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What was James Smithson smoking?

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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 samples of a mineral he rolled bits into clay and fired the mix in his pipe. The dust-studded clay could then be studied with flame analysis.

Yesterday at the Smithsonian Castle, a new book about the founder’s life spurred a lot of talk about the man who so enriched the United States but had never visited. More than 100 people gathered to tour the exhibits on Smithson (including a sample of his most notable discovery, the mineral Smithsonite) and to see his small tomb near the entrance of the castle.

But piecing together the story hasn’t been an easy task. Many of Smithson’s belongings that were shipped to the Smithsonian after his death, including the journals he kept for most of his life, were destroyed in a catastrophic fire at the Castle in 1865.

“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.

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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