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...


The Smithsonian’s founder was the illegitimate son of English nobility, and was obsessed by that background, Ewing believes. As a young man he went by his mother’s name, Macie, but changed it to Smithson after his father, a prestigious Duke. Smithson even sought out references to his famous father in books and marked them.

As the search for information on Smithson continues, the task could get easier. Officials announced that the Library of Congress agreed yesterday to return some of Smithson’s books that had ended up over there, making the Smithsonian’s collection just a little more Smithson-ian.

(Photograph Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

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