We Knew You When:

Famous Historic Figures Who Were Once Public Servants

By Elizabeth Moore

May 2021

A robust, expert, non-partisan civil service is the hallmark of a democracy, the standing agencies and experts who maintain the continuity of core governmental functions and services through political administrations. According to the Brookings Institution, in 2020 about 15% of the American workforce -- almost 24 million people -- worked in military, public, and national service at the local, state, and federal levels.

Here in NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, we are proud to create and manage underwater parks in the most important waters of the country and to support the communities that depend on them. For many of us, public service is a choice we make early in our careers and stay with for all our working years. Some famous names spent part of or even their entire careers at NOAA and other federal science and conservation agencies. Here are just a few of the historic folks that we can say, “we knew you when.”

Maria Mitchell (1818 to 1889), Astronomer, Librarian, Author, and Educator

Maria Mitchell
Image courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Maria Mitchell had the distinction of being the first professional woman to work for the federal government, when she was hired by the Coast Survey in 1845 to do astronomical observations. It was not her only achievement, nor her only first. Mitchell was the first American to discover a comet (in 1847) and was the first female member of several science organizations. She was a supporter of progressive social issues, as an abolitionist leading up to the Civil War, a supporter of women’s suffrage, and a lifelong advocate for higher education for women. Numerous posthumous honors recognize her professional achievements, which began, we’re proud to say, with her work for NOAA’s Coast Survey.

James McNeill Whistler (1834 to 1903), Artist

James McNeill Whistler
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

James McNeill Whistler is now one of the most admired American artists, but it took him a while to find his career path. He left West Point United States Military Academy before completing his education there and ended up working for the Coast Survey in 1854/5 as a draftsman producing drawings and etching copper printing plates with which nautical charts were made. Whistler was ultimately too restless to continue working for the Coast Survey, and left after about a year. But he took with him his newfound etching skills and his experience sketching sea scenes, which would be a theme he returned to over and over.

a black and white chart of Anacapa Island
An 1854 chart of Anacapa Island, now located within the boundaries of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, includes sketches done by James McNeill Whistler. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.

George Washington Carver (1864 to 1943), Scientist, Inventor, Educator, and Activist

George Washington Carver
Image courtesy of Tuskegee University Archives

Born into slavery, Carver’s intelligence and interest in agriculture were both apparent by his early childhood. Triumphing above the racial barriers of the time, he joined the faculty of the Tuskegee Institute as its director of agricultural studies. His agricultural expertise and innovation led to his appointment as a collaborator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Less well known is Carver’s additional governmental affiliation, serving as a volunteer observer for the National Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service). He was perhaps the first African American to record weather observations for the bureau, which he did at the Tuskegee Institute from 1899 to 1932. His last report, from January 1932, reflects his lifelong devotion to agriculture and the well-being of those who engaged in it, when he comments: “The month has been too wet for very active farm and garden operations.”

Rachel Carson (1907 to 1964), Scientist, Author, and Activist

Rachel Carson
Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Rachel Carson’s personal and professional lives were closely entwined, as her writing during and after her career with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (now the National Marine Fisheries Service) and then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reflected her knowledge of and passion for the environment. Hired as a science writer, Carson eventually rose to become the editor in chief of the entire service. While working for the government, she wrote the first two books of her sea trilogy: “Under the Sea-Wind” in 1941 and “The Sea Around Us” in 1951. The last one, “The Edge of the Sea,” was published in 1955, a few years after she left the government to focus on her writing. Carson spent four years working on her seminal “Silent Spring” before it was published in 1962, dying two years later of cancer. The house where she wrote “Silent Spring” and lived the last years of her life is in Silver Spring, Maryland, not far from NOAA’s headquarters today.

Frank Kameny (1925 to 2011), Astronomer and Activist

Frank Kamney
Photo: Kay Tobin, courtesy of the New York Public Library

The Lavender Scare, from the late 1940s to the 1960s, was an effort by the government to fire gay and lesbian federal employees. Thousands of employees were unjustly fired or forced to resign, losing their income, their career potential, their dignity, even their lives as at least a few committed suicide. Frank Kameny, an astronomer for the U.S. Army Map Service, was fired in 1957. When his appeal of his dismissal failed at the Supreme Court, he took his fight into society, working with fellow activists to spearhead demonstrations and file legal cases. In 1975, civil services regulations were passed to make it illegal to use someone’s sexual orientation in hiring or firing processes. While he did not have a long federal career, Kameny instead helped change how society views LGBTQ+ individuals and made sure that no one is removed from a promising career simply because of who they love.

Elevating Public Service

A third of federal government employees are eligible to retire between now and 2025, according to the Brookings Institution, and with public service jobs ranking low as top employment choices for recent college graduates, the civil service is facing a crisis of hiring enough skilled professionals to meet its missions. Now is a great time to honor the dedication and expertise that civil servants provide to their fellow Americans, and to elevate public service as a career goal for upcoming generations.

students gather around seedling plants on a beach
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s Ocean Guardian School program is designed to build an ocean stewardship ethic in children by working with schools in sanctuary communities. Here, students participate in a beach restoration project. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA
people on beach with pile of trash
A member of the marine debris removal team of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument takes a moment to look at an albatross chick. Every year, staff and volunteers remove tons of debris from the monument to help protect the endangered and rare species who reside there. Photo: Ryan Tabata/NOAA

Elizabeth Moore is a senior policy advisor at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries