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Sidney Dillon Ripley

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Sidney Dillon Ripley II (September 20, 1913 – March 12, 2001) was an American ornithologist and wildlife conservationist. He served as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for 20 years, from 1964 to 1984, leading the Institution through its period of greatest growth and expansion. For his leadership at the Smithsonian, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan in 1985.[3]

S. Dillon Ripley
Mary Livingston Ripley (d. 1996), S. Dillon Ripley (1913-2001), Salim Ali.jpg
Salim Ali, Mary Ripley, and S. Dillon Ripley on a collection trip in India
8th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution
In office
Preceded by Leonard Carmichael
Succeeded by Robert McCormick Adams
Personal details
Born September 20, 1913
New York City, New York
Died March 12, 2001(2001-03-12) (aged 87)
Washington, D.C.
Nationality American
Education Yale University (BA)
Harvard University (PhD)
Known for Ornithology



Early lifeEdit

Ripley was born in New York City and studied at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire. His mother was Constance Baillie Rose Ripley of Scottish descent while his father was Louis Arthur Dillon Ripley, a wealthy real estate agent who drove around in an 1898 Renault tourer. Both his paternal grandparents died before he was born and the only connection he had to them was through the youngest sister of his grandmother, Cora Dillon Wyckoff. Aunt Cora and her husband Doctor Peter Wyckoff often hosted young Ripley at their apartment in New York's Park Avenue. His early education was at the Montessori Kindergarten School on Madison Avenue. As a young boy he travelled widely including to British Columbia where his mother's relatives lived. In April 1918, his mother who had separated from his father moved to Cambridge Massachusetts. In 1919 the family moved again to Boston where he studied in a school called Rivers. At the age of ten, he traveled again with his mother across Europe. In 1924 Ripley went to a boarding school called Fay in Southborough, Massachusetts. In 1926 he moved to St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire. In 1936, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) from Yale University. His great-grandfather, Sidney Dillon, was President of the Union Pacific Railroad.[4]

Travel and educationEdit

Ripley in front of the Smithsonian Quadrangle Complex
Ripley & unidentified children with "Uncle Beazley," the dinosaur at the opening of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, September 15, 1967

A friend of the Ripleys, John, whose father founded the Young Men's Christian Association,, and Celestine Mott were planning a visit to India to set up a YMCA hostel in India. This led to a visit to India at age 13, along with his sister. They stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay and then went to Kashmir and included a walking tour into Ladakh and western Tibet. In Kashmir, they flew falcons with Colonel Biddulph. They also visited Calcutta and Nagpur. One of Ripley's brothers shot a tiger at a shoot hosted by a Maharaja.[5] This led to his lifelong interest in the birds of India.[3] He returned to St Paul's to complete his studies. It was suggested to him that Yale would be the best for him. Ripley received a training in making specimens from Frank Chapman and even had tea once as a sophomore Erwin Stresemann.[6] He decided that birds were more interesting than law and after graduating from Yale in 1936 he was advised by Ernst Mayr that "the most important thing you can do is get a sound and broad biological training." He then enrolled at Columbia University. and he began studying zoology at Columbia University. As a part of his study, Ripley participated in the Denison-Crockett Expedition to New Guinea in 1937-1938 and the Vanderbilt Expedition to Sumatra in 1939.[7] He later obtained a Ph.D. in Zoology from Harvard University in 1943.

War service and academic workEdit

During World War II, he served in the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, and was in charge of American intelligence services in Southeast Asia.[3] He trained many Indonesian spies, all of whom were killed during the war.[8] An article in the August 26, 1950 New Yorker said that Ripley reversed the usual pattern, where spies posed as ornithologists in order to gain access to sensitive areas, and instead used his position as an intelligence officer to go birding in restricted areas.[citation needed] The government of Thailand gave him a national award for his support of the Thai underground during the war.[8] While serving in the OSS he met his future wife Mary Livingston and her roommate Julia Child.[citation needed]

