The collection of reptiles and amphibians under the care of the Smithsonian Institution had its origins in the collection of Spencer F. Baird which he presented to the Institution when he came to Washington to accept the position of Assistant Secretary in 1850. For the next three decades there was no curator officially in charge of the collection, and most of the early publications resulting from the collection were produced by Baird and Charles Frederic Girard (1822-1895), who from 1850-1860 was Baird's chief assistant.
In 1879 Henry Crécy Yarrow (1840-1929), an army surgeon who had served as naturalist on the explorations west of the 100th meridian led by Lt. George Wheeler, was appointed Honorary Curator of the Department of Herpetology, a position which he filled on a part-time basis until his resignation in 1889. During the early 1880's the Department was known variously as the Department of Herpetology, the Department of Reptiles, and the Department of Reptiles and Batrachians. But by about 1885 the latter title had become standard. In 1947 the name was changed to the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians.
In 1897 the National Museum was reorganized into three departments: Biology, Geology, and Anthropology, with Reptiles and Batrachians as a Division of the Department of Biology. In 1947 another administrative reorganization took place in the United States National Museum. As part of the reorganization the Department of Biology was split into Departments of Botany and Zoology with Reptiles and Batrachians (renamed Reptiles and Amphibians) becoming a Division of the Department of Zoology. In 1964 the Department of Zoology was divided into three departments: Vertebrate Zoology, Invertebrate Zoology, and Entomology, with Reptiles and Amphibians a Division of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology.
Leonhard Stejneger (1851-1943), the first full-time curator of the Division of Reptiles and Batrachians, came to the Smithsonian in 1881 as an ornithologist. During 1882 and 1883 he worked as an observer for the U. S. Signal Service in the Commander Islands, where he made large collections for the U. S. National Museum. After his return to Washington he was made Assistant Curator in the Department of Birds (1884), a position which he held until asked to assume the position of Curator of the Department of Reptiles and Batrachians in 1889, after the resignation of Yarrow. He accepted the position and held it until his death in 1943.
Doris Mable Cochran (1898-1968) was appointed Aid in the Division in 1919. In 1927 she was named Assistant Curator; in 1942 she became Associate Curator; and in 1956 she was named Curator, a position which she held until her death.