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A Smithsonian Who Helped Found the National Geographic Society

The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories. By Mark Collins Jenkins In April 1896, an assistant secretary...

The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

In April 1896, an assistant secretary of the Smithsonian, George Brown Goode, took a leading part in the National Geographic Society’s field excursion to Monticello and Charlottesville, nestled in Virginia’s rolling Albemarle County. Before the assembled members he gave a typically learned address on “Albemarle in Revolutionary Times,” subsequently published in the August 1896 magazine.

Surely many in the audience were persuaded that they were looking at the next Secretary of the Smithsonian. Goode was probably the most respected man at the institution; indeed, loved there as no other, so well did he combine gentleness with administrative ability. His slight figure was everywhere, constantly smoking, constantly working, letting no detail of upholstery or case construction escape his attention, willing to pitch in at every moment. He always made the extra effort that even the lowliest worker remembered with gratitude.

Neither would it be hard to imagine Goode as president of the National Geographic Society, guiding this organization with the same sure touch with which he directed and transformed the Smithsonian Institution before he retired as its Secretary—the most revered Secretary, perhaps, in its history.

But it was not to be. Goode, though a founder of the Society, would never become its president. Nor would he ever be the Secretary of the Smithsonian—although he should have, and most certainly would have, time permitting. But time did not permit; there would be little gray to soften the dark brown hair and beard. The warm-hearted, sympathetic, much-loved man who stated so eloquently the purpose of organized science was taken away at too young an age.

In the 45 years time did permit him, however, Brown Goode (the George was generally dropped) made a name for himself as naturalist, author, and genealogist. But above all, he was the most influential museum administrator of his era. Like his great contemporary, John Wesley Powell, Goode embodied the organizing impulse that sought nothing less than to order the sciences of man and those of the natural world.

George Brown Goode was born on February 13, 1851, in New Albany, Indiana, a stone’s throw from Louisville, Kentucky. While a boy, Brown discovered in his father’s library a set of Smithsonian Reports, and the precocious child found himself quickly absorbed in these volumes, kindling the thought of one day working at the Smithsonian. It also stimulated, in addition to his love of history, an interest in natural science.

Natural science seemed to prevail, and Brown studied at Wesleyan University, which he entered at barely 15 in 1866 and from which he graduated at 19 in 1870. Although the youngest member of his class, he showed particular interest and ability in natural science. This led to Harvard where he studied under the great Louis Agassiz, the Swiss-born naturalist who had trained a generation of young American scientists and whose particular expertise was in ichthyology. Agassiz had also established Harvard’s natural history museum and was a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents.

Goode’s next brush with the Smithsonian followed a few years later. In 1871, the U.S. Fish Commission had been established, and Goode spent the summer of 1872 working for it as a volunteer collector in Eastport, Maine. There he chanced to meet Spencer F. Baird, head of the Fish Commission but also the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian as well. Baird was impressed by the young ichthyologist-curator. Goode, in turn, found in the mild-mannered Baird the man who would be his mentor.

For the next five years, Goode lived a curiously tripartite existence, working for the Judd Museum, volunteering for the Fish Commission, and working part-time with the Smithsonian. In the summers he joined the Commission’s collecting expeditions along the Atlantic Coast, sailing on such noted research vessels as the Albatross and the Blake. They netted herring, haddock, and cod off New England and the Grand Banks, or dragged their trawls through the waters off Bermuda and Florida. Part of each winter he then arranged and cataloged the specimens back at the Smithsonian in Washington, where as a young bachelor he lived in one of the towers at the Castle, as the turreted red brick headquarters on the Mall was called. His payment was extra specimens for the museum back at Wesleyan, where he spent the remainder of the year.

In 1876, he assisted Baird in mounting the Smithsonian’s magnificent display at the huge Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, a vast fair teeming with thousands of exhibits from 37 foreign countries and 26 states. There, people with an eye for such things noticed something: the Smithsonian’s display was the best-organized and most interesting one. And the credit was due to the young man who seemed to have done it all, from installation and arrangement to labels and cases, working so feverishly that he nearly had a nervous breakdown. He may have been overly-conscientious and fragile, but Goode had just shown a genius for museum exhibition.

That was not lost on Baird, either, and he promptly pulled the younger man fully into the fold. In 1877 Goode left for the Smithsonian.

Photo of the Smithsonian Castle from the National Park Service collection

It was still a small place—Brown was one of only 13 on the staff—but it stood at a crossroads in its history, one centered on the question: Were the 200,000 specimens it had amassed in its brief history to be seen as a burden or an opportunity? Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian,  believed the institution should focus its efforts on the publication of original research and not become the “nation’s attic.” Baird, on the other hand, thought the institution’s future lay precisely in the scope of its collections—and Goode, who had become Baird’s right-hand man, sided with his mentor. Thus when 70 boxcars full of all the industrial art exhibits from the Centennial Exhibition arrived at the Smithsonian, Brown chose to see opportunity. This huge, international collection of stuff offered a chance to burst out of the shell of natural history and physical science in which the Smithsonian had been confined to include history and technology as well.

Baird listened, and after Henry died in 1878, and he was elevated to the position of Secretary, Baird put the Smithsonian on the path that would make it into a great research museum. But much of the credit goes to Goode.

