Smithson was the illegitimate child of the 1st Duke of Northumberland, and was born secretly in Paris, as James Lewis Macie. Eventually he was naturalized in England andhe attended college, studying chemistry and mineralogy. At the age of twenty-two, he changed his surname from Macie to Smithson, his father's surname. Smithson traveled extensively throughout Europe publishing papers about his findings. Smithson became the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; however he never visited the United States.
Smithson was nomadic in his lifestyle, traveling throughout Europe. As a student, in 1784, he participated in a geological expedition with Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, William Thornton and Paolo Andreani of Scotland and the Hebrides. He was in Paris during the French Revolution.
Smithson's research work was eclectic. He studied subjects ranging from coffee making to the use of calamine in making brass, which would eventually be called smithsonite. He also studied the chemistry of human tears, snake venom and other natural occurrences. Smithson would publish twenty-seven papers. He was nominated to the Royal Society of London. Smithson socialized and worked with scientists Joseph Priestley, Sir Joseph Banks, Antoine Lavoisier, and Richard Kirwan.
His first paper was presented at the Royal Society on July 7, 1791, "An Account of Some Chemical Experiments on Tabasheer." Tabasheer is a substance used in traditional Indian medicine and derived from material collected insides bamboo culms. The samples that Macie analyzed had been sent by Patrick Russell, physician-naturalist in India.
In 1802 he read his second paper, "A Chemical Analysis of Some Calamines," at the Royal Society. In the paper, Smithson challenges the idea that the mineral calamine is an oxide of zinc. His discoveries made calamine a "true mineral." He explored and examined Kirkdale Cave and published about his findings in 1824. His findings successfully challenged previous beliefs that the fossils within the formations at the cave were from the Great Flood. Smithson is credited with first using the word "silicates".
Smithson died in Genoa, Italy on June 27, 1829. He was buried in Sampierdarena in a Protestant cemetery. It was not until 1835 that the United States government was informed about the bequest. A committee was organized and the Smithsonian Institution was founded. Smithson's estate was sent to the United States, accompanied by Richard Rush. The estate arrived as gold sovereigns in eleven boxes. Smithson's personal items, scientific notes, minerals, and library also traveled with Rush. This final amount totaled $54,165.38.
Tabasheer or Banslochan, also spelt as Tabachir or Tabashir, is a translucent white substance, composed mainly of silica and water with traces of lime and potash, obtained from the nodal joints of some species of bamboo. It is part of the pharmacology of the traditional Ayurvedic and Unani systems of medicine of the Indian subcontinent. It is also an ingredient in many traditional Chinese medicines.
Tabasheer is referred to as Tvaksheera in Sanskrit, which means bark milk. Other Sanskrit-derived names have been applied to tabasheer as well, including bamboo sugar (vans-sharkar), bamboo camphor (vans karpoor) and bamboo manna. It is called Tian Zhu Huang in Mandarin, which means "heavenly bamboo yellow."
Tabasheer is claimed to provide a variety of health benefits. It is variously regarded as an antipyretic, antispasmodic,antiparalytic, restorative and aphrodisiac. Tabasheer that has a blueish tint (usually called neel or neelkanth) is considered superior to tabasheer that has the "more plain" yellow or white color. Not all bamboo stems contain tabasheer. Likely candidates are found by shaking bamboo stems, which can make the mineralized tabasheer inside produce a rattling sound. These stems are split open to extract the tabasheer.
Although a part of the ancient Ayurvedic system of medicine, it has been postulated that the use of tabasheer originated in the Adivasi aboriginal tribes of India. Tabasheer was extensively exported from India for thousands of years, including through Arab traders during the medieval period. The town of Thane, close to the west coast of India, was famous as a clearing center for tabasheer in the twelfth century CE. It was called σάκχαρον in the writings of Pedanius Dioscorides, aGreek pharmacologist who practiced in Rome in the time of Nero.
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