The Regents begin work

At its very first meeting, the Smithsonian Board of Regents appointed the first SI employee, William McPeake, to the position of doorkeeper and messenger for the Board, at a salary of $1 per day. They did some other stuff, too.  

Engraving, Regents room
This engraving showing the Regents’ Room of the Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle) by William Jones Rhees appeared in “An Account of the Smithsonian Institution” and was published in the 1857 guidebook.

One hundred and seventy-five years ago, the Board of Regents was in the midst of its inaugural meeting held over three days from September 7–9, 1846, in the Patent Office Building (now the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture). 

During the course of that meeting and those immediately following, the Board launched and completed a search for the first Secretary, Joseph Henry, setting his annual salary at $3,500 with a $500 rent allowance, formed a committee to identify a site and plan for a building to house Smithsonian activities (ground would be broken for the Castle on the National Mall just nine months later), and began development of initial Smithsonian public programming, a series of “popular lectures on useful subjects.”  Another key order of business for the Regents — the appointment of the first Smithsonian employee, William McPeake, to the position of doorkeeper and messenger for the Board, at a salary of $1 per day.   

Under the statute creating the Smithsonian enacted just a month earlier, the Board of Regents were to be comprised of the Vice President and Chief Justice of the United States, the Mayor of Washington, D.C., three Senators, three Representatives, and – to ensure geographic diversity– six citizens from across the United States, two of whom must be from the District of Columbia, and no two others from the same state.  The original Regents were:

  • Vice President George M. Dallas
  • Chief Justice Roger B. Taney
  • Mayor of the District of Columbia William W. Seaton
  • Senator Isaac Pennybacker of Virginia
  • Senator Sidney Breese of Illinois
  • Senator George Evans of Maine
  • Representative Robert Dale Owen of Indiana
  • Representative William J. Hough of New York
  • Representative Henry Hilliard of Alabama
  • Rufus Choate, Citizen of Massachusetts
  • Benjamin Rush, Citizen of Pennsylvania
  • Gideon Hawley, Citizen of New York
  • William C. Preston, Citizen of South Carolina
  • Alexander Dallas Bache, Citizen of the District of Columbia
  • Joseph Gilbert Totten, Citizen of the District of Columbia
Board of Regents and other dignataries gathered around table for bust presentation
Presentation of the bust of Alexander Graham Bell by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company at the annual meeting of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution on December 9, 1926.
Front Row (l-r): Senator George W. Pepper, Vice President Charles G. Dawes, Chief Justice William H. Taft, Senator Reed Smoot, Senator Woodbridge N. Ferris, Hon. Henry White, Back Row (l-r): Rep. Walter H. Newton, Mr. Irwin B. Laughlin, Rep. Albert Johnson, Rep. R. Walton Moore, Mr. Robert S. Brookings, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Charles D. Walcott, Mrs. Gilbert H. Grosvenor (daughter of Dr. Bell); Mr. Walter S. Gifford (President of the American Telephone & Telegraph Co.), Mr. Victor Salvatore (Sculptor), Mr. Frederick A. Delano, Mr. Dwight W. Morrow, Mr. Charles F. Choate, Jr., Mr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor. (Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Over the next 175 years, the Board has become more than just geographically diverse (the statute was twice amended to remove the Mayor from the Board and create three additional citizen positions).  Below is a photograph of the Regents appearing in a Fortune magazine feature on leading non-profit boards in 2013.  The biographies of the current Board of Regents are available at: Members of the Board of Regents | Smithsonian Institution (

Fortune magazine photo of Regents in Castle Commons
(2013. From left, Secretary G. Wayne Clough, France Cordova, Shirley Ann Jackson, John W. McCarter Jr., Patty Stonesifer, Sen. Jack Reed, David M. Rubenstein, Vice President Joseph Biden, Ambassador Barbara M. Barrett, Roger W. Sant, Rep. Tom Cole, Steve Case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Sen. Thad Cochran, Robert P. Kogod, Rep. Xavier Becerra, and Senator Patrick Leahy).
Screenshot showing Smiothsonian at 175 logo on black background

Posted: 9 September 2021
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