The Lost World of John Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian

Heather Ewing, Author . Bloomsbury $29.95 (432p) ISBN 978-1-59691-029-4

This pleasing biography (the second recent one of Smithson, after 2003's The Stranger and the Statesman by Nina Burleigh) tells the story of the enigmatic Englishman who left the United States a vast sum of money to found "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Ewing, an architectural historian who has worked at the Smithsonian, traces John Smithson's development as a "gentleman-scientist," describing his study of chemistry at Oxford in the 1780s; his membership in the Coffee House Philosophical Society, where learned men discussed scientific news; and his well-received scientific papers. Two of the most fascinating chapters focus on Smithson's will. Ewing hazards a few suggestions about why an English scientist would leave a huge bequest to the United States government, and she examines the controversy Smithson's gift set off—some argued against accepting what they viewed as Smithson's self-aggrandizing bequest. This book is possible only because Ewing is a dogged researcher in countless archives. References to Smithson in his friends' letters and diaries reveal not the dour recluse historians had once thought him to be but an exuberant if eccentric man with a zeal for learning and for life. Ewing ably conveys all this as well as the mysterious roots of the institution that bears his name. Illus. (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 01/01/2007
Release date: 04/01/2007
Open Ebook - 448 pages - 978-1-59691-779-8
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