Lost, indeed: Architectural historian Ewing has labored heroically to write the biography of a man whose letters and papers were nearly all consumed in a fire that swept the nascent Smithsonian Institution in 1865.
Undaunted, she pursued bank records, legal documents, professional society archives, diaries and letters from James Smithson’s many correspondents. Smithson (1765–1829) was the illegitimate son of the first Duke of Northumberland; his mother, the Duke’s mistress, could claim also highborn connections and sufficient wealth to enable Smithson’s matriculation at Oxford, his membership in the beau monde, the maintenance of sumptuous bachelor’s quarters in London and an extensive Grand Tour. The tour was not a young man’s pursuit of fun and games (though Smithson did love gambling) so much as a means of meeting the continent’s leading men of science and of adding to his mineral “cabinet.” In the early 1800s, geology, mineralogy and meteorology were the rage, and chemistry was becoming a true science. Smithson, already the youngest member ever admitted to the Royal Society (in 1787), published some papers but mostly enjoyed the company of such leading lights as Priestley, Lavoiser, Cuvier and Davy. He and his circle shared a sense of optimism and progress that led them to admire the Americans’ War of Independence and support the French Revolution. Rough moments in the political aftermath, however, led to Smithson’s imprisonment in Denmark, a country then at war with England. Eventually resettled in London, the lifelong bachelor wrote a will that left his fortune “to found at Washington . . . an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” That the will survived the courts as well as a contentious Congress is in itself an amazing tale—and it might never have happened, Ewing avers, had it not been one man’s heartfelt desire to perpetuate a name that marked him as illegitimate.
Absorbing social history, if not quite a flesh-and-blood story.