The origins of the collections of echinoderms under the care of the Smithsonian Institution can be traced to the collections received from the North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1853-1856, which in 1858 were placed in the care of J. M. Barnard for study and description. In 1861, Louis Agassiz and William Stimpson examined the entire Smithsonian collection of echinoderms. Theodore Lyman, a student of Agassiz, began publishing papers on the brittlestars in the Smithsonian collection in 1858. Beginning in the early 1880's, voluminous amounts of echinoderms were added to the National collections as a result of dredging work conducted by the United States Fish Commission. These collections were reported on by Addison E. Verrill, Katharine J. Bush, Hubert Ludwig, Hubert L. Clark, Charles L. Edwards, and Alexander Agassiz.
From 1880 until 1920, the study and curation of the United States National Museum (USNM) collection of echinoderms was under the administrative direction of the Division of Marine Invertebrates. In 1920 the collection of echinoderms was removed from Marine Invertebrates to form a new Division of Echinoderms. Austin H. Clark, who had served since 1908 as collaborator and assistant curator in the Division of Marine Invertebrates, was appointed curator and remained in the position until his retirement in 1950. At that time, the Division of Echinoderms ceased to exist as an administrative entity and the collections reverted to the administrative care of the Division of Marine Invertebrates. On July 1, 1965, the Division of Echinoderms was reformed as a division of the newly created Department of Invertebrate Zoology.
Professional staff of the present Division of Echinoderms includes David L. Pawson, associate curator, 1964-1969, curator, 1969- ; Klaus Ruetzler, associate curator, 1965-1973, curator, 1973; and Frederick M. Bayer, visiting curator, 1972-1975, curator, 1975- .