facilities. Many donors have followed Smithson’s lead and enriched the art and scientific collections, and physical campus of the organization. Yet more than 200 works from Smithson’s personal library still sit in the heart of the institution.
- The Smithsonian Institution, History, si.edu/About/History
- Library exhibition on origins, sil.si.edu/Exhibitions/Smithson-to-Smithsonian/intro.html