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Smithson and the Sherlock of Bones

The Smithsonian has collected more than 142 million objects—from flags and fossils, to sculptures and spacecrafts, to toys and tapestries. But the most unusual thing it has collected may be the bones of its founder, James Smithson!

James Smithson (1765–1829) was a wealthy English scientist who devoted his life to research. Although he had never visited the United States, he left his fortune to start an establishment in Washington, D.C., dedicated to "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." That establishment became the Smithsonian.

Smithson's bones now lie in the Smithsonian Castle. Originally they were buried in a cemetery in Italy. When the bones were moved to the United States, President Theodore Roosevelt sent the Marine band to welcome them to their new home. In 1973, one of the Smithsonian's forensic anthropologists, Lawrence Angel, studied the bones. Angel was called the Sherlock of Bones because he helped the FBI to identify the bones of unidentified crime victims.

After studying Smithson’s bones, Angel deduced that Smithson was five feet six inches tall, smoked pipes, was very active, climbed hills and mountains, worked with his hands, and spent a lot of time at a desk—Angel learned quite a lot about Smithson, considering the man had been dead for nearly 150 years!

Smithson's bones were returned to their crypt in the Smithsonian Castle. They still lie there today.

The source of this story is the book Odd Tales from the Smithsonian (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986), written by Peggy Thomson and Edwards Park.

To learn more:

Smithsonian Institution home page
Smithsonian Institution Building (Castle)
From Smithson to Smithsonian
Portrait of James Smithson

Portrait of James Smithson

James Smithson (1765–1829) founder of the Smithsonian Institution
James Smithson's Crypt

James Smithson's Crypt

The Crypt is located in the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian Institution

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