Two years later, in 1879, Congress approved $250,000 for the construction of a new building, next to the Castle, to house the collections of the National Museum, as it was officially called. It was one of the more auspicious moments in a very auspicious year—the same year the U.S. Geological Survey was formed; the same year that some of the capital’s leading scientists and intellectuals established the Cosmos Club; and the same year that John Wesley Powell instituted the Bureau of Ethnology under a neighboring wing of the Smithsonian. Washington was becoming the scientific and intellectual capital of the nation, and Goode was in the center of it. By 1881, when he was appointed the assistant director at age of 30, he was supervising the construction of the museum wing.

A House Full of Ideas

As he pored over the plans and blueprints, Goode was envisioning more than an octagonal red-brick structure. Oh, it would display the mastodon skeletons and Indian war shields and geological samples the great Western Surveys were sending back in such profusion. But it would not, as he saw it, be the mere Cabinet of Curiosities that was all museums aspired to at this time. It would not be, in his words, a “cemetery of bric-a-brac.” Rather, it would be a “house full of ideas…a nursery of living thought.”

Everywhere he went—and he traveled extensively, to international fisheries expositions in London and Berlin, to museums and expositions in Paris and Madrid, to all parts of the U.S.—Goode observed closely how others went about mounting their displays. He always brought back a wide variety of objects, none of which could be called mere curiosities, for each piece he returned with had been carefully chosen as representative of its type.

As his ideas grew and broadened, Goode increasingly saw education as paramount. Museums could not be devoted purely to scholarly research; it was a democratic age, one that demanded a “people’s museum,” and declared, “the degree of the Civilization to which any nation, city, or province has attained is best shown by the character of its public museums and the liberality with which they are maintained.”

These pioneering labors were mostly undertaken when he was in his thirties. To his colleagues he was “a slender, dark-complexioned man of unassuming manner” and “sweet disposition.” He was persuasive rather than commanding; his way was not “I think” but rather “Don’t you think?” On walks he would take friends by the arm and teach them the trees and flowers, the birds and their songs. He liked to play musical instruments and sing. But he could also be a nervous chain smoker.

In 1887, Baird died. There were two Assistant Secretaries in line to succeed him. Goode was one, and Samuel P. Langley, was the other. The Regents appointed Langley. Many at the time saw him as the lesser man, but after all, Langley was 52 and Goode only 35. There would be time. Anyway, while Langley was more or less following his own interests, Goode was taking care of the day-to-day business of the institution.

By 1888, the movement to knit together Washington’s professional societies so as to make the city the intellectual as well as political capital of the country was reaching a climax. Goode was in the midst of it, being an active member of the Cosmos Club, the president of the Biological Society, and of course, the director of the U.S. National Museum, itself growing in response to specimens and materials flooding back from such expanding federal scientific bureaus as the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology. Many of the capital’s scientific and intellectual associations stated as their mission some version of the “increase and diffusion” of their particular sciences. As a matter of course, perhaps, Goode attended the meeting at the Cosmos Club in early January 1888 when another such group, the National Geographic Society, was formed. Not surprisingly, he was elected to the new organization’s first Board of Managers.

So many activities, so many exhibits–the stresses attendant on being the workhorse of the Smithsonian were starting to tell. Goode’s fragile health was breaking again. Increasingly nervous and overwrought, he was now suffering bouts of depression. In 1892, at the age of 40, he made a long sojourn in Italy in an attempt to regain strength.

Washington’s learned societies and professional organizations were drawing together, administered by a supervisory body called the Joint Commission—whose secretary was Marcus Baker and whose president was Gardiner Greene Hubbard, president of the NGS. In fact, Goode and Hubbard were becoming particularly close. One Sunday morning in June 1896, Goode visited Twin Oaks, Hubbard’s estate. Walking through the gardens, he reveled in the flowers and the birds, seeming, as Hubbard observed, “alive to every bit of earth and sky.” In the library he lingered over the books and pored over rare Japanese prints. Hubbard recalled how Goode the genealogist knew the older man’s pedigree better than he did himself. It was a wistful, quiet morning, the kind Goode had too few of.

He had recently completed The Smithsonian Institution, a comprehensive history of that body’s first half-century. His Oceanic Ichthyology, a study of all the deep-sea fish known at that time, was already on the presses, and would be issued in August. Goode told Tarleton Bean, his collaborator on the project, that it would be “our monument.”

When August came, though, Goode caught a summer cold. At first it seemed only to intensify his perennial bronchitis. But in his exhausted state, his ravaged lungs could not withstand the onslaught. The infection became acute, quickly passed into bronchial pneumonia, and on September 6, 1896, Brown Goode, only 45 years old, died in his bed.

His wife and four children were shocked senseless; his wide circle of acquaintance stunned and saddened. Langley could only declare that he had lost “a man who cannot be replaced,” a man “for which I do not know where to look again…” He knew that, in less than a quarter century, the Smithsonian collections had grown from 200,000 objects to 3,000,000; the staff from 13 to over 200—and that it was not his doing. WJ McGee, in a quick notice in the September 1896 National Geographic, made the point more precisely. Not only was it a “heavy loss to American science—indeed, because of his many connections to public interests, it may well be regarded as a national calamity.”

At Goode’s memorial, another NGS founder, William H. Dall quietly told them that “no ordinary man could have done this work and yet have left behind him no antagonisms, no memories of failure, no hint of insufficiency, associated with his name.”

But the real achievement was for the ages, not only stretching up and down the National Mall in Washington but also residing in the minds of museum professionals everywhere—so many versions of that one great original, George Brown Goode’s house full of ideas.

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