AAS 207th Meeting, 8-12 January 2006
Session 58 Stellar Personalities
HAD Oral, Monday, 2:30-4:00pm, January 9, 2006, Maryland C

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[58.03] James Smithson (1765-1829): Smithsonian Institution Founder And Its First Meteorite Investigator

R. S. Clarke, Jr., H. P. Ewing (Smithsonian Institution)

The Englishman James Smithson’s bequest led to the founding of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 1846. He had never visited the US and his motivations are unclear. His archive and meteorite-containing mineral collection were also donated but were tragically lost in the Smithsonian fire in 1865. Only a tantalizing quotation remains: “the cabinet also contained a valuable suite of meteoritic stones, which appear to be . . . the important meteorites which have fallen in Europe during several centuries.” Smithson’s life spanned late 18th century Enlightenment skepticism concerning meteorites to their acceptance in the early decades of the 19th century. New research reveals Smithson as an active participant at the birth of modern meteoritics.

Smithson was well educated, well connected, financially independent, and one of the youngest men ever to be elected a FRS. He spent much of his life in Europe associating with the scientific leaders there, and he was a sought after chemical analyst. William Thomson (1761-1806), an Oxford mentor and a lifelong friend, took up residence in Naples in 1790. He was monitoring Mt. Vesuvius’s, an interest shared with Smithson, when it erupted on June 15, 1794. The next day the Siena meteorite fell 200 km to the north. Smithson, then residing in Florence, went immediately over the Chianti Hills to investigate the fall. Welcomed with awed respect by the local savants, the twenty nine year old Smithson investigated the fall and described it in a letter to his mentor Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) for dissemination in London. William Thomson provided a mineralogical description of the Siena stones for the published description. The Siena meteorite fall marked the beginning of a decade of investigation by scientists that led to the acceptance of meteorites. Smithson was there throughout these investigations and the political and social unrest that accompanied them.

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