Today in History, June 27: 1829 – Strange that we should be thankful that Henry James Hungerford died childless in 1835. On this date in 1829 a British scientist who had never set foot on American soil died in Genoa, Italy. James Smithson was a wealthy man. He wrote in his will, “In the case of the death of my said Nephew without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property… 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.”.
So thanks to James Smithson’s eccentricity, which he never explained, and the untimely death of his nephew, the US came into possession of over $500,000.00 in funds dedicated to research and learning. President Andrew Jackson sent a diplomat to receive the funds, President James K. Polk signed the bill creating the Smithsonian Institute once Congress agreed how to use the money. President Theodore Roosevelt saw to the movement of Smithson’s body from Italy to “The Castle” of the Institute in 1904. Smithson was escorted from Genoa to Washington by none other than Institute regent Alexander Graham Bell and his wife. Today the Smithsonian has 19 museums and the national zoo, including the National Aeronautics and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the world. Thank you, Mr. Smithson.