James Smithson, MA, FRS (c. 1765 – 27 June 1829) was an English chemist and mineralogist. He published numerous scientific papers for the Royal Society during the late 1700s as well as assisting in the development of calamine, which would eventually be renamed after him as “smithsonite”. He was the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution, which also bears his name.
Born in Paris, France as the illegitimate child of Hugh Percy, the 1st Duke of Northumberland, he was given the French name Jacques-Louis Macie. His birth date was not recorded and the exact location of his birth is unknown; most sources believe it to be in the Pentemont Abbey. Shortly after his birth he naturalized to Britain where his name was anglicized to James Louis Macie. He attended university at Pembroke College, Oxford in 1782 eventually graduating with a B.A. in 1786. As a student he participated in numerous geological expeditions and studied chemistry and mineralogy. At the age of twenty-two, he adopted his father’s surname of Smithson and travelled extensively throughout Europe, publishing papers about his findings. Considered a talented amateur in his field, Smithson maintained an inheritance he acquired from his mother and other relatives.Smithson never married and had no children; therefore, when he wrote his will, he left his estate to his nephew, or his nephew’s family if his nephew died before Smithson. If his nephew were to die without heirs, however, Smithson’s will stipulated that his estate be used “to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” In 1835, his nephew died and so could not claim to be the recipient of his estate; therefore, Smithson became the patron of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. despite having never visited the United States. He died in Genoa, Italy on 27 June 1829, aged 64.