The birth of James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian Institution, is thought to be during the year 1765. Born in France, he became a naturalized British citizen around the age of ten. The illegitimate son of Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie and Hugh Smithson, 1st Duke of Northumberland, he changed his name as well as his citizenship. After his parents' death, he became known as James Smithson rather than James Macie. On May 7, 1782, he enrolled in Pembroke College, Oxford, and graduated four years later. The natural sciences sparked his interest, and he established a solid reputation as a chemist and mineralogist, despite the lack of quality information available on these topics in the late 1700s. He realized this and worked diligently to collect mineral and ore samples from European countries. Excerpts from his notes show that his excursions often forced him to brave the elements and do without the monetary comforts of his parents. Smithson, although a wealthy man, determined to make a name for himself among scientists without depending upon his heritage. He kept accurate accounts of his experiments and collections and earned the respect of his peers. When the Royal Society of London recognized his scientific abilities and accepted his membership on April 26, 1787, only a year after he graduated from college, he knew his quest and respect for knowledge would yield even greater things. The Society became an outlet for publishing many of his papers, which covered a diverse range of scientific topics, as well as a meeting place for fellow intellectuals like Cavendish, Lavoisier, Arago, Banks, and Fabroni.
James Smithson wrote his Last Will and Testament with the same exactness found in his research notes. He drafted it in 1826 in London, only three years before he died. He died on June 27, 1829, in Genoa, Italy, where he was buried in a British Cemetery. The will entailed his estate to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, and stated that if his nephew died without an heir the money would 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 . . ."
In 1835 when Henry James Hungerford died without an heir, his mother, Mary Ann de la Batut, claimed her right to the Smithson estate, due to her previous marriage to Colonel Henry Louis Dickinson, half-brother of James Smithson and father of Henry James Hungerford. The British Courts allotted her an annual allowance until her death in 1861. Marie de la Batut's children from her second marriage had no blood or legal relationship to James Smithson; however, they joined with their spouses and children and persisted over the next few decades to claim various rights to the Smithson estate. George Henry, Emma Kirby, Marie, Charles, and Maurice all contacted the Smithsonian Institution with stories, genealogies, and bargains attempting to convince the Smithsonian administration of their need for and right to the money.
Aaron Vail, charges d'affaires of the United States at London, informed the United States of its right to the Smithson bequest after Hungerford's death. President Andrew Jackson brought the situation before Congress on December 17, 1835, and the government reacted with skepticism. The hesitancy lasted for ten years as Congress contemplated Smithson's motivation for willing such a large sum to a country he never visited. Some considered the bequest "a cheap way of conferring immortality," while others were reluctant to accept such a gift from a foreigner. (Rhees, 1880)
John Quincy Adams liked the idea of a Smithsonian Institution, however, and gathered congressional support for it during the spring of 1836. July 1, 1836, President Jackson commissioned Richard Rush to represent the United State's claim to Smithson's bequest in England. Rush acquired the money, converted it to gold (over $500,000), and brought it to America. Debates ensued and the U. S. Treasury invested the money in Arkansas State Bonds. This investment disturbed John Quincy Adams. Despite their low interest rate, he realized the bonds were untouchable until 1860. Adams spent the last nine months of 1841 trying to access the money. Upon hearing Adams' complaint President John Tyler took action and forced the Treasury to provide the original amount of the bequest plus the appropriate interest on the bonds. In 1846 a final bill passed for the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution.
Another issue began to surface in 1891 when Samuel P. Langley invested in Italian rentes (bonds) for the care of Smithson's grave site in Genoa, Italy. On November 24, 1900, a member of the Committee of the British Burial Ground Association of Genoa informed Langley of a possible need to remove Smithson's remains from the cemetery due to quarrying in the area. William Henry Bishop, U. S. Consul at Genoa, confirmed the impending destruction of the cemetery and offered his assistance along with cost estimates for the transfer of Smithson's remains to the United States. Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, a Regent of the Smithsonian, agreed to accompany the remains from Italy to America as long as the act coincided with Italian and British Law. Dr. Bell and his wife arrived with the remains in Hoboken, New Jersey, on the "Princess Irene" on January 19, 1904. The U. S. S. "Dolphin" then carried the remains to Washington, D.C., where a ceremony in the Main Hall of the Smithsonian Institution Building saluted the founder. Smithson's original tomb was transferred to America later that same year, and the Smithson Mortuary Chapel was constructed in the Smithsonian Institution Building.