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Spencer Fullerton Baird

Spencer Fullerton Baird
Spencer Fullerton Baird, as photographed by William Bell, 1867
Born (1823-02-03)February 3, 1823
Reading, Pennsylvania, U.S.[1]
Died August 19, 1887(1887-08-19) (aged 64)
Woods Hole, Massachusetts, U.S.[2]
Nationality American
Fields Naturalist
Institutions Smithsonian Institution
Influences William Baird
John James Audubon[3]
Charles Darwin
Influenced Clinton Hart Merriam[4]
Robert Kennicott
William Stimpson
William H. Dall
Robert Ridgway[2]
Notable awards Order of St. Olav
Henry Draper Medal (1910)
Rumford Prize (1915)

Spencer Fullerton Baird (; February 3, 1823 – August 19, 1887) was an American naturalist, ornithologist, ichthyologist, herpetologist, and museum curator. Baird was the first curator to be named at the Smithsonian Institution. He would eventually serve as assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1850 to 1878, and as Secretary from 1878 until 1887. He was dedicated to expanding the natural history collections of the Smithsonian which he increased from 6,000 specimens in 1850 to over 2 million by the time of his death.[2] He published over 1,000 works during his lifetime.[1]


  • Early life and education 1
  • Professional career 2
    • Starting at the Smithsonian 2.1
    • United States Fish Commission and United States National Museum 2.2
    • Second Secretary at the Smithsonian 2.3
  • Death and legacy 3
  • Further reading 4
  • Eponymy 5
    • Natural world 5.1
    • Sea vessel 5.2
    • Locations 5.3
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Early life and education

Spencer Fullerton Baird was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1823.[5] He became a self-trained naturalist as a young man, learning about the field from his brother, William, who was a birder,[2] and the likes of John James Audubon, who instructed Baird on how to draw scientific illustrations of birds.[1][3] His father was also a big influence on Baird's interest in nature, taking Baird on walks and gardening with him. He died of cholera[2] when Baird was ten years old.[6] As a young boy he attended Nottingham Academy in Port Deposit, Maryland and public school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.[2]

Baird attended Dickinson College and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees, finishing the former in 1840.[1][5] After graduation he moved to New York City with an interest in studying medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.[3] He returned to Carlisle two years later.[7] He taught natural history at Dickinson starting in 1845.[5] While at Dickinson, he did research, participated in collecting trips, did specimen exchanges with other naturalists, and traveled frequently.[1] He married Mary Helen Churchill in 1846. In 1848, their daughter, Lucy Hunter Baird, was born.[7] He was awarded a grant, in 1848, from the Smithsonian Institution to explore bone caves and the natural history of southeastern Pennsylvania.[5] In 1849 he was given $75 by the Smithsonian Institution to collect, pack and transport specimens for them.[8] It was during this time that he met Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry. The two would become close friends and colleagues.[5] Throughout the 1840s Baird traveled extensively throughout the northeastern and central United States. Often traveling by foot, Baird hiked more than 2,100 miles in 1842 alone.[3]

Professional career

Starting at the Smithsonian

In 1850, Baird became the first curator at the natural history in the United States.[10] His program also allowed him to create a network of collectors through an exchange system.[1] He would ask that members of the Army and Navy collect rare animals and plant specimens from west of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.[11] In order to balance the collection, Baird sent duplicate specimens to other museums around the country, often exchanging the duplicates for specimens the Smithsonian needed.[12] During the 1850s he described over 50 new species of reptiles, some by himself, and others with his student Charles Frédéric Girard.[13] Their 1853 catalog of the Smithsonian's snake collection is a benchmark work in North American herpetology. Baird also was a mentor to herpetologist Robert Kennicott who died prematurely, at which point Baird left the field of herpetology to focus on larger projects.[14]

Eventually, he became the Assistant Secretary, serving under Joseph Henry. As Assistant, Baird would help develop a publication and journal exchange, that provided scientists around the world with publications they would have a hard time accessing. He supported the work of William Stimpson, Robert Kennicott, Henry Ulke and Henry Bryant.[1] Between his start as Assistant Secretary and 1855, he worked with Joseph Henry to provide scientific equipment and needs to the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey.[15] He received his Ph.D. in physical science in 1856 from Dickinson College.[2] In 1857 and 1852 he acquired the collection of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science. However, the objects wouldn't join the permanent collection of the Smithsonian until 1858.[1] Baird would attend the funeral of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, alongside Joseph Henry.[16] In 1870, Baird was vacationing in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he developed an interest in maritime research. He would go on to lead expeditions in Nova Scotia and New England.[17]

United States Fish Commission and United States National Museum

Baird with his wife and daughter in Wood's Hole, Massachusetts. It was at Wood's Hole that Baird would gain interest in ichthyology.

On February 25, 1871, Ulysses S. Grant appointed Baird as the first Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries for the United States Fish Commission. He would serve in this position until his death. With Baird as Commissioner, the commission sought opportunities to restock rivers with salmon[18] and lakes with other food fish and the depletion of food fish in coastal waters.[19] Baird reported that humans were the reason for the decline of food fish in these coastal areas.[5] Individuals with access to shoreline property used weirs, or nets, to capture large amounts of fish on the coast, which threatened the supply of fish on the coast. Baird used the U.S. Fish Commission to limit human impact through a compromise by prohibiting the capture of fish in traps from 6pm on Fridays until 6pm on Mondays.[20][21] The Albatross research vessel would be launched during his tenure, in 1882.[22] He was highly active in developing fishing and fishery policies for the United States, and was instrumental in making Wood's Hole the research venue it is today.[23]

Baird became the manager of the

  • Spencer F. Baird's Vision for a National Museum online exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
  • Spencer Baird and Ichthyology at the Smithsonian, 1850-1900 from the National Museum of Natural History
  • National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir

External links

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1823-1887". Smithsonian History.  
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Spencer Fullerton Baird Papers". Record Unit 7002, Baird. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Spencer Fullerton Baird". Giants of Science. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  4. ^ Merriam, Clinton Hart (June 1924). "Baird the Naturalist". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Taylor, William Bower. "Professor Baird as Administrator". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  6. ^ Deiss, William A. "The Making of a Naturalist: Spencer F. Baird, The Early Years". From Linnaeus to Darwin: Commentaries on the History of Biology and Geology, Papers from the Fifth Easter Meeting of the Society for the History of Natural History, 28–31 March 1983. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c Allard, Dean C. "Baird, Spencer Fullerton". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  8. ^ Goode, George Brown (1897). The History of Its First Half Century. New York: De Vinne Press. p. 834. 
  9. ^ "Baird Elected Permanent Secretary of AAAS". Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  10. ^ "Baird's Collecting Policies". Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1850. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  11. ^ "Special Desiderata Circular Issued by Baird". Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 65, p. V 1, p. 7. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  12. ^ "Duplicate Specimens Distributed Within USA". Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1853. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  13. ^ The Reptile Database.
  14. ^ Schmidt KP, Davis DD. 1941. Field Book of Snakes of the United States and Canada. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 365 pp. ("History of the Study of Snakes in the United States", pp. 11-16).
  15. ^ Kazar, John Dryden (1973). Baird Provide Instructions for Mexican Boundary Survey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts. p. 125. 
  16. ^ Rothenberg, Marc. "Joseph Henry Attends Lincoln's Funeral". The Papers of Joseph Henry, Volume 10, January 1858-December 1865: The Smithsonian Years. Science History Publications. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  17. ^ Allard, Dean C. (1997). Spencer Baird and the Scientific Investigation of the Northwest Atlantic, 1871-1887. 
  18. ^ Black, Michael (1995). "Tragic Remedies: A Century of Failed Fishery Policy on California's Sacramento River". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  19. ^ a b c Goode, George Brown (1897). The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896, The History of Its First Half Century. New York: De Vinne Press. p. 838. 
  20. ^ Anderson, Byron. 2002. "Biographical Portrait: Spencer Fullerton Baird." Forest History Today: 31-33.
  21. ^ Allard, Dean C.. Spencer Fullerton Baird and the Foundations of American Marine Sciences. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Historical Center, 1984. Pages 237-239.
  22. ^ Damkaer, David M. (1999). A Century of Copepods: The U.S. Fisheries Steamer Albatross. 
  23. ^ a b Powell, John Wesley. "The Personal Characteristics of Professor Baird". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  24. ^ Rydell, Robert W. (1984). All the World's a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 10.  
  25. ^ Goode, George Brown (1897). The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896, The History of Its First Half Century. New York: De Vinne Press. p. 839. 
  26. ^ Rhees, William Jones (1901). The Smithsonian Institution: Documents Relative to Its Origin and History: 1835-1899, Vol. 1, 1835-1887. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. p. 789. 
  27. ^ "The American Ornithologists' Union", Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club VIII (4), October 1883: 221–226 
  28. ^ a b Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1887. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. 1889. p. 3. 
  29. ^ "A&I Draped in Mourning for Secretary Baird". Record Unit 198, Annual Report of Superintendent of Buildings, USNM, ending December 31, 1887. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  30. ^ Herndon, Michael C. (1994). "Momento Mori". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  31. ^ Rivinus, Edward F. (1989). "Spencer Fullerton Baird: the collector of collectors". American Philatelist 103 (11): 1061–1065. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  32. ^ Belote, Theodore T. "The Secretarial Cases". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2012. 
  33. ^ "108th Meeting of the Baird Ornithological Club". 80-2474. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved May 23, 2012. 
  34. ^ Green, Eugene; Sachse, William; McCaulley, Brian (2006). The Names of Cape Cod. Arcadia Press. p. 188.  
  35. ^ a b Beolens B, Watkins M, Grayson M. 2011. The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Baird, S.F.", pp. 14-15).
  36. ^