In 1947, Ripley entered Nepal pretending to be a close confidante of Jawaharlal Nehru and the Nepal government, eager to maintain diplomatic ties with its newly independent neighbour, allowed him to collect bird specimens. Nehru came to hear of this from an article in The New Yorker and was furious, leading to a difficult time for his collaborator and coauthor, Salim Ali. Salim Ali came to hear of Nehru's displeasure through Horace Alexander and the matter was forgiven after some effort. The OSS past however led to a growing suspicion that American scientists working in India were CIA agents. David Challinor, a former Smithsonian administrator, noted that there were many CIA agents in India, with some posing as scientists. He noted that the Smithsonian sent a scholar to India for anthropological research who unknown to them was interviewing Tibetan refugees from Chinese-occupied Tibet but went on to say that there was no evidence that Ripley worked for the CIA after he left the OSS in 1945.[8]

He joined the American Ornithologists' Union in 1938, became an Elective Member in 1942, and a fellow in 1951. After the war he taught at Yale and was a Fulbright fellow in 1950 and a Guggenheim fellow in 1954.[3] He became a full professor and director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Ripley served for many years on the board of the World Wildlife Fund in the U.S., and was the third president of the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP, now BirdLife International).

Smithsonian InstitutionEdit

He served as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 1964 to 1984. He set out to reinvigorate and expand the Smithsonian, building new museums, including the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, now the Anacostia Community Museum, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Renwick Gallery, National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of African Art, Enid A. Haupt Garden, the underground quadrangle complex known as the S. Dillon Ripley Center, and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.[7]

In 1967, he helped found the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and in 1970, he helped found Smithsonian magazine. He believed that 75% to 80% of then-living animal species would become extinct in the next 25 years.[9]

In 1985 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States. He was awarded honorary degrees from 15 colleges and universities, including Brown, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Cambridge.

Ripley successfully defended the National Museum of Natural History against a lawsuit that objected to the Dynamics of Evolution exhibit.[7]


Plaque dedicating the Mary Livingstone Ripley Garden

Ripley had intended to produce a definitive guide to the birds of South Asia, but became too ill to play an active part in its realisation. However, the eventual authors, his assistant, Pamela C. Rasmussen, and artist John C. Anderton, named the final two-volume guide as Birds of South Asia. The Ripley Guide in his honour.

The Smithsonian's underground complex on the National Mall, the S. Dillon Ripley Center, is named in his honor. A garden between the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Arts and Industries Building was dedicated in 1988 to his wife, Mary Livingston Ripley.

The first-ever full-length biography of Ripley, The Lives of Dillon Ripley: Natural Scientist, Wartime Spy, and Pioneering Leader of the Smithsonian Institution by Roger D. Stone, was published in June 2017 by University Press of New England (ISBN 978-1611686562).

Selected writingsEdit

  • The Land and Wildlife of Tropical Asia (1964; Series: LIFE Nature Library)
  • Rails of the World: A Monograph of the Family Rallidae (1977)
  • The paradox of the human condition : a scientific and philosophic exposition of the environmental and ecological problems that face humanity (1975)
  • Birds of Bhutan, with Salim Ali and Biswamoy Biswas
  • Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, with Salim Ali (10 volumes)
  • The Sacred Grove: Essays on Museums (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1969)


  1. ^ "Announcement of the Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, April 8, 1985". The American Presidency Project. University of California, Santa Barbara. Retrieved 13 December 2013. 
  2. ^ "Padma Awards" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2015. Retrieved July 21, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d Molotsky, Irvin (13 March 2001). "S. Dillon Ripley Dies at 87; Led the Smithsonian Institution During Its Greatest Growth". The New York Times. p. 9. 
  4. ^ Stone (2017):1-5.
  5. ^ Stone (2017):10-15.
  6. ^ Stone (2017):25.
  7. ^ a b c S. Dillon Ripley, 1913-2001
  8. ^ a b c Lewis, Michael (2002). "Scientists or Spies? Ecology in a Climate of Cold War Suspicion". Economic and Political Weekly. 37. 
  9. ^ R Bailey (2000) Earth day then and now, Reason 32(1), 18-28


External linksEdit