Henry Hungerford died in 1834, unmarried, without children and without notable accomplishment. But his death was extraordinary good luck for the United States, because it led to the creation of the Smithsonian Institution. Hungerford was the nephew and heir of an odd rich man who lived more than half his life under the name James Macie, but changed it at age 35 to James Smithson. Smithson, who died in 1829, left his fortune to Hungerford, but made the U.S. his secondary legatee if Hungerford died without issue. The U.S., the will said, was to use the money to create a Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men. Smithson, an Englishman who never visited this country, has always seemed a shadowy figure, in large part because most of his papers were destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian in 1865. But author Heather Ewing, an architectural historian who has worked for the Smithsonian, has risen to the biographical challenge in The Lost World of James Smithson. She has exhumed letters, diaries, bank records and government documents throughout Europe and the U.S. that add up to a clear picture of our cultural benefactor.
Smithson, it turns out, was a fascinating person, albeit quirky and frustrated. He was a politically progressive amateur chemist and geologist, who traveled widely, amassed a significant geological collection and befriended the scientific pioneers of his age. Although well-regarded in scientific circles, Smithson was insecure because of his background as the illegitimate son of a well-born widow and the illustrious Duke of Northumberland. The name James Macie was his mother's pretense that he was the son of her late husband; he changed it to Smithson, the duke's surname, immediately after his mother's death.
Childless and aware that his scientific work was of only middling importance, Smithson wanted to be remembered as something more than his parents' mistake. Hence the Smithsonian will. Of course, his name is now world-famous. Ewing's psychologically sensitive book gives us the man behind the name. Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.