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Smithson, James (c.1765-1829)
Autograph Letter Signed, Paris April 13, 1821 to Louis-Benjamin Fleuriau de Bellevue

Quarto, three pages of a bi-folium, neatly inscribed in ink, in very good, very clean and legible condition.

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James Smithson, English chemist and mineralogist, and the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution, writes to Louis-Benjamin Fleuriau de  Bellevue (1765-1852) French naturalist, geologist, and philanthropist. "Fleuriau de Bellevue gave Smithson a personally inscribed copy of his pamphlet on the 1819 meteor fall at Jonzac."1 Smithson's letters are quite rare, his papers were destroyed by fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865: "Smithson's trunks had been filled with some two hundred unpublished manuscripts, the record of countless experiments and investigations from the dawn of modern chemistry. They had also contained his correspondence, evidence of the extraordinarily sociable and international network of scientists in which he labored, and the diaries of his travels, which he had kept since adolescence. His extensive mineral collection, lauded as the finest in the United States in the 1840s, had been entirely consumed. Gone, too, were all the tools of his life's work - the thermometers, balances, and blowpipes; as well as his personal belongings, the trappings of his life as an aspiring aristocrat, a man accustomed to fine things: the sword and riding whip, the china service, his smoking pipes and candlesticks. With these losses Smithson, along with the story of his life, seemed to have utterly vanished."2

The Smithsonian Archives has "three original letters from Smithson, acquired since the fire, photocopies of about a dozen more from other repositories, and a handful of Smithson's notes, including a few draft catalogues of his mineral collection and some memoranda from experiments. There is a collection of calling cards and signatures of prominent scientists, dating from Smithson's days in Paris, as well as the diary of Smithson's brother and the passport of his nephew. Mostly, the archives contain a record of the search for Smithson, a long trail of dead-end inquiries made by various officials in the years since the fire. As long ago as 1880 the Smithsonian concluded that after "unusual exertions" they had collected "all the information likely to be obtained."3

Smithson writes in French to Fleuriau de Bellevue discussing various aspects of mineralogy: 

"Mon cher Monsieur,

Comme j'en avoit concus des soupcons d'apres ce que vont m'avez dit, ni l'un ni l'autre des subilames que vous m'avez envoyé n'est de l'ambre. L'on n'en obtient point d'acide succinique. L'acohol ayant peu d'effet sur eux, ils se n'approcheroit plus du copal.

Je ne seroit point ponté a  attribuer capacité et l'etat tenue de centaines parties du No 1 aux que vous nommez, ni meme peut etre a aucun changement chemique; mais plus tot a un simple des assignation.

La croute blanchatre a la surface du No 2 puit aussi avoir la meme cause, mais d'autre parties opaques sont due a la presence d'une matiere  etrangere.

Il y a enclavé dans quelques endroits de cette masse des granit blanc demi transparent qui nayent le verve au feu ils deviennent opaque mais ne fondery pas il est donc probable quils sont du quartz.

Les parties opaques de cette masse, No 2, puiser dans sons interieur et ainsi a ... d'un melasse de la couche terneuse dans la quelle elle etoit enfouie, laissent après leur combustion une matiere noire la quelle devient ordinairement noye en ne froidissant. J'ai trouvé dans ce residu des grains de quartz, un peu de chaux, et beaucoup de fer.

Le No 1 pour sa combination fournit une matiere blanche. Une partie considerable de matiere blanche n'est pas de la chaux, mais je n'en est pas determiné la nature.

Etant dans l'intention il n'y a pas longtemps d'aller au Angleterre, jai jetté presque toutes mes creatifes je suis ainsi fort en canassé en faisant des experiences, n'ayant pas un choix de moyens, etant meme souvent sans moyens du tout.

Le mélange de matiere minerals dans le No 2 disposenoit a croire que cette ... avoit originalement coulé de l'ambre terne. On dis que cela arrive au copal. Mr Banks m'a donné des morceaux d'un copal dit tené de la terne. Ils on tune croute exterieur opaque et blancahtre comme le No 2, quoique leur interieur soyent d'une transparence et d'une purité parfait.

Je serai tres charmé si ces experiences tres imparfaites  respondent du tout a ce que vous des envies.  Jai envoit fort desiré pouvoir faire d'avantage, et vous etre plus eclaté, et je vous pris de me croire

Sincerement le votre

James Smithson

Paris April le 13 1821 ..."


James Smithson was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a wealthy widow who was a cousin of the Duchess of Northumberland. His exact birthday remains unknown because he was born in secret in Paris, where his mother had gone to hide her pregnancy. In his youth, his name was James Lewis Macie, but in 1801, after his parents died, he took his father's last name of Smithson.

Smithson never married; he had no children; and he lived a peripatetic life, traveling widely in Europe during a time of great turbulence and political upheaval. He was in Paris during the French Revolution, and was later imprisoned during the Napoleonic Wars. Friends with many of the great scientific minds of the age, he believed that the pursuit of science and knowledge was the key to happiness and prosperity for all of society. He saw scientists as benefactors of all mankind, and thought that they should be considered "citizens of the world."

Smithson was interested in almost everything and studied a wide range of natural phenomena: the venom of snakes, the chemistry of volcanoes, the constituents of a lady's tear, and even the fundamental nature of electricity. He published twenty-seven papers in his lifetime, ranging from an improved method of making coffee, to an analysis of the mineral calamine, critical in the manufacture of brass - which led to the mineral being named smithsonite in his honor. In one of his last papers, he laid out his philosophy most clearly: "It is in knowledge that man has found his greatness and his happiness ... No ignorance is probably without loss to him."

Toward the end of his life, under a clause in his will, he left his fortune to the United States, a place he had never visited, to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829, and was interred nearby. In 1904, Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell brought Smithson's remains to the United States to rest at the Institution his bequest created. Smithson's papers and his vast mineral collection were all destroyed by fire in 1865.

Smithson's letters and manuscript material are indeed rare in the market place: we can trace but one recent auction record for a three page ALS dated May 9, 1792, describing the current political situation in Paris- Enys Collection, Bonham's, Sept. 28, 2004, £18,000 ($ 32,285).

1. Ewing, Heather, The Lost World of James Smithson Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian (Bloomsbury: New York, 2007) p. 184

2. ibid. p. 8

3. ibid. p. 10

See also: Torrens, H. S. "Smithson, James Lewis (1764-1829), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004