The Science of James Smithson: Discoveries from the Smithsonian Founder

Smithsonian. Nov. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781588346902. $29.95. SCI
Science historian Turner (emeritus, curator of physical sciences, Smithsonian National Museum of American History) explores the life and work of James Smithson, the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution through his bequest to the United States for “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson, a wealthy English chemist and mineralogist, was long thought to be a scientific dabbler, but Turner’s examination of Smithson’s scientific papers and the response to them proves he was a respected chemist of his time, elected as a fellow to the Royal Society at the age of 22, whose work was eclipsed by later scientific advances. Turner weaves biographical facts about Smithson through well-researched discussions of the subjects of his published papers, which range from detailed chemical analyses of various substances to ice crystals to making an inexpensive, but accurate, scale.
VERDICT Seamlessly intertwined with information about scientific and social developments in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including facts about important names in geology, chemistry, and mineralogy, this welcome guide will engage readers of science biographies and the history of science.
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