NIEMANN: British scientist left his mark in Washington, D.C.

Posted: Dec. 10, 2012 9:46 am Updated: Jan. 7, 2013 10:15 am

Back in the 1800s, English scientist James Lewis Macie created a controversy in our nation's capital, Washington, D.C., but it had a very positive effect on American science and history.

Macie was born to Sir Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Keate in Paris in 1765. His parents were not married – well, not to each other anyway. Elizabeth was married to a man named James Macie.

As a scientist, Macie conducted research in mineralogy, geology and chemistry. His work on calamines, which he presented to England's Royal Society, resulted in a carbonate of zinc being renamed in his honor in 1832. There also is something else far more important and more recognizable that is named in his honor.

First, it might help if you know that James Macie changed his birth name to his biological father's last name of Smithson when his mother died. The carbonate of zinc that is renamed in his honor is known as smithsonite.

But smithsonite is not James Smithson's main contribution to the world of science and history in America. His main contribution bears his name – even though he never once stepped foot in America.

It is the Smithsonian Institution.

James Smithson bequeathed 11 boxes of gold sovereigns (coins) worth $508,318 to the United States to form what became the Smithsonian Institution. There was a catch, though.

Smithson, who had no children of his own, bequeathed his money to his nephew, Henry Hungerford Dickerson, on the condition that if he didn't have any children, he was to donate the money "to the United States of America, to found at Washington an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." If his nephew was to have any children, then the money would go to them.

Smithson's nephew died without heirs in 1835, and Congress accepted the gift the next year. A lawsuit in England followed, but the British court ruled that the money should go to America, as Smithson had requested. After eight years of debate in Congress over what the Smithsonian should be, the Smithsonian Institution was formed in 1846.

When Smithson died in 1829, he was buried in Genoa, Italy. Alexander Graham Bell, who was the Smithsonian's regent in 1904, brought his body to America and had him entombed in the Smithsonian building. Today the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum complex, consists of 16 museums, plus a number of research centers and libraries.

So why would James Smithson, a man who had never been to America and had no known connections to America, leave his fortune to America to build the Smithsonian?

To this day, it remains a mystery. No one other than James Smithson himself knew why.

You could say that the answer lies somewhere in the Smithsonian.