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

The 1846 legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution provided for a Secretary, appointed by the Board of Regentswho 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. In our last blog, we discussed the first six and now we’ll look at seven through twelve.

Hope Diamond Presentation Heading the Smithsonian from 1953 to 1964, Leonard Carmichael, was the first Secretary brought in from outside the Institution – he was president of Tufts University. An expert in primate psychology, he expanded the Smithsonian’s research centers, including the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He also oversaw a complete overhaul of the Smithsonian’s exhibits, using innovative techniques and introducing evaluation procedures. 

The eighth Secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, 1964 to 1984, oversaw tremendous growth.  An enthusiastic and expansive figure, he regularly reminded Smithsonian staff they should be having fun at work every day. Ripley did. The change was rapid and sometimes dizzing, as employees gasped at a carousel on the Mall, and new programs in the arts, culture and history.  Six new museum were established, as well as six research centers.

Ripley also created educational and outreach programs, Smithsonian magazine, and several television series.  He expanded the Smithsonian’s role in conservation and dabbled in inventions – developing decals to put on windows to prevent bird strikes. Ripley encouraged diversity at the Institution, too, hiring the first female museum director and the first African American Assistant Secretary and museum director. Ripley was a towering force to be reckoned with who left a greatly expanded Institution, in terms of budgets, endowment, staff, research, museums, collections, public programs, and visitorship.

S. Dillon Ripley Views Quadrangle, 1987

Robert McCormick Adams, ninth Secretary, from 1984-1994, was an archeologist and provost at the University of Chicago.  A quiet, low-key man, he is devoted to scholarship, pioneering the use of satellite photography to locate dig sites in the Middle East.  The National Museum of the American Indian became part of the Smithsonian under his guidance.  Adams also put the Smithsonian on the road to digitization. He was the first Secretary to use a desktop computer, and set us on course to participate in a new phenomenon called the Internet.

Law professor I. Michael Heyman became the tenth Secretary in 1994, after serving on the Board of Regents. Heyman celebrated the past while pushing the Institution to look forward. He oversaw an amazing 150th anniversary of the Institution in 1996. But he also encouraged implementation of the Report of the Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian, which he had helped write.

Heyman continued Adams’ push into the digital future, launching the first Smithsonian website in Newt Gingrich’s office in 1995. While that first home page looks pretty basic today, it placed the Institution at the center of the modern increase and diffusion of knowledge.

Lawrence M. Small became the 11th Secretary at the turn of the century. A banker, he was the first non-academic to lead the Institution. He presided over the opening of the American Indian Museum and the signing of legislation for our new National Museum of African American History and Culture.  With a very different perspective from the world of business, he had an uncanny ability to bring the Institution’s diverse staff together in opposition to his ideas. But he also brought staff together for an annual Staff Picnic on the Mall, with employees sharing their talents in sports, music and research.

Clough in Antarctica The Institution returned to its academic roots when Wayne Clough became the twelfth Secretary in 2008. Clough visited the Institution’s far-flung facilities, nurturing a sense of connectedness that was celebrated in the staff photo at the 2010 Staff Picnic. Known for pioneering analytical techniques for civil engineering, his earthquake expertise proved handy when Washington experienced a quake in 2011. As the staff filed out and nervously watched the Washington Monument and Castle, the SI had an expert who played a major role in the capital’s recovery. Clough further encouraged digitization, even allowing a 3-D version of himself to be made, fondly known as Lil’ Wayne. And he brought Smithsonian research and researchers together in serious collaborations through the Four Grand Challenges.

The new Secretary, David Skorton, in some ways is very similar to earlier Secretaries. He is over 6’ tall, like all the Secretaries except Joseph Henry. Henry, Walcott, Ripley, Heyman, and Small were all born in New York. While Skorton was born in Wisconsin, he was president of Cornell in New York prior to coming to the Smithsonian.  And he was a college administrator, as Carmichael, Ripley, Adams, Heyman and Clough were.  But as a physician, medical researcher, and musician he brings a unique perspective and will leave his unique impress on the Institution.

Dr. David Skorton, Thirteenth Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Related Resources

The Smithsonian Secretaries: That Tall Man from New York, Part I, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Secretary David Skorton, Smithsonian Institution Archives 


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