Before Bob and I were even married, I knew that he was related to one of our presidents…namely James Knox Polk. Since then, I have found that we are actually related to several presidents, but James K Polk remains the one with whom the link seems the most obvious. Still, while I knew of the relationship, there were things about him that I didn’t know. One of the most notable being his connection to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1829, one James Smithson died in Italy, and while most people would not think that would have impacted the United States of America, it actually did. So, who was Smithson anyway. Smithson had been a fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of 22, publishing numerous scientific papers on mineral composition, geology, and chemistry. In 1802, he overturned popular scientific opinion by proving that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, and one type of zinc carbonate was later named Smithsonite in his honor.
James Smithson’s will had one odd footnote to it, that in the end, would change everything. Smithson didn’t have much family, in fact, he had just one nephew at the time of his passing. His entire estate was willed to that nephew, with one condition attached to it. If his nephew should die without children, the entire estate was to go to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithson’s curious bequest to a country that he had never visited garnered significant attention on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. James Smithson was a scientist, who wasn’t well known, but he apparently had a dream for the United States…a country that somehow held his interest. Six years after his death, his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, indeed died without children, and on July 1, 1836, the United States Congress authorized acceptance of Smithson’s gift. President Andrew Jackson sent diplomat Richard Rush to England to negotiate for transfer of the funds, and two years later Rush set sail for home with 11 boxes containing a total of 104,960 gold sovereigns, 8 shillings, and 7 pence, as well as Smithson’s mineral collection, library, scientific notes, and personal effects. After the gold was melted down, it amounted to a fortune worth well over $500,000.
The money was sent to the United States with Smithson’s instructions for its use. It might have seemed like a simple request at the time of the will’s writing, but in the end, the money would sit in the bank waiting for a decade. The reason…a debate on how to use the money. Apparently, even though instructions for the money’s use were given, they did leave a few of the details up to the United States government. Finally, on this day August 10, 1846 James K Polk signed the Smithsonian Institution Act into law. After considering a series of recommendations, including the creation of a national university, a public library, or an astronomical observatory, Congress agreed that the bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.
Today, the Smithsonian is composed of 19 museums and galleries including the recently announced National Museum of African American History and Culture, nine research facilities throughout the United States and the world, and the national zoo. Besides the original Smithsonian Institution Building, popularly known as the Castle, visitors to Washington DC, tour the National Museum of Natural History, which houses the natural science collections, the National Zoological Park, and the National Portrait Gallery. The National Museum of American History houses the original Star-Spangled Banner and other artifacts of United States history. The National Air and Space Museum has the distinction of being the most visited museum in the world, exhibiting such marvels of aviation and space history as the Wright brothers’ plane and Freedom 7, the space capsule that took the first American into space. John Smithson, the Smithsonian Institution’s great benefactor, is interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building. It has been a pretty amazing use of that money. I think James Smithson would be pleased.