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1 October 2002 IN MEMORIAM: S. DILLON RIPLEY, 1913–2001
Bruce M. Beehler, Roger F. Pasquier, Warren B. King
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Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution for 20 years, expert on Indian birds, aviculturist, conservationist, and renaissance man, Sidney Dillon Ripley died on 12 March 2001 at the age of 87, following a long and debilitating illness. Known to those who worked for him at the Smithsonian as “Mr. Ripley” (not “Dr.”, he requested), he was an extraordinary leader and visionary, often inspiring and at times obscure, but always innovative and courageous in his championing of ideas that deserved a hearing, especially to foster the intellectual flowering of his beloved Smithsonian Institution.

Dillon Ripley was born in New York City on 20 September 1913. His great-grandfather, Sidney Dillon, was founding chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad and in 1869 drove the ceremonial last spike completing the nation's first transcontinental rail line. In 1927, at the age of 13, Ripley and his older sister traveled to India. A six-week walking tour into Ladakh and western Tibet led to a lifelong fascination with the Indian subcontinent. In addition, as a teen he fell in love with waterfowl; his book, A Paddling of Ducks (1957), recounts his adventures watching, collecting, owning, breeding, and appreciating ducks, swans, and geese. Ripley was educated at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and then at Yale (BA 1936), and Harvard (Ph.D. 1943). His professional career received its first lift in 1936, when, as a recent graduate of Yale, he joined a zoological expedition to New Guinea under the auspices of the Academy of Natural Sciences. Memorialized in his popular Trail of the Money Bird (1942), this two-year voyage gave Ripley his first serious taste of tropical ornithology, a love he retained through his life. He worked briefly in the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and then took his doctorate at Harvard. He served in the OSS in South Asia during the second world war. Returning from the war, Ripley taught at Yale, and was a Fulbright fellow in 1950 and a Guggenheim fellow in 1954. He rose to full professor and director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. During that period of 20 years, he and his colleague Sálim Ali of the Bombay Natural History Society redefined the ornithology of the Indian region, and in doing so became the acknowledged authorities on this diverse and now threatened avifauna. Perhaps the capstone of Ripley's scholarship was his Synopsis of the Birds of India and Pakistan (1961), one of the great traditional synoptic checklists of a major avifauna. Better known is Ali and Ripley's 12 volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (1968–1974), which has had several lives because of revisions and various ingenious and useful reformulations.

As an ornithologist, Ripley loved the Old World. Many of his geographically focused works centered on the arc from Pakistan southeastward to the great island of New Guinea, including, in particular, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nepal, and India. He made many expeditions to India and Bhutan with Ali; those constitute a remarkable scientific achievement that may never be equaled. Ripley also completed a full revision of the thrushes for Peters' Checklist (1964), as well as a grand monographic treatment of the rails and their allies (Ripley 1977). The latter was an immediate collectible. Lavishly illustrated by J. Fenwick Lansdowne and beautifully designed by Crimilda Pontes, it was one of Time magazine's suggested “picks” for Christmas shoppers of that year.

At that stage in his life, when Ripley did something, it was noticed by the popular press as well as the ornithological journals. His high visibility was due to his long tenure (1964–1984) and conspicuous accomplishments as Secretary of the Smithsonian. Few natural scientists would question the declaration that Dillon Ripley was one of the greatest secretaries of the Smithsonian, comparable in effect to Spencer Baird. Eight museums, seven research facilities, and numerous outreach programs were added to the Smithsonian Institution during Ripley's tenure. Ripley's grand world view, his personal confidence, and his sense of mission that the Smithsonian Institution should educate the public at the same time as it fostered critical and independent scientific research, gave him the strength to win key battles against bureaucrats and nay-sayers within and without, and to lead the Smithsonian to new heights of accomplishment, outreach, and inclusiveness. Ripley's Smithsonian was a national institution without walls, without circumscription. His vision and diplomatic skills lowered the guard of even the most jaded congressional oversight staff, whereas his personal enthusiasm persuaded presidents from Johnson to Reagan that the institution needed strong government support. He made the Smithsonian Institution the nation's museum and cultural center.

He joined the AOU in 1938, became an Elective Member in 1942, and a fellow in 1951. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award, in 1985. He was awarded honorary degrees from 15 colleges and universities, including Brown, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Cambridge (United Kingdom).

