Smithsonian Institution Secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott

Smithsonian Institution Secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott

Smithsonian Institution Secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott

Smithsonian Institution Secretary, Charles Doolittle Walcott


Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927) is a highly respected figure in the history of geology and paleontology. Perhaps his most notable contribution to his field was his discovery of the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale, one of the most important fossil discoveries ever made. In addition to his distinguished field work, Walcott's career included years of service as an administrative leader in the scientific community: as director of the U.S. Geological Survey, as secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, as organizer of the National Space and Aeronautics Administration, as a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Smithsonian Institution Secretary continues the story Ellis L. Yochelson began in Charles Doolittle Walcott, Paleontologist (1998). Using Walcott's letters and journals and the recollections of friends and colleagues, Yochelson discusses Walcott's life and career as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

Accompanied by illustrations and photographs from private collection


I find three principal motivations behind writing a scientific book: to unify
questions, solutions, advancements, and discussions on a particular topic;
to summarize one’s lifetime work; and to have fun.

—A. A. Zaniest, 1998

History shows that if all else fails, the best course is to tell the truth. Accordingly, I admit to at least one mistake in my study of Walcott’s earlier career (Yochelson 1998); there are others, but that is my secret. the introduction indicated that I first became interested in him when attending the International Zoological Congress in London in 1959. I miswrote, misspoke, lied, or whatever, for the date was 1958. With this correction, the record is now clarified: it was forty years from Walcott’s death to the National Academy of Sciences biography (Yochelson 1967) and forty years from my first interest to published book.

Much as one likes uniformity, forty more years to complete a study of the last part of Walcott’s life is not feasible in the face of the three score and ten years in one’s allotted span. I have passed that mark.

To continue the biblical theme, in my moving from one computer system to another, the heavens fell in. I ended with no disks and six hundred single-spaced pages to be scanned. Simply to remove the new glitches inserted by that process took forty days and forty nights, at least, and provided a glimmering into Noah’s state of mind while he was helplessly drifting. Accordingly, assembling this volume should better be considered a millennium project. the millennium begins either in 2000 or 2001 and thus provides some wiggle room. An added benefit is that I brag about a project that took more than one century to complete.

One invaluable lesson I learned in writing a book about Walcott’s earlier years is that the world truly does not want to know every jot and tittle I have learned or inferred about him. Seriously, I have tried to curb my prolix prose, but it is not my fault that he kept taking on new challenges in areas far removed from paleontology. I also may have cut a few corners on research to meet the deadline, but again, whether this is true, and if so, what corners and where, is my secret. To cite one example, there are 105 boxes of official office correspondence covering most of his tenure as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. a true . . .

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