Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Ray L. Wilbur (1929–1933): Secretary of the Interior

Ray Lyman Wilbur was born in Boone, Iowa, on April 13, 1875. He spent his childhood in Iowa, the Dakota Territory, and Riverside, California. Wilbur's father, Dwight Locke Wilbur, was a lawyer and a soldier in the Union Army. Wilbur's brother, Curtis Dwight Wilbur, served as secretary of the Navy for President Calvin Coolidge.

He began his education at Stanford University, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1896 and a master's degree in physiology in 1897. During his undergraduate years at Stanford, Wilbur met Herbert Hoover, with whom he formed a life-long friendship. In 1899, Wilbur earned his M.D. from Cooper Medical College in San Francisco. He worked as a physician in San Francisco before quickly returning to Stanford to pursue a Ph.D. He discontinued this course of study in 1903 and traveled to Europe and the eastern United States, but returned to Stanford in 1908 and became a clinical professor of medicine. In 1909, Wilbur was appointed chairman of the Stanford Medical School, and he became dean of the Stanford Medical School in 1911. In 1916, Wilbur became the third President of Stanford University, a position he held until 1943 despite his years in government service.

When Herbert Hoover was elected President of the United States, he asked Wilbur to become secretary of the Interior. Wilbur resisted because he did not want to leave Stanford, but the Stanford Board of Trustees granted him a leave of absence. He was confirmed as the thirty-first secretary of the Interior on March 5, 1929.

During his time as secretary, Wilbur rejected the spacious office typically occupied by the secretary and used a small space instead. He changed the emblem of the department from an eagle with outstretched wings to a standing bison; he said it better characterized the responsibilities of the department. Wilbur's most lasting, or most well-known, contribution as secretary of the Interior was overseeing the start of construction of the Boulder Canyon dam, which was renamed Hoover Dam.

In March 1933, after Hoover's reelection defeat, Wilbur returned to Stanford and remained there until his retirement. Wilbur died in Palo Alto, California, on June 26, 1949.