The ‘Ultimate Honor’: Why a Colorful Mineral Honors the Smithsonian‘s Namesake

Smithsonite honors the scientific legacy of mineralogist James Smithson

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A specimen of smithsonite housed in the museum’s mineral and gem collection. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

With more than 148 million specimens and objects, the vast majority of the National Museum of Natural History’s collections are off display. But each of these specimens — whether it be a moth, meteorite, moss or mammoth — tells a story that helps museum researchers make sense of the natural world. Each month, the Specimen Spotlight series highlights a different specimen or object from the world’s largest natural history collection to shed light on why we collect.

The Smithsonian Institution is often referred to as the “nation’s attic” due to its sprawling and eclectic collection of specimens, objects and art. Together, these artifacts tell the story of the natural world and our nation’s shared history. Around the National Mall alone, visitors can see treasures like Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, the Apollo lunar landing module, the Star-Spangled Banner and the Nation’s T. rex.

But this iconic American collection has a surprising origin: the Smithsonian was established by a generous gift from James Smithson, an English scientist who had never visited the United States during his lifetime. Around 1765, Smithson was born out of wedlock to a wealthy duke and a woman who was distantly related to English royalty. He dedicated his life to studying the natural sciences and traveled around much of Europe. After he died in June of 1829, he left his entire estate of more than half a million dollars to the United States.
A portrait of James Smithson completed in 1816 by the painter Henri-Joseph Johns. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Smithson’s reasoning for leaving such a substantial sum of money to the United States is still debated — some think it was because he was unable to inherit his father’s legacy in English high society while others think he was emblazoned by America’s democratic ideals. But Smithson did leave instructions for what the young country should do with his gift: found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

Nearly 200 years after Congress agreed to accept Smithson’s bequest in 1836, the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest complex of museums and research centers. Each of its 21 museums and galleries share Smithson’s name and honor his request to increase and diffuse knowledge.

But an additional aspect of Smithson’s legacy is preserved at the National Museum of Natural History. In the museum’s mineral sciences collection near the gem vault sits a mineral bigger than a football that is shaped like a head of cabbage. Like the Institution it is housed in, this greenish-blue mineral owes its name to James Smithson.
Smithsonite is found in deposits from Namibia to Greece. This specimen was found in New Mexico’s Kelly Mine, which is famous for producing blue smithsonite. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

Over the course of his life, Smithson wrote some 200 manuscripts and published 27 papers revolving around chemistry and mineralogy. One of his notable projects involved studying zinc ores, which were crucial to producing materials like brass. These ores were collectively called calamine and were thought to be composed of zinc oxides.

Smithson was one of the first researchers to systematically categorize calamine. He discovered that instead of being one mineral, calamine actually had two different chemical compositions. This meant that the zinc ores that had initially been lumped into calamine actually belonged to two distinct minerals that contain zinc–a zinc silicate (a compound of silicon and oxygen) and a zinc carbonate (a compound of carbon and oxygen).

A James Smithson medallion adorns a smithsonite specimen. Smithsonian Archives

Smithson outlined these findings in a landmark paper published in 1802. In 1832, French mineralogist François Sulpice Beudant named the zinc carbonate mineral smithsonite after Smithson, who had died three years earlier. According to Gabriela Farfan, the museum’s Coralyn W. Whitney curator of gems and minerals, this recognition was bestowed solely for Smithson’s mineralogical bonafides. “This was an honor for him, not because he founded the Smithsonian, but because he did all of this work on this mineral system.”

The Smithsonian is home to dozens of smithsonite specimens from all over the world. The smithsonite mineral near the gem vault hails from New Mexico’s Kelly Mine, a deposit famed for producing exhibit-quality slabs of bright blue smithsonite. But according to Farfan, smithsonite comes in a variety of colors including grassy greens, purplish pinks and buttery yellows. While smithsonite is naturally colorless, the inclusion of microscopic minerals and trace elements gives smithsonite crystals their hues. For example, traces of copper cause blue and green tones while manganese leaves a pinkish tint. Yellowish smithsonite with high quantities of the element cadmium is sometimes called turkey fat ore.

A green cluster of smithsonite crystals from the museum’s collection. Smithsonian Institution

The smithsonite specimen that now sits near the gem vault was once housed in the office of the Smithsonian’s Secretary, where it served as a symbol of the Institution’s founder. Farfan is not sure which would make Smithson more proud — having a mineral named after him or the world’s largest museum complex.

“That’s a tough question. I feel like he would really appreciate that the Smithsonian is still such a thriving institution,” Farfan said. “But as a mineralogist, I think having a mineral named after him would be the ultimate honor.”

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