William Jones Rhees was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1830, the only son of Benjamin Rush Rhees and Margaret Grace Evans Rhees. Dr. Rhees was a prominent physician and one of the founders and first faculty members of Jefferson Medical College; he died in 1831, and William lived with his grandmother for much of his childhood. He had many educational advantages in his early life and graduated from Philadelphia's Central High School in 1647.
After graduating he went to Meadville, Pennsylvania, and took a position as clerk and draughtsman for the Holland Land Company; three years later he moved to Washington, D.C., and was appointed a clerk in the Census Office in the Department of the Interior. Although only twenty years old, he had charge of the Division of Social Statistics and a large force of clerks under him. While at the Census Office he acted as secretary to the Executive Committee of the United States on the Industrial Exposition in London in 1851, the first great World's Fair.
When Rhees moved to Washington in 1850, he carried with him a letter of introduction to Joseph Henry from his uncle, Nicholas Murray, who must have been acquainted with Henry at Princeton. Henry acted on Rhees' behalf when his position at the Census Office was terminated in 1853, but Rhees let it be known that he had been reinstated only on a temporary basis and would appreciate a position at the Smithsonian if one opened up. Later that year Rhees was hired as a "general assistant" and private secretary to Joseph Henry, and by 1855 he held the position of chief clerk. He left the Institution in 1870 to pursue the stationery business in Springfield (state unspecified) but was gone less than a year. He continued as chief clerk under Spencer F. Baird, and by a special act of Congress served as secretary of the Institution when Baird was absent. After Baird's death and Samuel P. Langley's appointment as secretary, Rhees was asked to take the position of the first keeper of the Archives in 1891.
Although Rhees' job titles may give the impression that his work was limited in scope, an examination of his job description proves otherwise; among the sixty-six duties he lists are: opening and directing all mail; furnishing any information or data called for by the Secretary; preparing all contracts, finances, and estimates for appropriations; reading proofs of Smithsonian publications and supervising drawings, engravings, and illustrations; acting as secretary to the Board of Regents and preparing a Journal of Proceedings; and having charge of the Archives. After the completion of the National Museum in 1881, he gained additional responsibilities as a liaison between the Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.
Rhees was a prolific writer and editor of Smithsonian history. He wrote An Account of the Smithsonian Institution in 1857, which briefly described the history and organization of the Institution and served as a guide to the National Museum. Rhees also produced editions of the Account in 1858-59, 1863-66, and 1869. His Visitor's Guide to the Smithsonian Institution, published in 1880-87, 1889, and 1891-92 served a similar function but contained fewer details of the Smithsonian's history. He traced the ancestry and life of the Institution's founder in James Smithson and his Bequest (1879), and the next year edited The Scientific Writings of James Smithson (1880). Acting as secretary to the Board of Regents, he edited The Smithsonian Institution: Journal of the Board of Regents, Reports of Committees, Statistics, etc. (1879). His Manual of Public Libraries, Institutions, and Societies in the United States and British Provinces of North America (1859) recommended guidelines for the construction of library buildings, classification of volumes, and local organization and exchanges. The list of libraries included in the volume was often reprinted.
Rhees' work with Smithsonian publications produced List of Publications of the Smithsonian Institution (1874, 1879, 1896, and 1903) and Catalogue of Publications of the Smithsonian Institution (1882, 1886, and 1889). He followed the network of academic associations with the Institution in List of the Institutions, Libraries, Colleges, and other Establishments in the United States in Correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution (1872, 1886).
Rhees' most significant contributions to Smithsonian history came later in his career. He compiled and edited The Smithsonian Institution: Documents Relative to Its Origin and History (1879), which included Smithson's will, Congressional records of debate over the acceptance of the bequest and the organization of the Institution, and other documents important to its early history. The second edition of the Documents book, published in 1901, contained documents through 1899 as well as a revised version of the 1879 volume. He also contributed to The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896: The History of Its First Half-Century (1897), edited by Assistant Secretary George Brown Goode. His chronology, "Principal Events in the History of the Smithsonian Institution" appeared as an appendix to the book, and his biographical sketches of the Regents were printed in the chapter on the Board of Regents.
In addition to his responsibilities at the Smithsonian, Rhees was actively involved in other organizations. He helped found and served as president of the Young Men's Christian Association of Washington, and was active in its philanthropic work during the Civil War. He was a member and officer of the District chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution and compiled the Register of the District of Columbia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (1896) and its Yearbook (1897). He retained his interest in public schools, serving as a trustee in the District for eight years. At the time of his death, he was also a member of the Anthropological Society, the District of Columbia Historical Society, the National Geographic Society, and the Pennsylvania Historical Society.
Rhees served as a correspondent on special topics for many national and local newspapers, and his strong association with the press is evidenced in the number and variety of newspaper clippings in this collection.
Little is known of his family and personal life. He was married to Laura O. Clark, with whom he had a daughter, Fannie Augusta. After the death of his first wife he married Romenia F. Ellis, and they had five children: William Henry, Charles Frank, Grace Margaret, Flora Gertrude, and Benjamin Rush.
Rhees served at the Smithsonian almost until his death in 1907 and was remembered in a memorial resolution of the Board of Regents as a "trustworthy officer," "born archivist," and "model citizen."