S. Dillon Ripley

Smithsonian Institution

September 20, 1913 - March 12, 2001

Scientific Discipline: Evolutionary Biology
Membership Type:
Member (elected 1968)

Ornithologist S. Dillon Ripley was best known for leading the Smithsonian Institution through its period of greatest growth.  He was a major influence in the transformation of the Smithsonian from a solemn scientific museum into a center of education and entertainment.  As Secretary, he saw eight new museums built, one of which was the popular Air and Space Museum, nearly tripled the number of annual visitors from 10.8 million to 30 million, and organized the Smithsonian Associates, a program of lectures, tours, and classes that grew to 56,000 members by the end of his tenure.  He initiated the “Smithsonian Magazine” in 1970, which stimulated civilian interest and brought in millions of dollars.  He also originated the Smithsonian’s annual tradition, the Festival of American Folklife.  As an ornithologist, Ripley published more than 350 articles and 11 books, the most prominent of which was the 10-volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (co-authored with Selim Ali).  He collected over 3000 bird skins for the Smithsonian from the South Pacific, Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal.  He also rediscovered the spiny babbler, a species of bird that was lost to science for over a century.

Ripley earned his B.A. degree from Yale University in 1936 and his Ph.D. in zoology from Harvard University in 1943.  He worked as a volunteer assistant for the American Museum of Natural History for two years before becoming the assistant curator of birds for the Smithsonian Institution in 1942.  During World War II, he served as a civilian officer in Southeastern Asia for the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA).  From 1946 to 1952, Ripley was an associate curator at Yale’s Peabody Museum, and from 1952 to 1964 was the museum’s curator.  He began teaching in 1949 as an assistant professor of zoology for Yale University, becoming an associate professor in 1955 and a professor of biology in 1961.  In 1964, he was appointed as the Secretary (or the head) of the Smithsonian Institution, a title he held for two decades before his retirement in 1984.  Ripley was affiliated with several scientific organizations, including the Bombay Natural History Society, the Zoological Society of India, the Kilravock Foundation (founder and president), the World Wildlife Fund (chairman 1975-1979), and the International Council for Bird Preservation (president 1958-1983).  Along with his 15 honorary degrees from colleges and universities, he received numerous commendations such as the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society in 1966, and both the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation’s highest civilian honor) and the Distinguished Service Award of the American Association of Museums in 1985.

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