Smithsonian in Wartime

Find out how the Smithsonian shared its expertise, staff, and funds during times of national crisis.

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WWI: Staff Supporting the War Effort

The men and women of the Smithsonian are the Institution’s most important asset, a fact which was as true in the 1910s as it is today. The staff of the Smithsonian work together to fulfill their mission: ‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge,’ working for the public good and engaging the world. During World War I, this mission expanded beyond academic knowledge to support of the men and women who served in the armed services or for the Red Cross. Smithsonian curators mounted exhibits that explained wartime economies1 and published research on how natural resources could be used in the war.2 

Yet, one of the biggest contributions the Smithsonian made to the war effort was the men and women who left their jobs to enlist in the armed services or nursing corps.  Men from across the Smithsonian enlisted either in the American Expeditionary Force before the United States entered the war or the armed services after the United States entered the war. They wrote letters back to their colleagues at the Smithsonian who followed their progress and published them in their employee newsletter. 

Employees who Served

Freer Gallery Groundbreaking, by Unknown, 1916, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 94-4417. As early as June 1916, ten months before the United States entered the war, three employees, G.C. Whiting, F.J. Kotrba, V.E. Wathen (at left, pictured at Freer Gallery of Art groundbreaking), had left the Smithsonian and “answered the call to colors.”3 By October 1916, Emmett T. Brennan and Samuel Hurwitz joined their colleagues and resigned their positions to transfer to the War Department.4 They began a steady trickle of Smithsonian men either resigning or receiving furloughs to enlist or work in the War Department. The war was on everyone’s mind as the Smithsonian Rifle Club brought in Major W.C. Harllee from the US Marine Corps for a lecture5 and the Smithsonian Tennis Club suspended its regular schedule on account of the war.6 The Quartermaster Corps of the US Army requested the use of the US National Museum lecture hall twice a week for the instruction of reserve officers.7 With these changes happening in rapid succession, Smithsonian employees felt the atmosphere shifting as entry in to the war approached.

The Smithsonian employee newsletter shared regular updates on their former co-workers when it could. One such colleague was G. Carlyle Whiting who enlisted sometime before June 1916. By August of that year he had been promoted to Sergeant and expected to go to a border that month.8 By September of that year he was back at Fort Myer in Arlington, VA, for additional training and graduated in November as a 2nd Lieutenant. 

Webster P. True at Publications Exhibit, Conference on Future Several employees who would go on to have long and productive careers at the Smithsonian after the war were among those who enlisted.  Webster P. True, at the time an Editorial Assistant, left the Smithsonian to join the fourth company of the Southern New York Artillery.9  He returned after the war and by 1927 was Editor of Smithsonian Publications.10 Each of the Smithsonian men who served their country during World War I was a direct tie from the Smithsonian Institution to the war abroad. Their colleagues at home in Washington watched their fates with interest as they served their country. 

C. R. W. Aschemeier

Aschemeier and Perrygo Working on Roosevelt's Sailfish, 1935.

Enlisted men were not the only Smithsonian employees who were abroad during the war. Though field expeditions in several parts of the world were delayed or postponed,11 Charles R. W. Aschemeier, a natural history collector and preparator in the US National Museum, was already in Africa when the United States entered the war. He wrote letters to his colleagues at the Smithsonian that documented his experiences traveling through war-torn France and the effects of the war in Africa.12 By April of that year, Aschemeier was getting justifiably nervous.  Even in the field in Congo, he heard rumors of the US being at war with Germany and wrote back home for more information.13 The war impacted all aspects of the Smithsonian’s work. Even in an unrelated field like natural history, the war limited and shaped what research could be done. 

