Sadly, many Smithsonian staff over the years have been forgotten and relegated to the index of history. One man deserves to be resurrected for his vast contributions to the institution and that man is Richard Rathbun. Rathbun is perhaps the most important employee in the history of the National Museum of Natural History that you have never heard of. He, more than anyone, exemplifies the phrase in government job descriptions “other duties as assigned.”
Rathbun was born in 1852 in Buffalo, New York. His interest in geology and paleontology stemmed from visiting local stone quarries to detect fossils. At age 16 the young Rathbun went to work at his father’s stone quarry as a financial clerk. He read everything he could on the subject, and his favorite book was “The Old Red Sandstone: New Walks in an Old Field” published in 1841 by Scottish geologist Hugh Miller and still used as a reference book today.
Shortly before his 19th birthday he began the collections of paleontology in the Buffalo Museum of Natural Sciences and was made its curator. He pursued his studies of paleontology at Cornell and later Harvard and during that time, worked at the Boston Society of Natural History. His predilection towards multi-tasking was becoming a life-long trait.
For a brief time, Rathbun’s interest turned away from paleontology when he volunteered as a scientific assistant with the U.S. Fish Commission (at the time a division of the Smithsonian). He traveled to Brazil several times in the 1870s and wrote papers on coal deposits and coral reefs. This work, as often happens with volunteers, turned into a full-time job with the Fish Commission as a scientific assistant, where he studied dredging expeditions off the eastern and southern coasts of the United States among other things. Many of his notebooks from these expeditions are now in the Smithsonian Archives.
For a time, he was detailed to Yale University’s Zoology Department and left there in 1881 when he was appointed curator of the Department of Marine Invertebrates of the new U.S. National Museum at the Smithsonian. He prepared numerous catalogues on scientific investigations in sea and salt waters, sponges and their trade, methods of fisheries, lobster culture, and reviews of fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. He was an early advocate of the preservation of food fish and from 1891-1896 served as the United States representative on the “Joint Commission with Great Britain Relative to the Preservation of the Fisheries in Waters Contiguous to the United States and Canada.”
Rathbun’s ease with people, his organizational skills and his knowledge of Smithsonian collections and research made him a prime candidate for the job of Assistant Secretary of the institution in charge of offices and exchanges. His 1897 appointment led to the directorship of the U.S. National Museum in 1901. He also served as acting secretary in 1899 during which time he received an inquiry from Wilbur Wright asking for information from the Smithsonian on the possibility of aerial flight. Rathbun quickly responded, sending Wright a package of information which Wilbur and his brother Orville used in their studies on aerodynamics ...
Stay tuned next week for part two of my post!
Amy Ballard, Senior Historic Preservation Specialist, Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division.