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Accessible exploration of the noteworthy scientific career of James Smithson, who left his fortune to establish the Smithsonian Institution.
James Smithson is best known as the founder of the Smithsonian Institution, but few people know his full and fascinating story. He was a widely respected chemist and mineralogist and a member of the Royal Society, but in 1865, his letters, collection of 10,000 minerals, and more than 200 unpublished papers were lost to a fire in the Smithsonian Castle. His scientific legacy was further written off as insignificant in an 1879 essay published through the Smithsonian fifty years after his death--a claim that author Steven Turner demonstrates is far from the truth.
By providing scientific and intellectual context to his work, The Science of James Smithson is a comprehensive tribute to Smithson's contributions to his fields, including chemistry, mineralogy, and more. This detailed narrative illuminates Smithson and his quest for knowledge at a time when chemists still debated thing as basic as the nature of fire, and struggled to maintain their networks amid the ever-changing conditions of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
Turner, curator emeritus of physical sciences at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, offers a detailed account of the life and work of James Smithson (1765 1829), an English chemist who willed his wealth to the U.S. government for the creation of "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men": the Smithsonian Institute. By the time Smithson's bequest reached Washington, D.C., in 1835, his work in chemistry and minerology had been largely forgotten, lost beneath newer discoveries. Born to wealth, Smithson attended Oxford in the 1780s, "a golden time for English science," and worked with celebrated scientists including chemist Joseph Black, physicist Henry Cavendish, and geologist James Hutton. Smithson's curiosity ranged widely: he studied mineral samples gathered deep inside a Scottish coal mine, dated fossil remains, and analyzed ancient Egyptian pigments. Near the end of Smithson's life, he shifted his focus to those "outside of the scientific community," which Turner attributes to London's Mechanics Institutes, created to educate the working class; this Enlightenment belief, that science should "better the human condition," Turner notes, is likely what led Smithson to will his fortune to the Smithsonian. Curious readers will appreciate this accessible look at the work of a thoughtful, idealistic scientist.