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James Lewis Macie was secretly born in Paris, France in 1765. His parents were not married, and in 1765 England that did was not the way it was done. His father was Hugh Smithson, the 1st duke of Northumberland, England. Baby James’ mother was Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, the widow of James Macie, a wealthy man from Westin Bath, England.
In 1766 James’ mother inherited an estate from her brother and moved back to England, where he was educated. At about the age of 10, James became a naturalized British citizen. In 1782, he enrolled in Pembroke College, Oxford, and studied chemistry and mineralogy. He graduated in 1786 with a Masters of Arts degree.
The 1780’s and 90’s were an exciting time for the expanding field of chemistry. As a student, and then after graduation, James traveled extensively while he explored for minerals and ore. He was interested in finding basic chemical elements. James was made a member of The Royal Society of London, just a year after he graduated, a rare honor for someone so young.
At the age of 21, after both of his parents were deceased, James Mason changed his name to James Smithson. In just a few years he built a solid reputation as a chemist and scientist by publishing regularly in The Royal Society of London’s scholarly journals.
Three years before his death in 1829, James Smithson wrote a draft of his last will and testament. In his will he left his entire estate to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. He also stipulated, that if his nephew died without an heir, the estate was to be given "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 ...."
Henry James Hungerford died without an heir.
After years of debate ending in 1846, the Congress of the Untied States of America passed legislation creating the Smithsonian Institution.
James Smithson’s indirect donation was the seed money for the magnificent Smithsonian Institution we know today, the world's largest museum complex.
An interesting fact: James Smithson had never been to the United States, and there has been much conjecture about why he made such a generous donation.
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