Jacques-Louis Macie was born in Paris, sometime around 1765, the illegitimate son of the widow Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie and Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland, but because he was a bastard, the exact date and location have been lost to history because you don’t want to leave a paper trail.
After moving to England as a child, his name was changed to James Louis Macie. Jimmiy studied at Pembroke College, Oxford, earned a Master of Arts degree and worked extensively in chemistry and mineralogy. After the death of his now twice-widowed mother, he adopted his father’s original surname to become James Smithson in 1800 or 1801. Smithson and his half-brother split their mother’s estate, leaving Smithson set for life.
Smithson bounced around Europe, living the trust-fund life, doing scientific work and twice getting imprisoned as an innocent bystander to the Napoleonic Wars. When he got spring from the hoosegow the second time, he legged it back to England. As a scientist, he was something of a dilettante, publishing 27 papers, but never really moving the needle, though he did manage to gain entry to the Royal Society of London.
Smithson died June 27, 1829, in Genoa, Italy, having never married (yes, there are rumors) nor had any children. In his will he stipulated that the income from his estate was to be paid to his nephew, Henry James Dickenson, but only if Dickenson first changed his surname to Hungerford. In the event that Dickenson/Hungerford were to predecease Smithson, the money was to be left to Dickenson/Hungerford’s children, and should Dickenson/Hungerford leave no heirs, the estate was to be donated “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men." Well, as luck would have it, Hungerford died childless in 1835.
Aaron Vall, then chargé d'affaires to the United Kingdom wrote to US Secretary of State John Forsyth to inform him of the will, Forsyth in turn told President Andrew Jackson, who told Congress, who formed a committee. Jackson also sent former Treasury Secretary Richard Rush to go get that cheddar. Rush returned with 104,960 gold sovereigns (more than a half-million) and all of Smithson’s personal effects and papers.
Because Congress will not only look a gift horse in the mouth, but sometimes shoot it in the head, Smithson’s gift was eventually invested in US Treasury bonds issued by the state of Arkansas, bonds that soon went tits up. Fortunately, Massachusetts rep and former US President John Quincy Adams convinced his colleagues to restore the funds plus interest.
And so, 19 years after the death of James Smithson, on August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed into law “an act to establish the ‘Smithsonian Institution’ for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
It’s quite a place, you should visit. Among the countless artifacts you find there is Smithson himself, whose remains were patriated from Genoa by none other than Alexander Graham Bell.