The fifth Smithsonian Secretary, Charles Greeley Abbot, served from 1928 to 1944, and was the first Secretary to retire from office. An astrophysicist who studied solar radiation, Abbot was born in Wilton, New Hampshire, into a family of farmers. After completing courses at Phillips Andover Academy, he continued his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating with an MS in 1895. Though Abbot lacked experience in the field of astronomy, his laboratory skills brought him to the attention of Samuel P. Langley, then the Secretary of the Smithsonian as well as Director of the Smithsonian’s Astrophysical Observatory. Thus, Abbot began his seventy-eight year Smithsonian career which was marked by such momentous events as the first airplane flight, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the first human to walk on the moon.
Astrophysicist and Solar Researcher
When Abbot arrived at the Smithsonian in 1895, he began working in the laboratory of the Astrophysical Observatory. Known for his work with delicate instruments, including bolometers (used to measure infrared, or heat, radiation), Abbot soon focused his research on solar radiation. While Langley oversaw the aeronautics research, Abbot took over the solar work. He participated in expeditions to measure the effects of solar radiation and became acquainted with the astrophysical community. Abbot’s important field work included the 1901 Sumatra trek to view a solar eclipse; a 1914 trip to Australia; and a 1925 trip to Algeria, Egypt, South Africa and other countries in collaboration with the National Geographic Society. As his career continued, he focused his research program on charting cyclic patters in solar variations and the measurement of the solar constant so that he might be able to better predict long-term weather patterns. Although this theory has been questioned by scientists, the data he amassed over the years has been very helpful in other lines of inquiry. After the death of Secretary Langley in 1907, Abbot became the Director of the Astrophysical Observatory and was then appointed Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1918. During his tenure as Director, Abbot expanded the Astrophysical Observatory’s research program to include biology by creating the Radiation Biology Laboratory in 1929 to study the effects of sunlight on plants. Its researchers were part of the new field of biophysics that emerged after World War II.
Fifth Smithsonian Secretary
On January 10, 1928, after the death of Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott, Abbot was elected Secretary of the Institution. In addition to his new position, he remained the Director of the Astrophysical Observatory. Abbot stepped into his role as Secretary trying to complete the strategic plan initiated in 1927 by his predecessor. After finalizing a plan, the Institution began a capital campaign right as the stock market crashed in 1929. As the Great Depression settled in, like most Americans, Abbot was left with the responsibility of making tough financial decisions to keep the Institution afloat. The Institution made excellent use of the Depression-era programs. Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers built new buildings at the National Zoological Park, and Federal Arts Program artists decorated their walls. Abbot attempted to improve the available space, and an expansion of the Natural History Building was approved in the 1930s; however the project was not funded until the 1960s. WPA funds also funded the Smithsonian’s first media venture, a Sunday afternoon radio program, The World Is Yours. In 1943, Abbot also accepted the transfer of the Institute for Social Anthropology to the Smithsonian. As the depression waned, Abbot was challenged again to guide the Smithsonian through the difficulties of World War II. He formed the Smithsonian War Committee to provide Smithsonian expertise to the war effort, with products such as the booklet, Survival on Land and Sea, which was distributed to more than four million soldiers.
A Man for All Seasons
An affable and outgoing man, Abbot was well known for his musical talents, especially his love of sea shanties, and sage advice. At the Smithsonian’s first Holiday Party, held in the National Museum of Natural History, Abbot serenaded the crowd with a song and cello performance. In his younger days, he could often be found playing a game of tennis on the courts behind the Castle. He also served as a deacon in the First Congregational Church of Washington for many years and was known for his sermons. After his retirement, while working in one of the Castle’s top towers, Abbot often would enlighten young scientists about the history of the Institution they worked for and offer advice when sought.
78 Years of Smithsonian Service
On July 1, 1944, Abbot retired from the position of Secretary and Director of the Astrophysical Observatory to focus his attention on research. He was the first Secretary to retire from office and be given Secretary Emeritus status at the Institution. Abbot dedicated his research career to the long-term study of the solar constant, and was known for his inventions, such as a solar cooker, that used solar radiation as a source of power. Abbot died on December 17, 1973, at the age of 101. He dedicated his life to the pursuit of science and helped steer the Institution through the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s. His tenure at the Institution spanned two centuries, world wars, financial crises, and major scientific and technical innovations. Though some of his research on the solar constant and weather prediction has met with criticism, he is remembered as a pioneer in the field of solar radiation.
- Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Additional Records About Charles Greeley Abbot Across the Smithsonian
- Oral history interviews with Charles Greeley Abbot
- Records about the history of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory