"Strictly for the Birds": Science, the Military and the Smithsonian's Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, 1963-1970

Usage Conditions Apply
The Smithsonian Institution Archives welcomes personal and educational use of its collections unless otherwise noted. For commercial uses, please contact photos@si.edu.


  • The author provides a detailed review of what he regards as the most damaging episode in the Smithsonian's 150-year-old history. It began in 1962 when representatives from the United States Army and Navy asked the Smithsonian to conduct a survey of bird migration patterns over a vast area of the Central Pacific. The Smithsonian had a long history of service to government agencies and the Smithsonian Secretary at that time, Leonard Carmichael, favored appropriate application of science to national defense. An annual contract was proposed in October 1962 for the Smithsonian to begin the Pacific Ocean biological Survey Program (POBSP), with Dr. Philip S. Humphrey, Curator of Birds and Chairman of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the National Museum of Natural History, as the Smithsonian principal; the agreement was renewed annually from 1963 through 1968.
  • The program had obvious military importance in forming a comprehensive environmental picture of the area, as well as studying the practical problems brought on by significant numbers of birds near military bases in the study area. The survey was scientifically appealing and seemed well-suited to the Smithsonian's tradition, but in actuality was burdened by secrecy imposed by the military and later suggestions concerning involvement in chemical and biological weapon research. Investigative television reporting exposed the project to the public in early 1969. The resulting uproar prompted the Smithsonian's Secretary at that time, S. Dillon Ripley, to deal with the adverse publicity. Statements were issued to stress that the survey was a basic research program consistent with the Smithsonian's traditional scientific pursuits, and that it did not do research on disease but merely collected samples and specimens for the Army.
  • The article offers various speculative assumptions regarding testing and development of chemical and biological weapons, and what links may have existed between the Central Intelligence Agency, the Army Chemical Corps at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, and the POBSP during the Cold War. The author concludes by lauding the Program's great ornithological achievements, but offers that questions remaining from this example of military sponsorship of civilian research projects will not be answered until more information is known.


  • Humphrey, Philip S
  • Ripley, Sidney Dillon 1913-2001
  • Carmichael, Leonard 1898-1973
  • United States. Army
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.)
  • Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


The article is extensively footnoted and followed by a long list of references.

Contained within

Journal of the History of Biology Vol. 34 (Journal)

Contact information

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




  • Chemical weapons
  • Biological weapons
  • Animals
  • Controversies
  • Secretaries
  • Cold War, 1945-1989
  • Birds
  • Ecology
  • Federal Government, Relations with SI
  • Cold War
  • Ornithology


Pacific Ocean

Physical description

pgs. 315-352

Full Record

View Full Record