Thomas Smillie

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Thomas Smillie
Portrait of Thomas William Smillie, circa 1910s.png
BornThomas William Smillie
(1843-04-15)April 15, 1843
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Died March 7, 1917(1917-03-07) (aged 73)
Known for Photography

Thomas William Smillie (April 15, 1843 – March 7, 1917) was a Scottish-American photographer and archivist. He served as the first official photographer of the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the first official curator of the Smithsonian's photography collection. [1]

Smithsonian Institution group of museums and research centers administered by the United States government

The Smithsonian Institution, founded on August 10, 1846 "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge," is a group of museums and research centers administered by the Government of the United States. The institution is named after its founding donor, British scientist James Smithson. Originally organized as the "United States National Museum," that name ceased to exist as an administrative entity in 1967.


Early life

Smillie was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, but moved to the United States with his family at age five. He eventually attended Georgetown University as a student in medicine and chemistry. [2]

Edinburgh City and council area in Scotland

Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland and one of its 32 council areas. Historically part of the county of Midlothian, it is located in Lothian on the Firth of Forth's southern shore.

Scotland country in Northwest Europe, part of the United Kingdom

Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Sharing a border with England to the southeast, Scotland is otherwise surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, by the North Sea to the northeast and by the Irish Sea to the south. In addition to the mainland, situated on the northern third of the island of Great Britain, Scotland has over 790 islands, including the Northern Isles and the Hebrides.

Georgetown University private university in Washington, D.C., United States

Georgetown University is a private research university in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Founded in 1789 as Georgetown College, the university has grown to comprise nine undergraduate and graduate schools, among which are the School of Foreign Service, School of Business, Medical School, and Law School. Located on a hill above the Potomac River, the school's main campus is identifiable by its flagship Healy Hall, a National Historic Landmark. Georgetown offers degree programs in forty-eight disciplines, enrolling an average of 7,500 undergraduate and 10,000 post-graduate students from more than 130 countries.


At the age of 27, Smillie started for the Smithsonian as a staff photographer using different photographic techniques to document the Smithsonian's daily operation, its exhibitions and people. [3] He gained field experience as an expedition photographer for the United States Fish Commission. He also photographed the Solar eclipse of May 28, 1900. Additionally, upon the creation of the formal Section of Photography at the Smithsonian in 1896, Smillie was appointed a Smithsonian Custodian in charge of the growing photographic collection; [4] he would hold both positions until his death in 1917. [1] [5]

United States Fish Commission part of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service

The United States Fish Commission, formally known as the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, was an agency of the United States government created in 1871 to investigate, promote, and preserve the fisheries of the United States. In 1903, it was reorganized as the United States Bureau of Fisheries, which operated until 1940. In 1940, the Commission became part of the newly created United States Fish and Wildlife Service, under the United States Department of the Interior.

Solar eclipse of May 28, 1900

A total solar eclipse occurred on May 28, 1900. A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between Earth and the Sun, thereby totally or partly obscuring the image of the Sun for a viewer on Earth. A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon's apparent diameter is larger than the Sun's, blocking all direct sunlight, turning day into darkness. Totality occurs in a narrow path across Earth's surface, with the partial solar eclipse visible over a surrounding region thousands of kilometres wide.

One of Smillie's interests was in preserving the history of photography. After assuming his curatorial duties, he decided that, "an effort will be made hereafter, especially in connection with the future expositions of amateur photography, to secure such works as are necessary to make the collection in the National Museum a reference and record collection, which shall not only be a matter of interest and pleasure to the public, but of practical value to the photographers themselves." [3] His initial purchases for the Section of Photography included a camera and equipment owned by Samuel Morse.

Samuel Morse American painter and inventor

Samuel Finley Breese Morse, OIC was an American painter and inventor. After having established his reputation as a portrait painter, in his middle age Morse contributed to the invention of a single-wire telegraph system based on European telegraphs. He was a co-developer of the Morse code and helped to develop the commercial use of telegraphy.

In 1913, Smillie curated the Smithsonian's first-ever photography exhibition. [4]

Frances Benjamin Johnston learned photography from him, among others. [6]

Frances Benjamin Johnston American photojournalist

Frances "Fannie" Benjamin Johnston was an early American photographer and photojournalist whose career lasted for almost half a century. She is most known for her portraits, images of southern architecture, and various photographic series featuring African Americans and Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century.

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