Dr. Donald Fleming Squires (1927-2017)

Dr. Squires, a pioneer in the application of computer technology in museums, died on his 90th birthday, December 19, 2017 in Tasmania, Australia.

Nicholas J. Suszynski, Jr., Reginald A. Creighton, and Dr. Donald F. Squires

Dr. Squires was a pioneer in the application of computer technology in science museums and the founding father of data processing at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). He died on his 90th birthday, December 19, 2017 in Tasmania, Australia, after a short illness.  Squires received an B.A. from Cornell University (1950), an M.S. from the University of Kansas (1952), his Ph.D. from Cornell University (1955), and was on the staff of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City.  He joined NMNH in 1962, where he held several positions beginning with Curator; he was the first Chairman of newly created Department of Invertebrate Zoology; and then Deputy Director under Dr. Richard S. Cowan.  Director Cowan was an enthusiastic supporter of data processing, and Squires was the leader of the NMNH Automatic Data Processing Committee (1963-1967).  He was the author (or co-author) of more than seventy publications (a bibliography of his papers on museum management and data processing can be found here).

He was the Principal Investigator of a Smithsonian project for the development of “An Information Storage and Retrieval System for Biological and Geological Data”, informally known as the “HEW Project”, which was partially supported by the U.S. Office of Education, from July 1967 through August 1970.  This project created the first digital records for Smithsonian museum specimens and objects, and are still available online today.  Dr. Squires, the Smithsonian and the National University of Mexico also organized a “Symposium sobre Problemas de Informacion en Ciencias Naturales” held December 18-20, 1967 in Mexico City.  This was one of the earliest international meetings devoted to this topic.

Donald Squires, 13 March 2015, Oyster Cove Restaurant, Bluff, Southland, NZ. Photo by M. Steinberg.

This initial project successfully demonstrated the practicality of modern digital computers in museum collections management, including data entry, indexing, and information storage and retrieval.  Demonstrations of the system were conducted for Smithsonian staff, as well as museum directors and curatorial staff of many other natural history collections.  This software was largely discarded at the completion of the project.  However, the knowledge and experience gain by the project staff greatly benefited the Smithsonian.  Some important outcomes of the project included the creation of the Automatic Data Processing Program at NMNH in January 1970 with Dr. James F. Mello as its leader.  This was the first Smithsonian museum to have an organized data processing office, which was soon followed by other Smithsonian museums.  The technical experience gained, both by the computer programming staff and the museum staff, during the HEW Project lead directly to the development of SELGEM (SELf GEnerating Master) software, which was used for more than 30 years at the Smithsonian.  Because the SELGEM software was developed with public funds, it was given freely to more than a hundred other museums and universities.  It was widely used by these museums for a decade and was the genesis for many data processing projects within these institutions.

Squires left the Smithsonian in 1970 to assume full time duties as Director, Marine Sciences Research Center, The University at Stony Brook, New York.  But his impact can still be seen today on the Smithsonian-wide collections website with over 13 million collection records.

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