S. Dillon Ripley, an ornithologist, served as the eighth Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1964 to 1984, and oversaw tremendous growth. Interested in natural history and exploration since his childhood, Ripley visited the remote nation of Ladakh when he was only thirteen years old. After graduate school, he was a curator at the Smithsonian briefly and then spent almost twenty years teaching at Yale University. He led the Smithsonian through a period of great social and scientific change, and inspired a generation of Smithsonian staff with his expansive vision.
A Field and Museum Biologist
Educated at St. Paul’s School, Harvard University, and Yale University, Ripley participated in the Denison-Crockett Expedition to New Guinea in 1937-1938 and the Vanderbilt Expedition to Sumatra in 1939 before completing his PhD. He served briefly as an assistant curator of birds at the US National Museum in the early 1940s, but left to volunteer for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, and served as an intelligence officer in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, and Thailand. After the war, Ripley taught at Yale and directed the university’s Peabody Museum of Natural History prior to coming to the Smithsonian. A prolific popular writer and charismatic figure, Ripley became a favorite of The New Yorker columnist Geoffrey Hellman. At Yale, he established a friends-of-the-museum program and other outreach efforts that he would later duplicate and expand at the Smithsonian. During these years, his field work in Southeast Asia continued with the 1946-1947 Yale-Smithsonian Expedition to India, and the 1948-1949 Yale-Smithsonian-National Geographic Expedition to Nepal.
The Secretary as Change Agent: Museums and Outreach
Upon his election as the eighth Secretary, Ripley set out an ambitious plan to reinvigorate and expand the Smithsonian, building on the momentum of Secretaries Alexander Wetmore and Leonard Carmichael. New museums during his tenure included the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, today the Anacostia Community Museum; Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Renwick Gallery; National Air and Space Museum; National Museum of African Art; Enid A. Haupt Garden; Quadrangle Complex; and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Committed to the role of evolutionary theory in systematics, he successfully defended the National Museum of Natural History against a lawsuit that objected to the Dynamics of Evolution exhibit. He sought to increase the Institution’s role in the larger museum community through the National Museum Act programs, and in the primary and secondary education arena through a program to work with K-12 schools. Ripley also increased collections storage and research space through the creation of the Museum Support Center. Ripley greatly increased the Institution’s outreach efforts, especially through The Smithsonian Associates, Smithsonian magazine, and a wide array of public programs. While some found it unseemly, generations of children have enjoyed the carousel he installed in front of the Arts and Industries Building and the Triceratops model, Uncle Beazley, in front of the National Museum of Natural History.
The Secretary as Change Agent: Research
Ripley also focused on expansion of the Institution’s research facilities. New research programs that he developed included the Center for Folklife and Cultural Programs; Conservation and Research Center, now the Conservation Biology Institute, of the National Zoo; Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, now the Museum Conservation Institute; the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce; and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Ripley greatly increased support for the scientific research programs at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He also continued Secretary Leonard Carmichael’s efforts to improve the research climate for staff with increased funding for research grants, relationships with local universities, and a fellowship program. Ripley sought to increase diversity across the Institution, hiring the first female museum director and African American Assistant Secretary, and establishing programs to reach broader audiences. He welcomed Civil Rights and anti-war demonstrators who came to Washington, DC, into the Institution’s facilities, seeking to include new faces in the Smithsonian family. A dynamic fund-raiser, Ripley substantially increased both federal funding and the trust endowment, especially with revenues and donations.
When Ripley retired in 1984, the Institution was substantially larger in breadth and scope, with a museum in New York City, research stations across the nation and globe, and increased visibility within the scholarly community and general public. Ripley frequently told staff he wanted them to have fun every day at work at the Smithsonian, to be fully engaged in the possibilities of their work, and his enthusiasm was infectious, as he rode carousels and elephants, corralled loose birds at an inaugural ball, danced the night away in front of the Fénykövi elephant, and led academic processions across the Mall. In the early 1970s, he came under criticism for the rapid expansion of the Institution, but by his retirement, he had left a substantial imprint on the Smithsonian in budgets, diversity of staff, new research initiatives, new museums, and new facilities worldwide.
- S. Dillon Ripley Records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Additional Records About S. Dillon Ripley Across the Smithsonian
- S. Dillon Ripley Oral History Interviews
- The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, named in honor of Ripley’s wife.