Women of the Smithsonian

Local Notes Newsletter reporting the return of Florence A. Graves

It wasn’t only the men of the Smithsonian who left their positions here to serve in the war effort.  Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory employee Florence A. Graves joined the Red Cross and worked as a nurse during and after the war. Serving in France, Graves experienced the poor conditions that the soldiers did. After her service with the Red Cross, she returned to her desk at the Observatory on September 4th, 1919. Her co-workers were so glad to see her return to work that the event was noted in a Smithsonian-wide newsletter along with many of the soldiers who returned to their posts at the Smithsonian.14 

Secretary Charles D. Walcott and His Family

Secretary Charles D. Walcott World War I impacted Secretary Charles D. Walcott’s work just as much as the many men and women he oversaw. When Secretary Walcott wasn’t busy negotiating with the Bureau of War Risk Insurance or the Office of Naval Intelligence for the use of the Smithsonian’s resources, he was serving on several committees to aid the war effort. He was an influential member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Set up to coordinate aeronautics research to aid the war effort, it soon became a leading research organization in aeronautics.15 NACA thrived over the years and eventually evolved into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Not one to limit his efforts, Secretary Walcott was instrumental in the founding of the National Research Council, which was set up to facilitate the use of scientific research in American industry to strengthen national defense.16 To aid the American war effort, he coordinated scientists around the country, matching the research needs of the War Department with American scientists who could carry out the work in diverse fields such as aluminum alloys, botany field work, geology, and anthropology.17 His efforts were not just limited to the sciences, he served on the National Art Committee which formed to document America’s role in World War I.18 Among the projects of the National Art Committee was a collection of portraits of prominent World War leaders. Initially displayed in the National Museum, these paintings were an early step in the creation of the National Portrait Gallery. 19

Just like thousands of people across the country, the war did not limit its impact to Secretary Walcott’s professional life. His family served the war effort just as he did. Among those who enlisted was Sidney S. Walcott, Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott’s son, who joined the New York division of the Officer’s Reserve Corps.20 Another son, B. Stuart Walcott, volunteered in the Lafayette Flying Corps as a pilot and died in action December 2, 1917.  Secretary Walcott’s daughter, Helen B. Walcott, also served the war effort.  She, like her brother Stuart, entered the war effort long before the United States entered the war.  She served 10 months in the Hospital Service in France, returning home just after the United States entered the war.  

Conclusion

Whether they were a laborer in the Arts and Industries Building or the Secretary of the Smithsonian, the war touched everyone’s life. Smithsonian staff rose to the challenge the war presented and actively contributed to American’s wartime experience. From knitting socks to nursing in France to furthering aeronautic research, the actions of Smithsonian employees made a difference in the war effort. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION

RELATED COLLECTIONS

 

FOOTNOTES

1 Smithsonian Institution, Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1918 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919), 26.  Return to text

2 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 45, Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, Box 40, Folder 15, Letter from George Merrill to C.D. Walcott, June 12, 1918. Return to text

3 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 1, June 28, 1916 Return to text

4 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 1, October 24, 1916. Return to text

5 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 2, March 7, 1917 Return to text

6 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 2, April 20, 1917 Return to text

7 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 2, March 13, 1917 Return to text

8 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 1, August 8, 1916, the border is not specified, could also possibly mean the front, not a country border. Return to text

9 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 2, November 28, 1917 Return to text

10 Publications Exhibit, Conference on Future, 1927, Photographic Print, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 46, Box 99, Folder: 6, MNH-17881. http://siarchives.si.edu/collections/siris_sic_9406 Return to text

11Smithsonian Institution, Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1917 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1918), 8 and Smithsonian Institution, Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1918 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919), 6. Return to text

12 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 2, April 20, 1917 Return to text

13Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 2, June 20, 1917 Return to text

14 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, September 18, 1919 Return to text

15 Nathaniel Reul, unpublished manuscript, The Mobilization of the Museum, pg. 8 and http://history.nasa.gov/naca/ Return to text

16Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. "United States National Research Council," (accessed August 10, 2014), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_National_Research_Council; and Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 45, Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, Box 10, Folders 11, 12, 13. Return to text

17Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 45, Smithsonian Institution, Office of the Secretary, Records, Box 40, Folders 12-15. Return to text

18http://siarchives.si.edu/history/charles-doolittle-walcott Return to text

19http://siarchives.si.edu/collections/siris_sic_400 Return to text

20 Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 298, Smithsonian Institution, Local Notes Newsletter, Box 1, Folder 2, May 15, 1917 Return to text