The paleontological collections of the United States National Museum (USNM) were located in the Department of Geology, from its creation in 1880 until its dissolution in 1963. The Department of Geology had three divisions devoted to paleontology: Vertebrate Paleontology, Invertebrate Paleontology, and Paleobotany. The Department of Geology was led by Ray S. Bassler as head curator between 1930-1948. He was succeeded by William H. Foshag, 1948-1956, and G. Arthur Cooper, 1957-1963.
The Department of Paleobiology was created in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) on October 15, 1963, with the division of the former Department of Geology into two departments: Paleobiology and Mineral Sciences. The Department of Paleobiology was organized into three divisions: Paleobotany, Invertebrate Paleontology, and Vertebrate Paleontology. G. Arthur Cooper assumed the chairmanship for the department with Francis M. Hueber, Richard S. Boardman, and Charles Lewis Gazin appointed as division heads, respectively. Cooper was succeeded as chairman by Porter M. Kier, 1967-1972, Richard E. Grant, 1972-1977, Martin A. Buzas, 1977-1982, and Ian G. Macintyre, 1982- .
The annual report for 1964 noted two reasons for the division. First, the character and administrative needs of departmental practitioners of mineral sciences and paleobiology were recognized as obstructions to productive research. With their divergent activities, difficulties arose regarding the fair allocation of resources and administrative responsibilities. In addition, the emphasis in the field of paleontology began shifting away from the use of fossils for stratigraphic and geological applications to a study of the biological aspects of fossils. Zoological or botanical training became a significant addition to geological training. By using the term "paleobiology" to denote departmental activities, the institution recognized this shift toward reconstructing and interpreting paleoenvironments.
The establishment of a separate Department of Paleobiology provided the necessary impetus for further growth in the field of paleontology at the Smithsonian. In 1933, five curatorial positions were devoted to paleontological collections: Ray S. Bassler (invertebrates), G. Arthur Cooper (invertebrates), Charles Lewis Gazin (vertebrates), Charles W. Gilmore (vertebrates), and Charles E. Resser (invertebrates). In 1948, following the end of the Second World War, the staff numbered six including: Ray S. Bassler, Arthur L. Bowsher, G. Arthur Cooper, David H. Dunkle, Charles Lewis Gazin, and Alfred R. Loeblich, Jr. The department continued to grow, numbering nine in 1963 (R. S. Boardman, Porter M. Kier, Richard Cifelli, E. G. Kauffman, Francis M. Hueber, Martin A. Buzas, Charles Lewis Gazin, David H. Dunkle, and Nicholas Hotton III) and nineteen in 1984 (Walter H. Adey, Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Richard H. Benson, Richard S. Boardman, Martin A. Buzas, Alan H. Cheetam, Richard Cifelli, Robert J. Emry, Richard E. Grant, Nicholas Hotton III, Francis M. Hueber, Porter M. Kier, Kenneth M. Towe, Ian G. Macintyre, James F. Mello, Jack W. Pierce, Clayton E. Ray, Daniel J. Stanley, and Thomas R. Waller).
Research on the national paleontological collections is also conducted by paleontologists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Researchers from both organizations have always maintained close working relationships, and this is documented in the files.
The growth of both the staff and the collections placed a strain on museum facilities. This problem was temporarily relieved with the opening of the East Wing of the Natural History Building in 1962, and the Museum Support Center in 1983. Even with these additions, space allocation and staff positions always fell short of what was needed. Outside reviews of its programs in both 1967 and 1982 also emphasized these problems.
In the 1960s, the paleontological exhibit halls underwent extensive renovation as part of the museum Exhibits Modernization Program. In 1966, modern research was facilitated by the acquisition of a Scanning Electron Microscope.