Ripley had an additional career as a leader in international nature conservation. He spoke often of his belief that scientists had a particular obligation to work to protect the organisms and habitats they studied. With Peter Scott, Jean Delacour, Jack Vincent, Julian Huxley, Kai Curry-Lindahl, Yoshimaro Yamashina, and Jean Dorst, his name would certainly appear on the short list of key personalities who guided and expanded the world conservation movement. Ripley served for many years on the board of the World Wildlife Fund-U.S., and was the third president of the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP, now BirdLife International). As president of ICBP, he oversaw the organization's substantial expansion, with a professional staff, increased publications, and national representatives in a growing number of the developing countries that had the greatest diversity of bird life to protect and the fewest local resources. As president, he was energetic in using his connections to advocate bird and nature conservation with heads of government, notably his friend Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, and to confront those responsible for destruction of nature, such as Robert McNamara when the latter was president of the World Bank. Practicing what he preached, Ripley personally intervened in the recovery of the Hawaiian Goose or Nene, providing a breeding facility at his home in Litchfield, Connecticut. His waterfowl collection, which he began as a teenager, continues today as a nonprofit conservation and aviculture center, the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Sanctuary, with species from around the world.

The three of us worked for Ripley with considerable fascination, overlapping in the years from 1971 to 1991. He had a style all his own, combining erudition, pragmatism, and wry humor. The press of his work as secretary kept him mainly at his office in the Smithsonian's Castle, but on any given day he might slip across the mall to the National Museum of Natural History, where he kept a research lab adjacent to the Division of Birds. His first love was ornithology, but his duties kept him ever on the move—from museum research budgets, to rallid systematic arrangements, or even to placement of guests at a dinner for the Reagans. He loved people, but especially those in positions of power, elected or inherited, whom he often persuaded to support the advancement of science, culture, or conservation.

For us, a visit to his house along Washington's Embassy Row was to enter a world of rare books, tiger skins, New Guinea artifacts, vast oriental rugs, Audubon originals, and evocative bric-a-brac. This was his home base—but when we knew him Ripley was a man regularly on the way to an airport, between conferences, board meetings, reconnaissance visits to his waterfowl collection, and overseas expeditions. This hardly slowed after retirement as Smithsonian Secretary until illness confined him in his final years.

His wife, Mary Moncrieffe Livingston Ripley, a photographer, orchidologist, and amateur entomologist, was a fitting mate. She traveled the world with him, and camped in the field in places as remote as Nagaland, Bhutan, and Netherlands New Guinea (now Papua). They made a wonderful, if idiosyncratic, pair. We remember them dressed in bush khaki in a South India bush camp, sitting after dinner in folding camp chairs by their large sleeping tent, lit only by a Coleman pressure lantern, smoking their tobacco of choice (his a small cigar, hers a brown-wrapped cigarillo), and sipping a nightcap. The Ripleys were content in the field, but looked to buffer the rigors with what comforts could be made available. We recollect one call for “ice” during an April heat wave in Andhra Pradesh that led to a prolonged but eventually successful excursion by an assistant and driver on a Sunday afternoon. We suspect that 1985 encampment looked little different from what one might have seen in a 1930s expedition. They were at home in such an environment. Mrs. Ripley's premature death in 1996 was a great blow.

Ripley's several hundred scholarly publications focused principally on distribution, systematics, and taxonomy of birds of Asia and the Pacific. Whereas these may have been superseded, S. Dillon Ripley's influence endures. His intelligence, beneficence, and leadership touched a whole generation of researchers, from Panama to Papua New Guinea, from Indonesia to the Galapagos, and from the Philippines to Sri Lanka. His legacy to natural history and nature conservation will not soon be forgotten.

Dillon Ripley is survived by his three daughters, Julie, Rosemary, and Sylvia, and 11 grandchildren.

S. Dillon Ripley(S. Dillon Ripley, his wife Mary, and driver riding an elephant in India in 1976. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Archives.)

Bruce M. Beehler, Roger F. Pasquier, and Warren B. King "IN MEMORIAM: S. DILLON RIPLEY, 1913–2001," The Auk 119(4), 1110-1113, (1 October 2002).[1110:IMSDR]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 October 2002
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