What was James Smithson smoking?

In his tobacco pipe, James Smithson used to smoke clay dotted with tiny bits of rock.The mineral expert, who left a small fortune in his will to establish an institution for the "diffusion of knowledge," wasn’t just a British eccentric; he was actually a pioneer in microchemistry. To study minute s...


"Smithson will always be an enigmatic figure," said curator Steven Turner. "Precious little of the man survived."

Even Smithson’s bones couldn’t get a rest from the search for clues. Yesterday, forensic anthropologist David Hunt described how in 1973 the founder’s skeleton was exhumed from the crypt. It went through an analysis that determined that the bones did indeed most likely belong to an older European gentleman who had bad teeth and probably smoked a pipe.

But the process didn’t start out so smoothly: A blowtorch was used to open the sealed coffin, which caught the silk lining inside on fire. To put it out, workers rushed over to a nearby water fountain, filled up their mouths and spit the water onto the flames. Luckily, it worked.

Biographer Heather Ewing was able to put together all the strange pieces of the hazy puzzle to write The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution and the Birth of the Smithsonian.

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