Happy Birthday to James Smithson, International Man of Mystery

James Smithson was an indefatigable scholar and scientist, world traveler, chronic gambler and possibly an international spy. But it was his “unshakeable optimism for modernity” that led him to wager his entire fortune on the founding of a great institution in the brand-new United States of America.


It’s time to celebrate! 250 years ago, before the American colonies had declared their independence from Great Britain, James Smithson was born. The man who gave his name as well as his fortune to this venerable Institution still remains largely shrouded in mystery, mainly because most of his research papers and personal diaries were destroyed in the 1865 fire that swept through the Smithsonian Castle. Even his exact date of birth is unknown.

James Smithson by Henri-Joseph Johns, 1816

James Smithson by Henri-Joseph Johns, 1816

Some of the details we do know about Smithson’s life could be turned into a best-selling novel or film. Like most of us, there were multiple sides to his personality: He was largely a self-made man, turning a small inheritance into a sizable fortune. He was a chronic gambler. And he was a suspected spy, tracked through several countries by a French detective, and eventually imprisoned in Denmark during the Napoleonic Wars. But if there were two constants that defined Smithson’s life and cemented his legacy, they were his insatiable curiosity and his positive outlook on the future, or his “unshakeable optimism for modernity,” as author Heather Ewing called it in her terrific book, “The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian.” Both of these characteristics stemmed from the Enlightenment thinking that prevailed at the time.

Smithson travelled the world, soaking in as much knowledge as he could. As a member of the Royal Society of London, he wrote several scientific papers. His scholarship extended to an astonishing range of subjects, from a better way to make coffee to the colors in mulberries and Egyptian paint. He analyzed the calcium carbonates of zinc, which would eventually be named Smithsonite in his honor. He even supposedly captured a woman’s tear to determine its chemical composition. Like many thought leaders of the day, he believed that the rigorous testing and observation of the scientific method would lead inexorably to progress.

Underpinning his worldview was a sense of optimism. He believed in the potential of science to find the answers to life’s mysteries. It is likely why, without ever having set foot in the United States, he donated his sizable inheritance of $508,318.46 in gold sovereigns to our fledgling democracy. In this meritocratic, innovative society, untethered to the tradition and aristocracy of his own, he likely saw the best bet to further the Enlightenment values of liberty, progress, and reason. He took a calculated risk on this bold American experiment, and I have to say that it paid off.

A young James Smithson, dressed in Oxford regalia, by James Roberts, ca. 1786

A young James Smithson, dressed in Oxford regalia, by James Roberts, ca. 1786

Curiosity and risk-taking are two sides of the same coin. If we want to ask questions and explore new ideas, we have to be willing to find answers we never expected and might not welcome. If we conduct an experiment, we cannot dictate the results. That underlying principle of the scientific method is a worthy lesson and legacy from our founding donor.

This willingness to take risks extends to philanthropy as well. Although donors certainly have ideas of how they would like their money to be used, they often cannot foresee the changes that inevitably and unpredictably happen in institutions, in societies, and in the world. Certainly Smithson would never have been able to predict the ways in which we are making his vision of fostering the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” come to life, 169 years after the Smithsonian was founded. Still, we are inspired by his words every day.

What will our society, our nation, our planet look like 250 years from now? It is as impossible to know as it would have been for James Smithson to predict that his namesake Institution would be doing biogenomic research, turning our collections into 3D models, or allowing visitors to electronically curate their own museum experiences. Nor could he have foreseen our ability to help rescue ancient cultural artifacts, or that an art exhibition like the Renwick Gallery’s new “Wonder” could turn mundane objects of everyday life into a breathtaking embodiment of its title. But I am confident that the Smithsonian will continue to thrive, as long as we keep searching for answers to life’s questions and keep looking at the world with wonder and awe as Smithson did, whether through the lenses of art, history, culture, or science. If we do, we will be able to keep sharing our resources longer than we can imagine.

The commemoration of our founder’s 250th birthday, including a behind-the-scenes Smithsonian Castle tour we gave on Twitter, culminates in a Friday, Dec. 4 party thrown by the Smithsonian Associates program Smithsonian at 8 in the Castle. If you have not had a chance to celebrate this man of mystery who set the course for everything we do, fear not—you already celebrate him every day with the fantastic job all of you do. Thanks to you, the Smithsonian is able to enlighten, educate, and inspire people here and around the world. I am confident that if James Smithson were alive today, he would be as proud as I am and as optimistic about the future of our dynamic Institution.

Posted: 30 November 2015
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.