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And the Search for a Proper Memorial

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Likeness of James Smithson, by William Ordway Partridge, 1900. Detail from the marble memorial plaque.

James Smithson's Will

James Smithson (ca. 1765 - 1829) was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie and Hugh Smithson (later Hugh Percy, Duke of Northumberland). Smithson was a scientist, a graduate of Pembroke College, Oxford in 1786.*

In 1826, three years before his death, Smithson penned his own will directing that his fortune be left to his nephew, Henry James Dickinson, son of his brother, Henry Louis Dickinson. Smithson also implicitly requested that the nephew adopt the family name Hungerford, which he did if only for a brief time.

Smithson further stipulated that:

In the case of the death of my said Nephew without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property... to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.

Dickinson was just eighteen years old in 1826 when his uncle wrote the will. The insertion of the codicil leaving his fortune to the United States is peculiar. There was no indication that the nephew would not live a long life, marry or have heirs of his own. However, a mere six years after his uncle's death, Dickinson was himself dead. Why Smithson included this clause in his will is still somewhat of a mystery to this day.

Go to "The Italian Grave site"

* For the definitive biography of James Smithson, see The Lost World of James Smithson, Science, Revolution, and the birth of the Smithsonian, by Heather Ewing, 2007, Bloomsbury, New York.

This exhibit is based on an unpublished paper: "Smithson's Personal Effects, Proposed Memorial, and Crypt," by Richard E. Stamm, Smithsonian Institution, 1995.
© Smithsonian Institution, 2008