By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
Last August, G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, contributed a guest blog post discussing the legacy of field research at the Smithsonian. He touched on his own background of field work when he was a professor. My curiosity was piqued by the post. The Smithsonian has a long history of field research; is this also to be found in the careers of past Secretaries? I knew that many of the Smithsonian Secretaries, especially among the first, were scientists. How many other Smithsonian Secretaries personally shared in this legacy of field research, and consequently had created field notes?
You might wonder why I find this point of field research completed by Smithsonian Secretaries to be so important. It stems from the fact that the Smithsonian, in profound ways, has been shaped by the people who run it. It was founded with a laudable but vague mission to, “increase and diffuse knowledge among men.” It could have fulfilled this in many ways—as a national library, university, observatory, to name a few. There were a multitude of options, and from the very beginning officials at the Smithsonian endeavored to shape it into a cohesive entity to fulfill this mission. Their interests guided Smithsonian collections, and their professional associations shaped long term relationships with federal agencies as well as the public. Secretaries, especially in the early years of the Smithsonian, were fundamental in determining how the institution completed its mission.
When one looks through the backgrounds of the Secretaries, it is telling that the majority of them came from a scientific background, and that many of the earliest worked in natural history. 10 out of the last twelve Secretaries have a background in the sciences.
- Joseph Henry: Secretary 1846 - 1878 (physics)
- Spencer Fullerton Baird: Secretary 1878 - 1887 (ornithology, ichthyology)
- Samuel Pierpont Langley: Secretary 1887 - 1906 (astrophysics)
- Charles Doolittle Walcott: Secretary 1907 - 1927 (paleontology)
- Charles Greeley Abbot: Secretary 1928 - 1944 (astrophysics)
- (Frank) Alexander Wetmore: Secretary 1945 - 1954 (ornithology, avian paleontology)
- Leonard Carmichael: Secretary 1953 - 1964 (experimental psychology with primates)
- S. Dillon Ripley: Secretary 1964 - 1984 (ornithology)
- Robert McCormick Adams: Secretary 1984 - 1994 (archaeology and anthropology)
- G. Wayne Clough: Secretary since 2008 (civil engineering)
So where are the field books of the Smithsonian Secretaries? I have cataloged several collections of field notes from Smithsonian Secretaries, but several possible collections of Secretaries’ field notes seem conspicuously absent. This kind of search seems to be an ongoing theme for several of our blog posts. It highlights one of my favorite aspects of archives. Archival materials are unique, primary documents and are the product of a creator in a specific place and time. My rather esoteric statement simply means that a person’s papers usually reside in a location that makes sense with when and where the materials were created. A researcher frequently must know where a creator worked and studied to figure out what organization houses the creator’s materials. Additionally, in some cases, a creator will donate his personal papers to an institution that had special meaning to him. If you search for the field notes of Smithsonian Secretaries, you’ll see what I mean. Smithsonian frequently has the field books of the earliest Secretaries, because they were often closely affiliated with the Smithsonian for decades before taking the post as its head. Many of them worked with government agencies like US Geological Survey or US Department of Agriculture that worked closely with Smithsonian departments. Later Secretaries did not always have the same kind of long term relationship with the Institution prior to accepting the position. Thus, their field notes are with alma maters, favored institutions, or societies like American Philosophical Society who holds the papers of Leonard Carmichael.
The Smithsonian has a wonderful legacy in scientific field work that is demonstrated even in the personal endeavors of individuals who led the institution. It is a legacy that we at the Field Book Project are pleased to support.
To learn more about the history of the Smithsonian Secretaries, we encourage you to visit the Smithsonian Institution Archives website.