Work in vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian Institution predates the formal establishment of a Department of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1887. Joseph Leidy and Edward Drinker Cope, among others, studied the fossil collections which had been gathered by the various government exploring expeditions and sent to the Smithsonian. With the reorganization of the United States National Museum, 1880, the Department of Comparative Anatomy was given charge of the collections until the creation of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1887, with Othniel Charles Marsh as Honorary Curator. Since its creation, the Department has undergone a number of organizational and title changes.
In 1894, the Department became a Section of the Department of Paleontology. The reorganization of 1897 created a Division of Stratigraphic Paleontology in the Department of Geology, and Vertebrate Paleontology was made a Section of that Division. It became a separate Division in 1908 but in 1911 was again made a Section, this time in the Division of Paleontology. In 1924 this Division was renamed the Division of Stratigraphic Paleontology and Vertebrate Paleontology again became a Division. The Department of Geology was divided in 1963 into Departments of Mineral Sciences and Paleobiology, with Vertebrate Paleontology a Division of the latter.
Since Marsh's death in 1889, curators of the Division have included Frederic Augustus Lucas, intermittently from 1889 to 1904; Charles W. Gilmore, Assistant and Associate Curator, 1911-1923, and Curator, 1923-1945; and James W. Gidley, Assistant Curator, 1911-1931. Charles Lewis Gazin, Assistant and Associate Curator, 1932-1946, was appointed Curator following Gilmore's death. Later staff included Associate Curators David H. Dunkle and Peter P. Vaughn, 1946-1967, and 1957-1959, respectively; Nicholas Hotton III, Associate Curator, 1959-1968, and Curator, 1969- ; Clayton E. Ray, Associate Curator, 1964-1968, Supervisor and Curator, 1968-1971, and Curator, 1971- ; and Robert J. Emry, Associate Curator, 1971-1981, and Curator, 1982- .