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Robert S. Hoffmann, 81

Robert Hoffmann, ex-director of Museum of Natural History, dies at 81

Dr. Robert S. Hoffmann was considered a leading scholar on small mammals and rodents.
Dr. Robert S. Hoffmann was considered a leading scholar on small mammals and rodents. (Family Photo)

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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010

Robert S. Hoffmann, 81, an administrator at the Smithsonian Institution who was a past director of the National Museum of Natural History, died April 6 of complications from dementia at the Asbury Methodist Village senior living community in Montgomery County.

Dr. Hoffmann received a doctorate in zoology from the University of California at Berkeley. He spent much of his career in academia as a professor at the University of Montana and then the University of Kansas before joining the Smithsonian in 1986.

His specialty was the science of small mammals and rodents, and he was considered one of the most highly respected scholars in that field. In 2006, he received the C. Hart Merriam Award, one of the most prestigious prizes for research in mammalogy.

After joining the Museum of Natural History, Dr. Hoffmann became its director. He was one of the main advisers for the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, an exhibit that opened in 2003 that details mammalian evolution through the past 225 million years.

He retired in 2003 as a senior scientist in the mammal division of the museum's department of vertebrate zoology.

Robert Shaw Hoffmann was born March 2, 1929, in Evanston, Ill. As a youngster, he sold peanuts at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago while perusing the pachyderms and pandas. He became so captivated with the mammalian exhibits at the Field Museum that by the age of 8, he had decided to become a biologist.

He received a bachelor's degree in zoology from what is now Utah State University in 1950. He received a master's degree and doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1955.

From 1955 to 1968, Dr. Hoffmann was a professor in the University of Montana's biology department. He then joined the zoology department at the University of Kansas and was a curator at the school's museum of natural history.

In 1963, Dr. Hoffmann took part in a 10-month exchange program to Russia, where he studied at the Museum of Natural History in Leningrad. He was later a member of a joint commission between the United States and the Soviet Union on science policy through the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Hoffmann never tired of his childhood fascination with animals. During his years as a professor, he most treasured his summers spent conducting research around the world, observing the populations of small rodents and trapping them for closer inspection.

As tedious as the work could be -- counting squirrel droppings or measuring a rabbit's jawbone -- it could also be perilous.

In the name of science, Dr. Hoffmann survived mosquito-infested camps in Siberia, lived with shepherds in the mountains of western China and once made his bed next to a heifer in a barn in the Swiss Alps.

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Sally Monson Hoffmann of Bethesda; four children, Karl Hoffmann of Nerja, Spain, John Hoffmann of Topeka, Kan., David Hoffmann of Charleston, W.Va., and Brenna Olivier of Oakland, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

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