On this day, 72 years ago, ornithologist Alexander Wetmore became Smithsonian Secretary, the foremost leader of the Institution’s museums, research centers, and National Zoo. For Wetmore, that capped off a long career affiliated with the Smithsonian.
After college graduation, Alexander Wetmore took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Biological Survey. While working as an assistant biologist with the USDA, he frequently worked with the collections at the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History). In 1924—at not yet 40 years old—Wetmore was appointed the superintendent of the National Zoological Park. A year later, he became Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian, a position he would hold for another twenty years.
Wetmore’s work as an ornithologist did not stop when he took on more administrative roles at the Smithsonian. He conducted field research for the entirety of his life (nearly—he published his first ornithology article at thirteen years old!).
He was not the only secretary with extensive experience in scientific research, however. Other Smithsonian Secretaries studied ornithology, too, like S. Dillon Ripley and Spencer Baird (who was also an ichthyologist). The Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, studied physics and electromagnetism. Samuel Pierpont Langley is well known for studying astrophysics and flight (Charles Greenley Abbott also studied astrophysics and solar radiation). The Smithsonian has had paleontologists (Charles Doolittle Walcott), archaeologists (Robert McCormick Adams) and even one expert in engineering and earthquake studies (G. Wayne Clough, who put his skills to use while in office!). The Smithsonian’s current Secretary, David Skorton, is a cardiologist—the first physician to hold the positon.
The decades-worth of research that Wetmore contributed to the Smithsonian and the field of ornithology, is part of the Archives’ collection—and a portion of it has been transcribed thanks to the hard work of the volunteers at the Smithsonian Transcription Center! Fifty projects have been completed so far—from field notes to photo albums documenting Wetmore’s research around the globe.
We are happy to announce that more of Wetmore’s research material has been digitized and is ready for another wonderful #WinterofWetmore! Head over to the Transcription Center and help make Wetmore’s extensive research available for a new generation of field scientists!
Alexander Wetmore: Observing the Making of a Scientist, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
A Wonderful Wetmore Adventure, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Secretaries of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives