Paleontology in Washington, DC: A Brief History of Institutional Change Or the Waxing and Waning of Two Disparate Organizations

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  • Article is a history of the formal and informal relationships between the United States Geological Service and the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum/National Museum of Natural History in regard to the study of fossils. The author states that these organizations were both interested in paleontology, but each had a separate mission: the USGS focused on field work and the museum analyzed and maintained material collected from the field work. Formation backgrounds and particulars regarding the development of each organization and how they interacted are offered in detail, along with information on main personnel in the USGS and the museum through their years of existence. When the Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846, part of its mandate was the establishment of a museum.
  • The study of fossils began at the Smithsonian in 1858 when first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry hired famed paleontologist Fielding Bradford Meek, who described fossils collected and maintained from various state and Federal surveys. To provide a permanent federal geology organization, the United States Geological Survey was founded in 1879 as a bureau of the Department of Interior. The Smithsonian's new National Museum building (later renamed the Arts & Industries Building) was completed in 1881 and housed USGS specialists who alternated USGS research with curation work at the museum. Future Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott was hired as a geology assistant and became USGS Director in 1894.
  • As Acting Assistant Secretary of the National Museum, Walcott had reorganized the museum into three departments; as Secretary from 1907 to 1927, he saw completion of another National Museum building (now the National Museum of Natural History) in 1910 which allowed paleontologists more office space and public exhibit areas. The author then traces the more current history of the NMNH and the USGS through financial and staffing changes. He states that by the mid-1990's the long tenure of USGS paleontologists in the Smithsonian museums had ended, but expresses hope that study in the field of paleobiology may bring new intellectual advances.


  • Walcott, Charles D (Charles Doolittle) 1850-1927
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Schuchert, Charles 1858-1942
  • Meek, Fielding Bradford
  • Arts and Industries Building
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.)
  • United States National Museum
  • United States Geological Survey (USGS)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Twenty-three photographs accompany the article

Contained within

Cultures and Institutions of Natural History: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science (Book)

Contact information

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




  • Secretaries
  • Paleoontology
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Personnel management
  • SI, Early History
  • Employees
  • Paleontology
  • United States National Museum
  • Fossils
  • Paleobiology
  • Smithsonian Institution--Employees

Physical description

pgs. 127-159

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