Biology and the Smithsonian Institution

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  • This work is essentially an overview of the Smithsonian's "contributions to biology." Beginning with the early history of the Institution and later, the United States National Museum (USNM), it provides a summary of the work of the first two Secretaries. Joseph Henry is lauded for his view of the natural sciences and the steps that he took to ensure this field flourished at the Smithsonian. Henry was committed to supporting original research, publishing research findings and reports, international exchange of scientific publications, and public lectures. The article continues with a summary of the events that led to the birth of the USNM, including the transfer of collections from the Patent Office and the Smithsonian's involvement with expeditions and surveys such as the Mexican Boundary Survey of 1857-1859 and the Pacific Railroad Survey of 1853-1854.
  • Also mentioned are publications that were instituted and sponsored by the Smithsonian, including the Bibliographical Index to North American Botany. The article continues with an examination of the work of the second Secretary, Spencer F. Baird and his assistant George Brown Goode, lauding both for their contributions to the astounding growth of the Museum. The author also discusses the Smithsonian's work in environmental conservation, including the establishment of the U.S. Fish Commission and associations with scholars in the field of conservation. The Institution is lauded for its early support of exploratory biology, especially in the New World tropics, and the research of several scholars is mentioned.
  • This article also discusses the Smithsonian's contributions to oceanography, including the work of Baird and Goode as well as contemporary agencies like the Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center and the Smithsonian Office of Oceanography and Limnology. A history of the Bureau of American Ethnology and Department of Anthropology is provided, along with a history of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Division of Radiation and Organisms, now the Smithsonian Radiation Biology Laboratory. Mentioned in the section on anthropology is the work of Alěs Hrdlička and T. Dale Stewart. There is also a section on environmental biology, which gives the history of the Canal Zone Biological Area and comments on its future prospects. Finally, there is a brief summary of the National Zoo and a more detailed appraisal of the Smithsonian Office of Ecology.


  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Goode, G. Brown (George Brown) 1851-1896
  • Hrdlička, Aleš
  • Stewart, T. D (Thomas Dale) 1901-
  • Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI)
  • Barro Colorado Island Biological Laboratory
  • National Zoological Park (U.S.)
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.) Dept. of Anthropology
  • Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology
  • Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
  • Division of Radiation and Organisms
  • Smithsonian Radiation Biology Laboratory
  • United States Fish Commission
  • United States National Museum
  • International Exchange Service (IES)
  • Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center (SOSC)
  • Office of Oceanography and Limnology
  • Office of Ecology
  • United States and Mexican Boundary Survey
  • United States Patent Office
  • Pacific Railroad Surveys


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Extensively footnoted. Contains photos of Joseph Henry, Spencer F. Baird, Thomas E. Bowman, Richard S. Boardman, Allan Child, Te-Hsiu Ma, S. Dillon Ripley, and the laboratory at Barro Colorado Island. Also gives the ten leading Smithsonian contributions to biology before 1950, including articles in the USNM Bulletins.

Contained within

BioScience Vol. 17, no. 1 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Scientific expeditions
  • Lectures and lecturing
  • Secretaries
  • Accessions
  • SI, Early History
  • Museums
  • Interagency Transfers
  • Museum publications
  • Research


  • Barro Colorado Nature Monument (Panama)
  • Barro Colorado Island (Panama)

Physical description

pp. 25-35

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