Smithsonian Official David Challinor, 87

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008; 10:25 AM

David Challinor, 87, the Smithsonian's assistant secretary for science and research for 16 years and a world-class rower until three years ago, died of congestive heart failure March 5 at his home in Washington.

Dr. Challinor, a biologist and naturalist, guided the institution through innumerable challenges and mentored the careers of numerous scientists. He also worked to preserve plant and animal species through his leadership in several conservation and environmental organizations.

Dr. Challinor was "probably the single most successful assistant secretary that the Smithsonian's had in the last 40 or 50 years," acting secretary Cristi┬┐n Samper said. "He understood his role as supporting the institution, and he had a deep, deep commitment to training and capacity building."

Dr. Challinor defended the Smithsonian's decision in the early 1980s not to restore a popular Chesapeake Bay island that was eroded by storms, asking, "By what right (or to what purpose) should man seek to mitigate a process as inexorable as the wearing down of the once-tall Appalachians, or the extinction of the woolly mammoth, or the demise of some other species doomed by nature?"

Later, when it became public that the Smithsonian had worked in the 1970s on a classified migratory bird study in the Pacific in partnership with the Defense Department, which was seeking "safe" sites for atmospheric testing of biological weapons, Dr. Challinor first refused to believe it.

"Why, by our very nature we cannot do classified work. It would violate the trust. This is what the Smithsonian Institution is all about. We have to publish what we do. If we don't, we are living a lie," he told a reporter in 1983.

When he found that the study had indeed been done, he declared: "By God, it would be over my dead body if that thing were ever cranked up again." As a result of the Pacific project and the ensuing turmoil, the Smithsonian inserted a clause in its contracts prohibiting classified work and requiring all findings to be published in open scientific literature.

Dr. Challinor joined the Smithsonian Institution in 1966, leaving the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University to follow his mentor, ornithologist S. Dillon Ripley, to Washington. Starting as a special assistant in tropical biology, he rose to oversee all the Smithsonian science and research projects from 1971 to 1987. Dr. Challinor then became science adviser to the secretary and finally scientist emeritus from 1996 until his death.

He also wrote more than 200 " Letters from the Desk of David Challinor" that are in the Smithsonian's digital repository and available online. They address issues such as flu pandemics, tree ecology, bird song accents and dialects, the nature of trust, hydrothermal vents and "good smells and bad."

"I was just the other day reading his letter about what makes a good administrator," Samper said.

"What is the principal reward for being 'house mother,' public advocate, disciplinarian, performance evaluator, adjudicator, et al. to some 400 scientists, a large portion of whom are justifiably prima donnas?" asked Dr. Challinor in that September 2005 letter. "Thirty years of science administering has taught me that the reward is subtle but real. It derives essentially from being able to witness the completion of long-term goals."

Dr. Challinor, a world-class oarsman, took up rowing in 1934 and was a member of the undefeated 1940-42 Harvard University crews. After college, his interest in the sport declined until he was in his late 40s, when he began rowing for the Potomac Boat Club.

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