The Smithsonian Secretaries: That Tall Man from New York, Part I

The 1846 legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution provided for a Secretary, appointed by the Board of Regents, who would run the day-to-day affairs of the Institution. When David Skorton became Secretary last year, he was the thirteenth person to take on that responsibility.  What can we say about these thirteen men? The most dominant characteristics are that he is a tall, inventive man from New York, who lives a long life.  But they have also been very different in their interests and approaches to management, so each has left a different legacy.

Louise Hoover's Painting of Joseph Henry The first Secretary, Joseph Henry, served 1846-1878 and shaped the Institution to be a research institute. As a physics professor, and co-inventor of the electromagnet, his work stimulated numerous inventions, including the electric motor, telegraph, and telephone.

Henry pioneered the study of weather, setting up a volunteer network of weather observers across the country and displaying a weather map in the Castle. Henry also shepherded the Smithsonian through the Civil War years as the war raged around the Castle. Henry was a Southern sympathizer, but Lincoln drew him into his team of rivals, asking Henry to evaluate proposals for new war technology. Lincoln visited the Castle towers to test signal lights and followed Henry’s recommendation to use balloons for reconnaissance. 

Henry lived in the east wing with his wife, three daughters, and son.  A very closely-knit family, occasionally they did relax in the “Smithsonian Park” with a game of croquet.  Henry was quite a serious fellow and carefully shepherded every dollar in the Smithsonian’s endowment.

Portrait of Spencer Fullerton Baird The Castle was livened up by the Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird, a naturalist  who mentored a gang of young explorers who traveled West in the summers and lived in the Castle towers in winter. Their natural history laboratory below the Henry residence emitted noxious odors.  Even worse, they formed the “Megatherium Club” named after an extinct giant sloth, and meetings included beer fests, sack races down the Castle hallways, and serenading the Henry daughters from below their windows. Henry was not amused. 

Baird soon became the second Secretary and  focused on creating a great national museum.  He had been appointed the first curator in 1850 and soon had thousands of collectors across North America.  He described himself as like the sorcerer’s apprentice who had set the mops in motion but had no idea how to stop or even slow a program that was outstripping his ability to manage it.  Baird’s network was time-consuming as he wrote 10-20 letters per day! 

His dream was fulfilled with construction of the U.S. National Museum in 1881. Its open plan was innovative, with modular cases on casters that could be moved about to create exhibit areas. Taxidermists started keeping live animals behind the Castle to serve as models for exhibits in the new museum.  The animals proved popular with visitors and Baird next planned a zoo in Rock Creek Park.

Samuel Pierpont Langley, the third Secretary 1887-1906, developed an astrophysical program. He also developed scientific instruments to measure sunlight and astronomical phenomena (such as the bolometer) and usuccessfully tried to develop the first flying machine. Unfortunately, Langley’s “aerodromes” all took a nose dive into the Potomac River.

By the tenure of the fourth Secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott, the Smithsonian was set on its course.  But the museum was outgrowing its building, and Walcott oversaw the opening of what is now the National Museum of Natural History, though it soon closed to provide space for World War I government workers.

A paleontologist, Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale which contains a group of bizarre invertebrates that went extinct – an evolutionary dead end. He also experimented with panoramic photography of the Canadian Rockies which he used to study the strata to plan his field work.

Dr. Charles G. Abbot with Book, by Unknown, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 42563 or MAH-42563. This fifth Secretary, Charles Greeley Abbot, served from 1928 to 1944, spanning the Great Depression and World War II.  An astrophysicist and inventor, he patented a number of devices to use solar power, but his attempts to use sun measurements to predict the weather were not well-received.  Abbot was a genial and outgoing personality who enjoyed singing sea chanties at all-staff meetings, and loved a good game of tennis on the courts behind the Castle. 

Budgets were extremely difficult during the Great Depression, so Abbot used W.P.A. programs, and would try anything to increase the appropriation. At the annual Regents’ dinner, National Zoo director Bill Mann brought a well-trained mynah bird with him.  When General Herbert M. Lord, the dour and ever-thrifty head of the Bureau of the Budget, approached, the mynah bird piped up, “Hey General, how about the appropriation?” When Lord replied that the bird was impertinent, the mynah shot back, “So’s your old lady!” bringing down the house.

Perhaps Abbot’s greatest innovation was that he retired in 1945, when he was 73, the first Secretary to not die in office. It was a good move, given that he lived almost thirty more years, to the age of 102! 

His Assistant Secretary, Alexander Wetmore, was named the sixth Secretary and was able to take advantage of post-war prosperity. He overhauled Smithsonian management, bringing in a younger generation trained in modern management, and helped influence growth to the Institution’s federal budget.

A small tropical biology station in Panama was transferred to the Smithsonian, now the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Wetmore studied migratory birds so he saw a natural continuity of biological research from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America. He established working relationships with scientists and research organizations throughout the Americas. When the Smithsonian reached its 100th anniversary in 1946, Wetmore reflected with great satisfaction on its accomplishments as the National Museum and a research center in art, culture, history, natural history and the physical sciences. The Smithsonian had a solid foundation for the next six Secretaries to build on. (Part II went live 4/28/16)

Alexander Wetmore in Panama, 1947.

Related Resources

Joseph Henry, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Collegial, Yet Cautious: the Wright Brothers and Samuel P. Langley, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
A Family Affair, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives  

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.