Rathbun spent the rest of his life at the Smithsonian, and took on a variety of challenges. He was instrumental in overseeing the design and construction of the new National Museum of Natural History, writing highly readable, detailed reports of every aspect, including collections management and exhibition. There is no doubt that his early days of exploring stone quarries stood him in good stead. No stone was left unturned by Rathbun and his “Report of the U.S. National Museum 1911” is used today by design and project managers, exhibit staff and anyone who wants to know the rich construction history of the museum.
In addition, Rathbun was instrumental in developing the first national gallery of art in the United States. He oversaw the acceptance of the collections of Mrs. Harriet Lane Johnston, William T. Evans which were installed in the north hall of the new National Museum of Natural History. In addition, he was instrumental in the acceptance of Charles Lang Freer’s gift of his collection to the institution, and the creation of “The Children’s Room” on the first floor of the south tower of the Smithsonian Castle. It is thanks to Rathbun that the Smithsonian is open on Sundays, as he initiated the Sunday hours.
As with any administrator, Rathbun delt with a number of problems, many of which reached the local newspapers. One of these was the “Sun Dance Affair,” where Smithsonian anthropologist James Mooney responded to charges that he paid the Cheyenne tribe to perform the dance and “incited Indians to practice self-torture.” Another scandal – and another headline Rathbun dealt with was “Bad Use of Checks” by the institution’s disbursing officer (think CFO), W.W. Karr. Mr. Karr, a twenty-year employee, was charged with embezzling $46,000. Prior to Karr’s arrest, Rathbun, a friend and colleague, went to Karr’s home and asked about the missing funds. Karr threatened suicide, whereupon Rathbun left to discuss the matter with Secretary Langley. Both men notified the police who arrested Karr at his Washington D.C. home. Karr, who attempted to draw a gun, said to police he wished he had used the gun sooner.
The Rathbun family served the Smithsonian well. His sister, Dr. Mary Jane Rathbun (1860-1943), began her Smithsonian career as a copyist in the Division of Marine Invertebrates. She devised a unique record system for the collection and wrote over 158 papers on crustaceans. She became an assistant curator in charge of the department until her resignation in 1914, a story in itself. Miss Rathbun was, for all intents and purposes, a one-woman show. When she asked for an assistant, she was denied one. A woman of principle as was her brother, she resigned from her position, used her salary to pay for the assistant (who was Dr. Waldo L. Schmitt) and volunteered at the museum for twenty-five years as an “honorary research associate.”
Little is known about Rathbun’s immediate family. He lived with his wife Lena and son Seward at 1622 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. According to Rathbun’s granddaughter, Edith who was born after her grandfather’s death, Seward told her that his father was “a quiet, unassuming man who preferred small dinners with friends to the busy Washington social life”.
Rathbun died in Washington on 18 July 1918. His colleagues wrote of “their profound sorrow at the loss of a sincere friend, an executive officer of marked ability and one whose administration has had a wide influence upon the scientific institutions of the nation.” He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C., just a few miles from the building – and the institution – he so loved.
Amy Ballard, Senior Historic Preservation Specialist, Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division.