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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Alexander Wetmore in 1944, the year he became the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives
Alexander Wetmore in 1944, the year he became the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian.
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Alexander Wetmore (1886-1978) was the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, from 1945 to 1952. Wetmore was an ornithologist and also one of America's leading avian paleontologists, or fossil bird experts.

Wetmore began working for the U.S. government in 1910, as an agent of the Biological Survey of the Department of Agriculture (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) doing field investigations and survey work. (Use the audio player on the right to listen to Wetmore talk about going to Paraguay and Argentina as part of this work.) In 1924, the Smithsonian hired him as the superintendent of the National Zoological Park, a post he held for only few months before he was appointed Assistant Secretary in charge of the U.S. National Museum—the job he performed until he became Secretary. He guided the Museum through the Great Depression and World War II. During the Depression, he struggled to keep as many staff employed as possible, believing that even a part-time job gave a family hope. During World War II, he maintained a steady correspondence with staff that had left the Museum for the front lines; he also corresponded with citizen soldiers who were interested in collecting natural history specimens.

He had a particular interest in Panama, a place where the Smithsonian had been conducting research since 1910. Between 1946 and 1966, Wetmore made annual trips to Panama, many in the company of Watson M. Perrygo, a field collector and taxidermist at the Museum. On each trip they carefully documented and extensively collected the birds of Panama. Wetmore wrote a magnum opus—a four volume work on this subject, published by the Smithsonian between 1965 and 1984. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute officially became a bureau of the Smithsonian under Wetmore in 1946. (Use the audio player on the right to listen to Wetmore talking about the creation of the research station at Barro Colorado Island.)

Wetmore was also extremely tidy and meticulous while in the field. On every field trip he took thousands of photographs, documenting the people, places and natural history. Upon his return, each photograph was carefully placed in a photograph album with a full caption providing date, location and details on the photograph, which are still frequently used at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.s

Wetmore became Secretary at the end of World War II and initiated the post-war growth era at the Smithsonian, laying the groundwork for the Exhibits Modernization Program that began in the late 1950s and initiating a building program that led to the construction of the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History. Although Wetmore stepped down from the Secretaryship in 1952, a reflection of his belief that administrators should make way for new generations, he never completely retired. He kept an office at the Natural History Museum, and was there every day early in the morning, even on Saturdays. (Use the audio player on the right to listen to Wetmore talk about his 50 years at the Smithsonian.)

A page from one of Wetmore’s Panama photo albums with his annotations, 1948. Credit: Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
A page from one of Wetmore’s Panama photo albums with his annotations, 1948.
Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives

His collecting and his scientific work were prodigious. His bibliography ran to some 725 entries, and he described a remarkable 189 new species and subspecies of birds. He added 26,058 mammal and bird skins to the National Museum collections; prepared and contributed 4,363 skeletal and anatomical specimens; and collected 201 clutches of eggs.

Wetmore was active in many professional associations, often serving as president, and he received many awards and honorary degrees in his lifetime. Some 56 new genera, species, or subspecies of bird have been named in his honor—including the fossil bird species Alexornithidae and new order Alexornithiforme, the Orange-throated Tanager (Wetmorethraupis sterrhopteron) and the Masked Mountain-tanager (Buthraupis wetmorei). The birds were joined by insects, mammals, amphibians, mollusks, and one plant, a cactus from Argentina (Wetmore called this collection his own “private zoo”). To these creatures one must also add a bridge and a mountain: The Alexander Wetmore Bridge in the Bayano River Basin area of the Republic of Panama is the first canopy bridge in the Western Hemisphere. And the Wetmore Glacier in the Antarctic was named by the leader of a 1946-48 expedition in honor of Wetmore's help in developing the trip's scientific research program.

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Images

Alexander Wetmore in 1900, around the time of his first publication. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives Alexander Wetmore on Sierra San Xavier in Argentina, when he was conducting fieldwork for the Biological Survey, 1921. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives
Alexander Wetmore in a jeep on the Pearl Islands, 1940, on one of the many collecting trips to Panama he made with Watson Perrygo. Credit: Photo by Watson Perrygo, Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives Alexander Wetmore and Watson Perrygo at their camp preparing bird specimens, near Chico, Panama, 1949. Credit: Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
 The Alexander Wetmore Bridge, which is used to trap and band birds in the high canopy of the trees at the Bayano River Basin Station in Panama, 1973. Credit: Photo by Harold Trapido; image from the Smithsonian institution Archives Alexander Wetmore and fellow ornithologist Storrs Olson examining bones in the Birds Division collections area of the Natural History Museum, 1976. Credit: Photo by Victor Krantz, image from Smithsonian Institution Archives

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