Amassed from scant source material, this inescapably forced attempt to make something of the life of the Smithsonian Institution’s founder underscores the peculiar nature of the institution's origins.
Little is known of James Smithson’s life—a state of affairs this account will not change—and he would not provoke much interest except for one grand gesture: He left to the US government, on his death in 1836, a sum of $500,000 “for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men.” What makes this act so strange, writes Burleigh (A Very Private Woman, 1998), was that Smithson was an Englishman who never set foot in America. The bastard son of the Duke of Northumberland, though his mother also had a nice pot of her own gold, he led the life of a dilettante scientist; to call him even a minor 18th-century mineralogist would be generous. “Smithson’s career was marginal, maybe even irrelevant as far as the great questions of his day,” admits the author. Since her subject provides few handles, she fastens onto his parents, his social milieu, and his colleagues in the Royal Society to move the story along. Then comes his bequest, which Burleigh suggests was the product either of his desire to make a name for himself or, more charitably, “to bring scientific knowledge to the masses,” both certainly plausible speculations. When the money makes it to the US Treasury, the author can finally sink her teeth into events, following the financial shenanigans through which the entire bequest was swindled and the efforts of John Quincy Adams to have the money put to its intended use.
The dabbling Smithson isn’t much of a rudder for a biography, and authorial enthusiasm never overcomes the handicap.