Finding Aids to Official Records of the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 156
United States National Museum. Division of Vertebrate Paleontology
Records, circa 1889-1957
The Division of Vertebrate Paleontology maintains fossil collections, the earliest of which were gathered during the United States Exploring Expedition in the 1830's and forwarded to the National Institute. From 1846 to 1858, these collections were transferred to the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, most of the specimens have subsequently been discarded presumably because they lacked data pertaining to origin and locality.
Joseph Leidy of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia was commissioned in 1850 by the Smithsonian as a collaborator to study the fossil collections housed in the Institution and those to be collected in the field. Leidy's studies continued into the late 1860's and were published in part in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. Leidy's study of fossils included those gathered during the General Land Office surveys (1849-1858), Pacific Railroad Survey (1854-1855), and by the United States Geological Survey under the direction of F.V. Hayden (1856-1872).
In 1867, Edward Drinker Cope began his collaboration with the Smithsonian, and his studies on fossils collected at the Smithsonian were published both in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge and the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections.
From the organizational beginning of the United States National Museum until 1887, the custody of vertebrate fossils was placed under the Department of Comparative Anatomy. Osteologists from the Department carried out the preparation and exhibition of the collection.
Vertebrate fossils emerged as an administrative organization in 1881, when Othniel Charles Marsh, in charge of vertebrate paleontology at the United States Geological Survey, was appointed honorary curator of the Department of Vertebrate Fossils. The Department came under the supervision of the Division of Zoology. Since then, the Department of Vertebrate Fossils has undergone numerous transformations both in name and administration.
The Department became a section under the Department of Paleontology in 1894 and when the USNM was reorganized in 1897, Vertebrate Fossils remained a section under the newly created Division of Stratigraphic Paleontology.
When Marsh died in 1898, Frederic Augustus Lucas, an osteologist, was made acting assistant curator of the Section. Lucas had been an assistant curator of the Section intermittently since 1891, and had been made curator of Comparative Anatomy in 1894. Lucas became acting curator of Fossils in 1903 only to resign from the USNM in 1904. Fossils disappeared as an administrative unit from 1905 to 1908. However, it remained a viable and functioning unit without a name as Charles W. Gilmore (1904) and James W. Gidley (1905) were appointed preparators to the section. George P. Merrill, head curator of the Department of Geology, administered the collection.
When the Division of Stratigraphic Paleontology was reorganized in 1908, with each of its sections becoming a division, Fossils reemerged as the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology. Gidley became custodian of the mammalian collection and Gilmore custodian of the reptilian collection.
In June 1911, Vertebrate Paleontology became a section under the Division of Paleontology; during the following month, Gidley and Gilmore became assistant curators of fossil mammals and fossil reptiles, respectively. Gilmore became associate curator of the Section in 1917-1918, and in May 1923 became curator of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Vertebrate Paleontology again became a Division in June of 1924, when the Division of Paleontology was renamed the Division of Stratigraphic Paleontology.
James W. Gidley died on September 26, 1931. The vacancy was filled when Charles L. Gazin was appointed assistant curator to the Division on March 1, 1932. Gazin became associate curator on March 1, 1942, and subsequently became curator of the Division on January 1, 1946, upon the death of Gilmore, September 27, 1945.
Other staff members appointed to the Division include David H. Dunkle, who was appointed associate curator in 1946-1947. Dunkle retired in March of 1968. Peter P. Vaughn, appointed associate curator in July, 1957, resigned in January of 1959. Nicholas Hotton III was appointed associate curator in June of 1959 and became curator of the Division in 1968-1969. Clayton E. Ray was appointed associate curator in 1963, and when Gazin became senior paleontologist in 1968 in order to devote full time to scientific studies, Ray became curator and supervisor of the Division.
On October 15, 1963, the Department of Geology was disbanded with its administrative function divided into two departments, Mineral Science and Paleobiology. The Division of Vertebrate Paleontology came under the supervision of the latter.
Most of the papers within these records pertain to the professional and administrative activities of Charles W. Gilmore while he was a staff member of the Division (1905-1945). Gilmore, who was selected in 1932 by J. McKeen Cattell, editor of Science, as one of the twenty-five leading geologists in the United States, was born in Pavilion, New York, in 1874. He began his interest in fossils and museum work at an early age, after visiting Ward's Natural Science Establishment. Gilmore attended the University of Wyoming where he studied and collected fossil specimens, and from 1901-1904, he was a collector in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. From 1904 until his death in 1945, Gilmore was a staff member of the United States National Museum. He participated in sixteen expeditions and because of his work, the results of the most important excavations and studies at the Dinosaur National Monument have been analyzed and recorded. Among the numerous scientific societies to which he belonged, Gilmore was president and member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the Paleontology Society of Washington and the Geological Society of America.
These records document the history of the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology, 1889-1957, and to a greater extent, document the professional and administrative activities of Charles W. Gilmore when he was a staff member with the Division (1905-1945). Materials include daybooks and journals kept by Gilmore, containing the daily work activities of himself and other staff members in the Division, 1905-1931; incoming and outgoing correspondence most of which, from 1905-1945, was written or received by Gilmore; examination and reports of specimens and outgoing correspondence; and article drafts, notes, speeches, and radio talks, mostly written by Gilmore.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Gilmore, Charles W. (Charles Whitney), 1874-1945
- Leidy, Joseph, 1823-1891
- Cope, E. D. (Edward Drinker), 1840-1897
- Marsh, Othniel Charles, 1831-1899
- Lucas, Frederic A. (Frederic Augustus), 1852-1929
- Gidley, James Williams, 1866-1931
- Gazin, C. Lewis (Charles Lewis), 1904-1996
- Dunkle, David Hosbrook
- Vaughn, Peter Paul, 1928-
- United States National Museum
- United States National Museum. Division of Comparative Anatomy
- United States National Museum. Department of Paleontology
- United States National Museum. Division of Stratigraphic Paleontology
- United States National Museum. Department of Geology
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 156, United States National Museum. Division of Vertebrate Paleontology, Records