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The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 3, 2007
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Top Customer Reviews
Reviewed by Dr Bill Palmer, Associate, Curtin University, Australia.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Heather Ewing provides her readers with a portrait of James Smithson, who was in his time well known as a scientist, but who is now better known as the founder of Washington's Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian has become the largest museum and research complex in the world.
However the book is largely about James Smithson himself (born James Macie) and how he came to leave a large sum of money to a country that he had never visited. Ewing explains in the Prologue that much of the information that the Institution had about Smithson including his papers was destroyed in a terrible fire in 1865, before the contents had been properly catalogued and summarised; this has made the task of writing a Smithson biography very difficult. Quite frequently during the narrative there are places where it is really not known where Smithson was at a particular time or whom he met. Even the way in which he gained his fortune is far from clear. However the difficulty does provide an advantage which Ewing uses to good effect by employing a wide variety of sources, carefully referenced; these provide a wider background to the biography in her examination of motivation and custom, so that the reader is brought into an understanding of the science and the social customs of the times. Factual uncertainties about James Smithson include the date of his birth, the details of his schooling and the cause of his death.Read more ›
I vaguely knew that James Smithson (1764-1829) started it all with a whopping great cash gift in the 19th Century, and that Smithson was English and never set foot in the United States. That satisfied my need to know (-it-all) for years.
My interest was pricked a few month ago in reading a biography of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States. Uniquely, he after he left the presidency, defeated in a bid for re-election, he served in the House of Representatives for nearly twenty years, dying at his desk. In Congress he was instrumental in securing the Smithson gift and putting it to work as Smithson intended. (There were others who hoped to siphon the money off for their purposes; these others included the sitting president, Martin van Buren.) Quincy Adams navigated through these sharks and shoals, arriving at the first museum, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, that is the red brick building often referred to as the Smithsonian Castle these days, from the turrets of which Abraham Lincoln observed the Confederate Army at Harper’s Ferry in 1862.
Taken as read, I thought no more of it, until I happened to mention Quincy Adams’s role to a friend, who did not know that the Smithsonian was started with a private bequest or that the donor was English. I then realized how little of the story I knew because I could not shed any light on how or why the gift was made.
Clearly it was time to top-up my know-it-all tank and I sought out and read a biography of James Smithson. What did I find?Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I had read the book before I purchased it for my daughter and her family. Having spent many hours in various Smithsonian museums when my children were young I felt that this book... Read morePublished 10 months ago by Eleanore B. Sturgill
I've had this on my list of books to read for a while. It is really engaging and nice for summer reading.Published 12 months ago by G. M. Gudmundso
As a member of the Smithsonian "faculty" for more than 40 years, I was never aware of the intellectual context for Smithson's mysterious gift to the United States. Read morePublished on May 11, 2014 by Wilton S Dillon
The book profiles the life of James (Macie) Smithson in the latter 18th century and early 19th century. Read morePublished on March 3, 2014 by mjrg
A lot is not known about Smithson's life. It's a fascinating story overall and a good book but the author has to work the existing material a little too hard.Published on December 10, 2013 by cbarker65
This book reveals a lot about the lost life of a great benfactor. Well written with obvious extensive research while also easy to read.Published on December 13, 2010 by J. Shaw
Very nice recounting of the life and actions of Smithson, as the scientist and the person, and his ingenious and magnanimous bequest that created the Smithsonian, an edifice of... Read morePublished on December 5, 2009 by Frederica Darema