The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian

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9781596910294: The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian

In 1836 the United States government received a strange and unprecedented gift―a half-million dollar bequest to establish a foundation in Washington "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." The Smithsonian Institution, as it would be called, eventually grew into the largest museum and research complex in the world. Yet the man behind what became "America's attic," James Smithson, has remained a shadowy figure for more than 150 years.

Drawing on unpublished diaries and letters from across Europe and the United States, historian Heather Ewing tells his compelling story in full. The illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland, Smithson was the youngest member of Britain's Royal Society and a talented chemist admired by the greatest scientists of his age. At the same time, however, he was also a suspected spy, an inveterate gambler, and a radical revolutionary during the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars. But at the heart of Smithson's story is his bequest―worth $9 million in today in today's currency―which sparked an international lawsuit and a decade-long congressional battle, featuring a dizzying cast of historical figures, including John Quincy Adams, and Alexander Graham Bell, both of whom grappled with how―and even whether―to put Smithson's endowment to use.

Fascinating and magisterial, Ewing's biography presents a sweeping portrait of a remarkable man at the center of the English Enlightenment and the creation of America's greatest museum.

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About the Author:

Heather Ewing is an architectural historian. She has worked for the Smithsonian and the Ringling Museum of Art. She lives in New York.

From Publishers Weekly:

This pleasing biography (the second recent one of Smithson, after 2003's The Stranger and the Statesman by Nina Burleigh) tells the story of the enigmatic Englishman who left the United States a vast sum of money to found "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Ewing, an architectural historian who has worked at the Smithsonian, traces John Smithson's development as a "gentleman-scientist," describing his study of chemistry at Oxford in the 1780s; his membership in the Coffee House Philosophical Society, where learned men discussed scientific news; and his well-received scientific papers. Two of the most fascinating chapters focus on Smithson's will. Ewing hazards a few suggestions about why an English scientist would leave a huge bequest to the United States government, and she examines the controversy Smithson's gift set off—some argued against accepting what they viewed as Smithson's self-aggrandizing bequest. This book is possible only because Ewing is a dogged researcher in countless archives. References to Smithson in his friends' letters and diaries reveal not the dour recluse historians had once thought him to be but an exuberant if eccentric man with a zeal for learning and for life. Ewing ably conveys all this as well as the mysterious roots of the institution that bears his name. Illus. (Apr.)
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