Leonard Carmichael, 1898-1973


Leonard Carmichael, 7th SI Secretary
Under Leonard Carmichael, who served as the seventh Smithsonian Secretary from 1953 to 1964, the Institution began a major period of postwar expansion and modernization. Carmichael, the son of a physician and a teacher, was born in 1898, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. He received his BS degree from Tufts University in 1924, and his PhD from Harvard University in 1924. For fourteen years, Carmichael taught at Brown University, focusing on an experimental psychology with primates. He was appointed president of Tufts University in 1938, serving until his departure for the Smithsonian in 1953.


Secretaries Carmichael, Abbot & Ripley
Carmichael was the first Secretary to be hired from outside the Institution, rather than promoted from within. He brought new ideas, skills, and style to the role of Secretary. He possessed a far more formal personality than his predecessors, Charles Greeley Abbot and Alexander Wetmore, but his imposing presence had an impact in Washington, DC. Carmichael built on Wetmore's base, increasing federal and private funds for growth and modernization across the Smithsonian. He secured funding for the History and Technology Building (now the National Museum of American History), and secured continuing appropriations for modernization in all the museums. Every year, new exhibits attracted increasing audiences, and visitorship to the Institution rose from 3.5 million to 10 million per year.


Hope Diamond Presentation
During Carmichael’s tenure, the National Portrait Gallery was created, and the Patent Office Building was acquired for the American Art and Portrait Galleries. New wings were added to the National Museum of Natural History, Hope Diamond was donated by Harry Winston, and the Fénykövi elephant was unveiled in the rotunda of the Natural History Museum. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was revitalized and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1957, when Sputnik was launched, the observatory was the only US lab capable of tracking the Soviet satellite. After a tragic death of a visitor at the National Zoological Park, Carmichael sought additional funding for major improvements to meet safety regulations. The Friends of the National Zoo was created and a Master Plan for zoo improvement was formulated and initiated.


Secretary Leonard Carmichael, by Unknown, 1961, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 76-17992.
Most importantly, Carmichael focused on improving the quality of the research staff across the Institution. He personally interviewed every new researcher, an experience they described as equivalent to their PhD oral exams, since he read all their publications. He pushed for the development of new research programs, field work, publications, and exhibits. And he convinced the American people and the US Congress that the Smithsonian was worthy of increased investment, creating a financial platform for his successors. When he retired in 1964, he left a cadre of bright and creative young scholars, and a growing Institution in which they could work.

Further Exploration

Related Collections