The Department of Mammals at the United States National Museum was formally created in 1879 with the organization of the United States National Museum by George Brown Goode. Work in mammalogy had been possible prior to that time, however, as a result of the large collection of mammals the Smithsonian had accumulated.
The earliest basis for the mammals collection was the natural history collection of Spencer F. Baird, which he brought with him when he joined the Smithsonian Institution in 1850. In addition to these specimens, the Smithsonian began to receive mammals from naturalists and others assigned to the United States government exploring expeditions. In 1858, the Smithsonian received what remained of the collections of the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842, which had been stored in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. Another large collection was acquired upon the dissolution of the National Institute in 1861.
Upon the formation of the Department in 1879, Elliot Coues was appointed honorary curator of mammals. He continued as honorary curator until Frederick William True became curator in 1883. In 1897, a major reorganization of the museum made the department a division within the new Department of Biology, and True became head curator of biology. The following year Gerrit Smith Miller, Jr., was appointed assistant curator of mammals and from 1908-1940 was curator. Following his retirement, A. Remington Kellogg was curator until 1948. From 1948-1965, the division was headed by David H. Johnson, who was associate curator from 1941-1957 and curator from 1957-1965. Charles O. Handley became curator in 1965, and Henry W. Setzer was appointed curator in 1969.