The origins of the Division of Fishes of the United States National Museum and its ichthyological work can be traced to the arrival of Spencer Fullerton Baird as Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1850. When he arrived, Baird brought with him his private collection of specimens, which he had collected and arranged. Among these specimens were a number of fishes, and these were the earliest basis for the fish collections of the United States National Museum.
Although the first catalogue entry of fishes is dated in 1856, ichthyological work had been carried out for some time before this. In 1850, Baird brought Charles Girard, a student of Jean Louis Agassiz, to the Smithsonian, where he remained until 1860. During this period, Girard published 42 ichthyological papers based on the Museum collections. Baird himself published little in the field, although he did collaborate with Girard on a number of papers. Theodore Nicholas Gill joined the Smithsonian in 1859 to help prepare the reports for the Northwestern Boundary Survey and spent the rest of his life working on the museum collections, although he was never an official division staff member.
The two other principal bases for the fish collections were the United States Exploring Expedition specimens, which were brought to the Museum in 1858, and the collections deposited by the United States Fish Commission and its successor agencies.
The Division of Fishes and the United States Fish Commission were closely associated from the latter's founding in 1871. In addition to Baird's duties as assistant secretary, he was commissioner of Fish and Fisheries from its founding until his death in 1887. He also assigned Smithsonian staff members to Fish Commission duties, and the distinction between the activities of the Fish Commission and the Division of Fishes appears very nebulous in these papers, particularly for the early period.
Tarleton Hoffman Bean joined the staff as assistant ichthyologist in 1877 and became curator following the organization of the United States National Museum in 1879. Fish Commission duties became too time consuming, however, and he was made honorary curator from 1888 to 1905. His brother, Barton A. Bean, was appointed assistant in 1882, aid in 1886, and curator in 1890. He retained this title until his retirement in 1932. Barton Warren Evermann held the title of curator from 1906 to 1913 but apparently spent the greater part of his time on Bureau of Fisheries matters.
Since 1932, curators of the division have included George Sprague Myers, assistant curator in charge (1933-1936); Leonard Peter Schultz, assistant curator in charge (1936-1938), curator (1938-1965), and senior scientist and associate (1965- ); Loren P. Woods, associate curator (1947-1948); Edward C. Raney, associate curator (1949); Ernest A. Lachner, associate curator (1949-1965) and curator (1965- ); William Ralph Taylor, associate curator (1949- ); Robert H. Gibbs, Jr., associate curator (1963-1969) and curator (1969- ); Victor G. Springer, associate curator (1963-1967) and curator (1967- ) and Stanley H. Weitzman, associate curator (1963-1968) and curator (1968- ).