Richard Rathbun Launched Wright Brothers' Research

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


  • The Rathbun-Rathbone-Rathburn Family Historian's article focuses on the life and work of Richard Rathbun, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Director of the United States National Museum. In 1899, as Acting Secretary, Rathbun received a letter from Wilbur Wright requesting papers published by the Smithsonian and information on other works in print on the subject of flight. Rathbun responded by sending Wright four Smithsonian pamphlets and a bibliography of other books and articles which Wilbur and his brother, Orville, used in their research to achieve man's first powered flight in 1903. Born in Buffalo, New York in 1852, Rathbun began work in his family's quarry at age 15. Intrigued by fossils often uncovered by workmen, he began collecting samples and soon realized he wanted a career in science, not business.
  • Rathbun became a curator at the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, enrolled at Cornell University in 1871 for courses in geology and paleontology, and became an assistant in zoology at the Boston Society of Natural History in 1873. His relationship with the United States Fish Commission began when he was a volunteer scientific assistant during the summers of 1874 and 1875; after working in Brazil for over two years as official geologist of a commission exploring potential natural resources, Rathbun returned to the U. S. in 1878 and was named the Fish Commission's scientific assistant. While at the Commission's facility at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, he hired his sister, Mary Jane Rathbun, as a volunteer and thus helped launch her scientific career in crab research.
  • In 1880, Richard Rathbun was transferred to Washington, D.C., as curator of the Department of Marine Invertebrates in the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum, and he also became chief executive officer of the Fish Commission soon afterwards. In 1892, Rathbun began work to study fishery problems on boundary waters between the U. S. and Canada that led to the creation of a permanent international commission in 1909. He was named Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1896 and also became Director of the United States National Museum in 1898. During his tenure Rathbun helped build up the collections of the National Museum, opened the Children's Room in 1901, and oversaw plans and building for the National Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1911.
  • After the art collections of Harriet Lane Johnston (1903), Charles L. Freer (1904), and William T. Evans (1907) were acquired by the Smithsonian, Rathbun developed the idea for a gallery to house a national collection of American art. What is presently known as the National Collection of Fine Arts found a permanent home in 1968 in the American Art and Portrait Gallery Building. Rathbun died in 1918 of heart disease caused by a bout of yellow fever while in Brazil in the 1870s. The unnamed author touches on a few personal aspects of Rathbun's life, including a remembrance by Dr. Marcus Benjamin, various professional organizations of which he was a member, and honorary degrees and other awards given during his lifetime.


  • Evans, William T. 1843-1918
  • Wright, Orville 1871-1948
  • Wright, Wilbur 1867-1912
  • Benjamin, Marcus 1857-1932
  • Rathbun, Mary Jane 1860-1943
  • Rathbun, Richard 1852-1918
  • Freer, Charles Lang 1854-1919
  • Johnston, Harriet Lane 1830-1903
  • Smithsonian Institution Building Children's Room
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.)
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library
  • United States Fish Commission
  • United States National Museum
  • United States National Museum Division of Marine Invertebrates
  • National Collection of Fine Arts
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Copy located in "Publications Using SI Archives Collections, A-Z." Smithsonian Institution Archives, File Room. Includes photographs.

Contained within

The Rathbun-Rathbone-Rathburn Family Historian Vol. 4 (Journal)

Contact information

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


July 1984


  • Scientific expeditions
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Personnel management
  • Employees
  • Museums
  • Biography
  • Smithsonian Institution--Employees
  • Museum exhibits


South America

Physical description

Number of pages: 3; Page numbers: 36-37 & 42

Full Record

View Full Record