In 1826, British scientist James Smithson drew up his last will and testament, naming his nephew as beneficiary. Smithson left his estate to his nephew and that young man’s future children, stipulating that if his nephew died without heirs—legitimate or illegitimate—(as he would in 1835), his estate was to go to the United States “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
Smithson died in 1829, at approximately 64 years old while living in Genoa, Italy. His will was printed in the Times of London, and the exceptional potential windfall for the United States caught the eye of an American editor and was reprinted in The New York American. Hungerford, Smithson’s nephew and heir, was only in his early 20s, and it seemed unlikely that this clause would ever go into effect. Six years later, June 5, 1835, Hungerford died of unknown causes in Pisa, Italy, leaving no heirs.
The United States government was soon notified of this extraordinary bequest, and President Andrew Jackson announced the bequest to Congress, which accepted the legacy bequeathed to the nation and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust July 1, 1836. The estate was awarded to the United States May 9, 1838. In September 1838, Smithson’s legacy, which amounted to more than 100,000 gold sovereigns, was delivered to the mint at Philadelphia. Recoined in U.S. currency, the gift amounted to more than $500,000.
For the next eight years, Congress debated what to do with the estate. Finally President James K. Polk signed the legislation Aug. 10, 1846, that established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian. Since its founding more than 164 years ago, the Smithsonian has become the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums, the National Zoo and nine research facilities.
In 1865, only a decade after the completion of the Smithsonian’s first building, the “Castle,” the building’s top floor was destroyed in a terrible fire; among the losses were Smithson’s diaries and papers, his mineral collection and other personal possessions. His library, which was stored in a different part of the building, survived. In later years, the Institution acquired Smithson’s remains as well as ephemera related to its founder.
In 1903, the cemetery in Genoa, Italy, where Smithson was buried was displaced by the enlargement of a quarry. Alexander Graham Bell, a member of the Board of Regents at the time, personally escorted Smithson’s remains from Italy. His remains were reinterred in the Castle.
The motive behind Smithson’s bequest, which has had such a significant impact on the arts, humanities and sciences in the United States, remains a mystery. He never traveled to the United States and seems to have had no correspondence with anyone in the country. Some have suggested that his bequest was motivated, in part, by revenge against the rigidities of British society, which had denied Smithson, who was illegitimate, the right to use his father’s name. Others have suggested it reflected his interest in the Enlightenment ideals of democracy and universal education.
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