Most of the 30 million people who visit one of the Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington and New York each year do not realize they have an Englishman — who was born in France, died in Italy and never visited America — to thank for the experience.

It was an unexpected bequest from James Smithson that laid the foundation for the institution, which today is administered and largely funded by the U.S. government.

Painted portrait of James Smithson (© Bettman/Getty Images)
James Smithson (© Bettman/Getty Images)

The Smithsonian Institution, created under an act of Congress signed into law by President James Polk 171 years ago this month, is the world’s biggest collection of museums. Many of them face onto Washington’s National Mall, which sweeps down from the U.S. Congress building to the majestic monuments to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Smithson, the son of an English duke, was born about 1765 in Paris. He moved to England, studied at Oxford University, and became an authority in chemistry and mineralogy, communing with top scientists of his day.

As with many of his peers, his interests ranged widely, from new minerals to snake venom to the workings of volcanoes to the chemical makeup of tears. One of his papers discusses a better way to make coffee. His analysis of calamine, used in making brass, led to the mineral being named smithsonite in his honor.

Smithson was very much a figure of his turbulent European times. He was in France during the French Revolution and was part of the emerging Age of Reason, when society turned increasingly to scientific rather than religious explanations.

In his will, Smithson bequeathed almost his entire fortune to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, but stated that if Hungerford died without an heir, the money would go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Fortunately for the cultural heritage of the still-emerging United States, Hungerford did die without an heir. The money was brought over from London in the form of more than 100,000 gold sovereigns, worth over $500,000 at the time.

Vintage black-and-white photo of large, ornate building (© AP Images)
This photo provided by the Smithsonian Institution is the earliest-known photo of the Smithsonian Castle in Washington. The photo was taken in 1850 during its construction. (© AP Images)

After a debate about the nature of this new institution, on August 10, 1846, President Polk signed the act that established the complex of museums and research facilities that has played a key role in developing the U.S. national identity.

Smithson, who died in 1829, would have been proud. In one of his last papers, he set out his philosophy: “It is in his knowledge that man has found his greatness and his happiness.”

The Smithsonian Institution, sometimes called “the nation’s attic,” includes collections in natural history, American history, air and space, arts, and ethnic and cultural history, as well as the National Zoo and myriad scientific research facilities.

This article was written by freelance writer David Storey.