James Smithson (1765-1829), an English chemist and mineralogist, was born in France, the illegitimate son of Sir Hugh Smithson (Percy) and Elizabeth Keate Macie. He made many important analyses of minerals and discovered an important zinc ore (calamine) which he gave his name to — smithsonite.
This British chemist, who had no connection with the United States, left his entire estate of some $508,000 «to the United States of America to found at Washington under the name of The Smithsonian Institution an establishment for increase and diffusion of knowledge among men». There was only one catch. Smithson actually left the estate to his nephew, with the stipulation that should he die leaving no children, the estate would go to the Smithsonian Institution as just described.
The nephew died in 1835 — childless. One would imagine that a half- million-dollar bequest would have been received with open arms. Not so. At the time there was much opposition to accepting this bonanza. John Forsyth, Secretary of State, told President Andrew Jackson that anyone offering such a large amount of money as a benefactor must be a lunatic. Vice President John C. Calhoun said it was beneath the dignity of the United States to receive presents of this kind from anyone. Some congressmen said the gift was an attempt by a foreigner to acquire immortality.
Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 26, 1829. In 1904, the Institution had his remains removed to Washington, D.C., under the escort of Alexander Graham Bell. Smithson is buried in a chapel in the main entrance of the Smithsonian building.
An international conference at the Smithsonian Institution was responsible for the parity of major currencies, which came to be known as the Smithsonian parity.