The Slater Museum of Natural History was founded as the Puget Sound Museum of Natural History in 1930. James R. Slater started the museum as a collection of reptiles and amphibians and was the director from 1930-1951. The Bird Division was established in 1934 by Gordon D. Alcorn, the Mammal Division in 1946 by Murray L. Johnson. The museum owes its stature and reputation to these three individuals, their associates, and the collections that were donated to the museum because of their activities. Subsequent directors were Alcorn from 1951-1972 and 1978-1983, Edward Herbert from 1972-1975, Eileen Solie from 1975-1978, Terrence R. Mace from 1983-1989, Dennis R. Paulson from 1990-2005, and Peter Wimberger from 2005 to present. Throughout its history the museum has been closely associated with the Department of Biology.
Major collections received by the museum include mammals from Stanley G. Jewett, Robert and Virginia Rausch, and Chris and Rita Maser; birds from Jewett, John B. Hurley, E. A. Kitchin, and J. Hooper Bowles; and insects from Gordon H. Orians and Jack C. Schultz. Recent major donations include the bird collections of Walla Walla College and Western Washington University.