Wetmore, Alexander, 1886-1978

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Biographical History

(Frank) Alexander Wetmore (1886-1978), ornithologist, avian paleontologist, and science administrator, was the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, serving from 1945 to 1952. He was born on June 18, 1886, in North Freedom, Wisconsin, the son of Nelson Franklin and Emma Amelia (Woodworth) Wetmore. He developed an early interest in birds and at the age of eight made his first field journal entry--an observation on the pelican recorded on a family vacation to Florida in 1894. His first published paper, "My Experience with a Red-headed Woodpecker," appeared in Bird-Lore in 1900. By the time he entered the University of Kansas in 1905, Wetmore had made extensive natural history collections around his Wisconsin home and in Independence, Kansas. Shortly after his arrival in Lawrence, Kansas, Wetmore received his first museum job as Assistant at the University Museum under Charles D. Bunker. His undergraduate career was interrupted on several occasions as he took jobs in Arizona, California, and Colorado to finance his education. He also used these opportunities to study and collect the native avifauna. Wetmore received the Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Kansas in 1912. Wetmore continued his education in Washington, D.C., receiving the Master of Science degree in 1916 and the Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1920--both from George Washington University. He would later receive honorary doctorates from the University of Wisconsin, George Washington University, Centre College, and Ripon College. Wetmore's career in the federal government began in 1910 when he was appointed an Agent for the Biological Survey, a bureau of the United States Department of Agriculture. During the summers of 1910-1911 he assisted on field investigations in Wyoming and Alaska. He traveled to Puerto Rico in late 1911 and spent nearly a year surveying the bird life of that and adjacent islands. In 1913, Wetmore was promoted to Assistant Biologist with the Biological Survey, and he moved to Washington to begin work in the program on the food habits of North American birds. His career with the Biological Survey was highlighted by constant field investigations which took him to most of the United States, as well as Canada, Mexico, and South America. Among his more important investigations were a study of the causes of waterfowl mortality around the Great Salt Lake, Utah, 1914-1916; a survey of North American birds that migrated to the southern part of South America, 1920-1921; and the leadership of the Tanager Exploring Expedition to the islands of the mid-Pacific, 1923. Wetmore was promoted to the rank of Biologist with the Survey in 1924. As his professional status grew, Wetmore received offers of curatorial and research positions from several of the leading museums in America. Perhaps the most interesting came in 1920 when the American Museum of Natural History asked him to join the Roy Chapman Andrews Asiatic Expedition and take charge of the zoological collections. Wetmore declined this and several other offers. Finally, in November 1924, he accepted appointment as Superintendent of the National Zoological Park (NZP). He remained at the NZP until March 1925 when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian in charge of the United States National Museum (USNM). Wetmore held this position for nearly twenty years, when, in 1945, he was elected the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian. He retired in 1952 and became a Research Associate of the Institution where he continued his research on recent and fossil birds. Wetmore's administration of the USNM and Smithsonian during the era of the Great Depression and World War II faced many constraints. However, he managed to continue the Institution's basic research aims, while instituting improvements in its administrative operations and exhibits program. Among his most important accomplishments was a move toward professional management of the Institution by hiring specialists such as John E. Graf and John L. Keddy to assist with federal budgetary procedures and other administrative matters. He also steered the Smithsonian toward a period of exhibit modernization which was realized after his retirement. Two new bureaus were added to the Smithsonian during Wetmore's tenure as Secretary--the National Air Museum (now the National Air and Space Museum) and the Canal Zone Biological Area (now the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). Despite his administrative responsibilities at the Smithsonian, Wetmore continued an active research program in the field and the laboratory. He conducted several collecting expeditions to the American tropics between 1927 and 1940. When the outbreak of World War II restricted travel outside the country, he undertook a study of the birds of Shenandoah National Park in nearby Virginia. In the mid-1940s, Wetmore began a research program that would occupy his energies for the remainder of his life. Between 1946 and 1966 he took annual trips to Panama--making an exhaustive survey of the birds of the isthmus. This work culminated in the publication of his magnum opus, The Birds of the Republic of Panama. Three volumes of the work appeared during his life. The final volume was completed by his Smithsonian colleagues and published posthumously. Wetmore was widely recognized as the dean of American ornithologists, and he worked extensively in the field of avian paleontology and as a systematic specialist. His bibliography contained over seven hundred entries; including 150 papers and monographs on fossil birds. He described 189 species and subspecies of birds new to science. Wetmore made enormous natural history collections, which were eventually donated to the Smithsonian. Included were 26,058 bird and mammal skins from North America, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean area; 4,363 skeletal and anatomical specimens; and 201 clutches of birds eggs. Fifty-six new genera, species, and subspecies of birds (both recent and fossil), mammals, amphibians, insects, mollusks, and plants were named in his honor--an assemblage which Wetmore called his "private zoo." Also named in his honor was the "Wetmore Glacier" in the Antarctic and the "Alexander Wetmore Bridge," a canopy bridge in the Bayano River Basin in Panama. Wetmore was a member of countless professional organizations, scientific committees, conservation groups, and social clubs. He served many of the groups in elected or appointed capacities. He was a member of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) for seventy years and served as President from 1926 to 1929. For many years he was Chairman of the AOU Committee on Classification and Nomenclature and was instrumental in the publication of the fifth edition of the Check-list of North American Birds. Wetmore also had a long-term association with the National Geographic Society, serving as a Trustee, 1933-1976, and as Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Research and Exploration. He also authored several popular publications on birds for the Society. Wetmore served as President of the Washington Academy of Sciences, 1927; the Washington Biologists' Field Club, 1928-1931; the Biological Society of Washington, 1929-1931; the Cosmos Club, 1938; the Explorers Club, 1944-1946; and the X International Ornithological Congress held at Uppsala, Sweden, 1950. He was Home Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, 1951-1955, and a Trustee (or Director) of the Textile Museum of Washington, 1928-1952; the George Washington University, 1945-1962; and the Gorgas Memorial Institute for Tropical and Preventive Medicine, 1949-1976. During his career at the Smithsonian, Wetmore was named to several national and international scientific committees. He was Secretary-General of the Eighth American Scientific Congress, 1940; United States Representative to the Inter-American Commission of Experts on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation, 1940; Vice-Chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, 1945-1952; and Chairman of the Interdepartmental Committee on Research and Development, 1946. His contributions to science resulted in many honors and awards. He was the recipient of the Otto Herman Medal of the Hungarian Ornithological Society, 1931; the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society, 1957; the Brewster Medal, 1959, and the Elliott Coues Award, 1972, of the American Ornithologists' Union; the Explorers Club Medal, 1962; the Bartsch Award of the Audubon Naturalist Society, 1964; and the Arthur Allen Award of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 1970. Wetmore married Fay Holloway in 1912, and a daughter, Margaret Fenwick, was born in 1916. After a long illness, his wife died in 1953. That same year he married Annie Beatrice Thielen. Wetmore died at his home in Glen Echo, Maryland, on December 7, 1978.


Oesher, Paul H. (1980). "In Memoriam: Alexander Wetmore." The Auk. 97 (3) 608-615. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4085853

Related entities

  • United States Dept. of Agriculture: He worked as an Agent for the Biological Survey, a bureau of the United States Department of Agriculture.
  • Smithsonian Institution: He was the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, serving from 1945 to 1952.

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Death Date



  • Animals
  • Paleontologists
  • Birds


Personal name


  • Ornithologists
  • Paleontologists