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Smithsonian Perspectives

Volunteer service at the Smithsonian is a time-honored tradition that goes all the way back to Joseph Henry, our first Secretary

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The Smithsonian is a national institution built on gifts-not only gifts of objects, money and property but also gifts of time and expertise.

Volunteer service is a tradition that spans the life of the Institution. As we engage in a year-long celebration of the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary, I can think of no activity that has more consistently influenced the accomplishment of virtually every aspect of the Institution's work.

The story of the Smithsonian is also the story of its volunteers-men and women of all ages, from all walks of life and every religious and political persuasion, who of their own free will have sought to be of help to us.

James Conaway's recent book The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, Discovery, and Wonder captures both the spirit and the diversity of volunteer contributions from the Institution's inception to the present day.

Volunteerism did not start at the Smithsonian by chance. It posed a viable alternative for much-needed assistance that the fledgling Institution did not have the resources to accommodate.

Beginning with the first Secretary, Joseph Henry, whose passion was to investigate storm patterns — studies in which he was assisted by hundreds of volunteer weather reporters from across the country — volunteers have served to further the research and other scientific work of the Institution. Ultimately, the efforts of Henry and his dedicated observers resulted in the creation of the first national weather bureau.

Spencer F. Baird, Henry's assistant and successor, enlisted the support of scores of individuals headed for the new Western frontier in the collection of natural history materials. Among his volunteers were farmers, teachers, soldiers, engineers, surveyors and even his own father-in-law, Brig. Gen. Sylvester Churchill, Inspector General of the U.S. Army.

Very often Smithsonian staff members who resign or retire return to the Institution as volunteers. One of the most intriguing examples is that of Mary Jane Rathbun, a noted specialist on crabs who resigned from her position in 1914 so that her salary could be given to her young protege, Waldo Schmitt. She elected to continue her work here in a volunteer capacity for some 30 more years during which Schmitt became a renowned authority on shrimps. He, in turn, followed his mentor's lead and continued his work as a volunteer at the National Museum of Natural History long after his own retirement.

Undoubtedly, one of the largest and most enduring volunteer activities ever undertaken by the Smithsonian was Moonwatch. Organized in 1955 by astronomer Fred L. Whipple, then head of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this program spanned almost two decades and engaged 5,000 volunteers from around the world. Collectively, these amateur astronomers logged 400,000 observations of space vehicles orbiting Earth, providing valuable data to the astrophysical community about satellite tracking.

As author Philip Kopper wrote in the 1981 publication entitled Volunteer! O Volunteer! A Salute to the Smithsonian's Unpaid Legions, Moonwatch attracted young and old alike, among them doctors, engineers, clergymen, factory hands, and grade school, high school and college students. As Kopper put it, "infectious interest drew hundreds of people away from their television sets and back into a community activity."

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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