When the Smithsonian Institution was founded
in 1846, its governance was placed in the hands of a Board of Regents.
They delegated the day-to-day running of the Institution to their “Secretary,” who functions as the Institution’s
chief executive officer. There have been eleven Secretaries since
the Institution began operations in 1846.
JOSEPH HENRY (1797-1878): The first Secretary, Joseph Henry, served from 1846 to 1878. A professor at the College of New Jersey, he was a physicist who conducted pioneering research in electromagnetism. Henry established the principle that Smithson’s gift would be maintained as an endowment, and began soliciting additional gifts. Henry focused on research, publications, and international exchanges. He created a program to study weather patterns in North America, a project that eventually led to the creation of the National Weather Service. The Castle was built during his administration, despite his opposition due to concerns over wasting money on a monumental building. He kept the Smithsonian going during the difficult Civil War years, and served as one of President Lincoln’s science advisors. Henry was reluctant to take on the National Museum and eliminated the National Library provisions from our enabling act. Henry focused his energies on establishing the Smithsonian as a great research center.
Joseph Henry Papers Project
Photo Credit: Portrait of Joseph Henry, Smithsonian
Institution Archives, Record Unit 95,
Box 11, Folder 15, AI-10191.jpg
SPENCER FULLERTON BAIRD (1823-1887): The second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, served from 1878 to 1887. Baird was a naturalist, and in 1850, he was named the first curator of the National Museum at the Smithsonian. Baird’s career was dedicated to creating a strong National Museum at the Smithsonian. He donated his personal natural history collection to the Institution and developed a national network of collectors. He prepared the government exhibits at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 and oversaw construction of the U.S. National Museum, now the Arts and Industries Building, in 1881. During his tenure, the taxidermists began to keep live animals behind the Castle. These soon became a popular attraction for young visitors, and led to the National Zoological Park. The Bureau of American Ethnology was also created to document vanishing Native American cultures. Baird served simultaneously as the first Commissioner of the U.S. Fish Commission, the precursor to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Baird was an exuberant enthusiast who wanted the Institution to play an important role in the lives of all U.S. citizens, especially through the National Museum.
Spencer Baird's Vision for a National Museum
Spencer Baird and Ichthyology at the Smithsonian, 1850-1900
Photo Credit: Spencer Fullerton Baird,
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 2, Folder 7, MAH-46853.jpg
SAMUEL PIERPONT LANGLEY (1834-1906): Samuel P. Langley was the third Secretary, from 1887 to 1906. An astrophysicist from the Allegheny Observatory, he devoted many years to developing the first flight machine. He was crushed when the Wright Brothers succeeded before him. His greatest scientific achievement was establishing a standard time zone system across the United States to facilitate train travel. Langley created the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and built the Children’s’ Room, an exhibit designed to interest young visitors in museum exhibits. Langley also established the Smithsonian's National Gallery of Art, now known as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and accepted the gift of the Freer Gallery of Art from industrialist and art collector Charles Lang Freer.
Photo Credit: Portrait
of Samuel Pierpont Langley Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit
95, Box 15, Folder 8, 2002-12174.jpg
CHARLES DOOLITTLE WALCOTT (1850-1927): The fourth Secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott, was a paleontologist who directed the U.S. Geological Survey from 1894 to 1907. He was named Secretary in 1907 and served until 1927. During his tenure, the "new" National Museum building was built, now the Natural History Building. New collections included the Star Spangled Banner and the First Ladies Gowns. Walcott guided the Institution through World War I, closing the new museum building to the public, to allow its use by war workers.
Beauty in Service to Science
Photo Credit: Portrait
of Charles Doolittle Walcott, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record
Unit 95 Box 23 Folder 23, 2002-10626.jpg
GREELEY ABBOT: (1872-1973): The fifth Secretary, Charles Greeley
Abbot served from 1928 to 1944, and was the first Secretary to retire from
office. He was an astrophysicist who studied solar radiation and established
the Radiation Biology Laboratory to study the effects of sunlight on plants.
Abbot presided over the difficult years of the Great Depression and World
War II. An expansion of the Natural History Building was approved but not
funded until the 1960s. The Institution made excellent use, however, of
the Depression-era programs. W.P.A. workers built new buildings at the
Zoo, and Federal Arts Program artists decorated their walls. Abbot telegraphed
Charles Lindberg, when he arrived in Paris, requesting his Spirit of
St. Louis. He also played a significant role in persuading Orville
Wright to eventually donate the
Kitty Hawk aircraft to the Smiithsonian.
Photo Credit: Portrait
of Charles Greeley Abbot, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit
95, Box 1, Folder 2, MAH-42563.jpg
ALEXANDER WETMORE (1886-1978): Secretary Alexander Wetmore was the sixth Secretary from 1944 to 1952. He was an ornithologist with the Bureau of Biological Survey, now the Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1924, Wetmore was appointed director of the Zoo, but was soon named Assistant Secretary in charge of the Smithsonian’s museums. During his years as Secretary, an Exhibits Modernization Program was undertaken. Every year, one or two new exhibit halls opened, creating a great deal of press and interest in the Smithsonian. Plans were developed for the new Museum of American History, although congressional funding was not received until later. In 1946, the National Air and Space Museum was established, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama was placed under the Smithsonian, a particular interest of Wetmore’s.
Photo Credit: Portrait
of Alexander Wetmore, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95,
Box 24, Folder 33, 82-3138.jpg
LEONARD CARMICHAEL (1898-1973): Under the seventh Secretary, Leonard Carmichael, who served from 1953 to 1964, the Institution began its major period of expansion. Carmichael was a research psychologist and president of Tufts University. He secured funding for the new American History Building. The National Portrait Gallery was created, and the Patent Office Building was acquired for the American Art and Portrait Galleries. New wings were added to the Natural History Building, and the Hope Diamond was donated by Harry Winston. The Friends of the National Zoo was created and a MasterPlan for zoo improvement was formulated. Most importantly, Carmichael focused on increasing the staff and improving the quality of the research staff. He personally interviewed every researcher, an experience they describe as equivalent to their Ph.D. exams. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was revitalized and achieved great status when it was the only research facility in the U.S. capable of tracking the Soviet satellite Sputnik when it was launched in 1957.
Photo Credit: Portrait
of Leonard Carmichael, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95,
Box 5, Folder 9,MAH-43352.jpg
S. DILLON RIPLEY (1913-2001): The eighth Secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, served from 1964 to 1984, and oversaw tremendous growth. An ornithologist, Ripley taught at Yale University and directed the Peabody Museum prior to coming to the Smithsonian. Ripley era museums include the Anacostia Museum; Cooper-Hewitt, the National Design Museum; Enid A. Haupt Garden; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; National Air and Space Museum; National Museum of African Art; Renwick Gallery; and Sackler Gallery. New research programs included the Center for Folklife and Cultural Programs; Conservation and Research Center of the National Zoo; Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education; and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Other new programs included a Fellowships Program, a program to work with K-12 schools, the Museum Support Center, The Smithsonian Associates, and Smithsonian magazine. Ripley substantially increased both federal funding and the trust endowment, especially with revenues from the Smithsonian magazine and private donors.
Photo Credit: S.
Dillon Ripley, 1987, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 371,
Box 4, 78-2757-13A.jpg
ROBERT MCCORMICK ADAMS (1926- ): Robert McCormick Adams, the ninth Secretary, from 1984-1994, was an archeologist and director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. During his years, the Smithsonian acquired the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Postal Museum was established to showcase the National Philatelic Collection. Adams emphasized a broader representation and involvement of diverse ethnic and cultural communities in the Smithsonian and its programs.
Photo Credit: Robert
McCormick Adams, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 98-015, Box
2, Folder October 1993, 84-14656.jpg
I. MICHAEL HEYMAN (1930- ): I. Michael Heyman, a law professor and Chancellor at the University California at Berkeley, served on the Smithsonian Board of Regents from 1990 to 1994. He served as tenth Secretary of the Institution from 1994 to 1999. Among the highlights of Heyman’s tenure was the 150th anniversary of the Smithsonian in 1996, celebrated with a birthday party on the National Mall on August 10, 1996. Heyman launched a capital campaign and the Institution’s first website in 1995. The Udvar-Hazy donation was secured for a new facility for the NASM, and federal and trust funds were partially raised for the National Museum of the American Indian.
Photo Credit: I.
Michael Heyman, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 98-015, Box
2, Folder July 1994
M. SMALL (1941- ): Businessman Lawrence M. Small, had previously worked at Citicorp and Fannie Mae. He became the eleventh Secretary in January of 2000 and served until 2007. During Small’s
tenure the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum opened
near Dulles Airport, and the National Museum of the American Indian opened
on the National Mall.
Photo Credit: Lawrence
M. Small, Office of Public Affairs