  • M.V. Spencer F. Baird, Ocean-surveying ship.

Sea vessel

Natural world


  • Allard, Dean C. Spencer Fullerton Baird and the U. S. Fish Commission: A Study in the History of American Science. Washington: The George Washington University (1967).
  • Belote, Theodore T. "The Secretarial Cases." Scientific Monthly. 58 (1946): 366-370.
  • Cockerell, Theodore D.A. "Spencer Fullerton Baird." Popular Science Monthly. 68 (1906): 63-83.
  • Dall, William Healey. "Spencer Fullerton Baird: a biography, including selections from his correspondence with Audubon, Agassiz, Dana, and others." Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company (1915).
  • Goode, G. Brown. The Published Writings of Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1843-1882. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office (1883).
  • Ripley, S. Dillon. "The View From the Castle: Take two freight cars of specimens, add time and energy--eventually you'll get a natural history museum." Smithsonian. 1.11 (1971): 2.
  • Rivinus, Edward F. and Youssef, Elizabeth M. . Spencer F. Baird of the Smithsonian. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press (1992).
Publications about Baird
  • "Directions for Collecting, Preserving, and Transporting Specimens of Natural History." Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1856. p. 235-253.
  • with Robert Ridgway and Thomas Mayo Brewer. A History Of North American Birds. ISBN 1286040981
  • with Charles Frédéric Girard. Catalogue of North American Reptiles in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Part I.—Serpents. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution. xvi + 172 pp. (1853).
Publications by Spencer Fullerton Baird

Further reading

Baird's wife, Mary, donated his stamp collection to the National Museum.[31] His papers are held in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.[2] In 1946, Baird was one of four Smithsonian Secretaries featured in an exhibition about their lives and work curated by United States National Museum curator Theodore T. Belote.[32] In 1922, the Baird Ornithological Club was founded and named after Baird.[33] Spencer Baird Road in Woods Hole is named for him.[34]

Spencer Fullerton Baird died on August 19, 1887.[28] Upon Baird's death, the Arts and Industries building was draped with a mourning cloth.[29] John Wesley Powell spoke at Baird's funeral.[23] Baird is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery.[30]

Death and legacy

Joseph Henry died on May 13, 1878[19] and on May 17, Baird became the second Secretary of the Smithsonian.[1] Baird was allowed to live, rent free, in the Smithsonian Institution Building, but declined and had the east wing converted into workspace. He also had telephones installed throughout the building.[25] That year, he was made a member of the Order of St. Olav by the King of Sweden.[26] He oversaw the building of the new National Museum building, which opened in 1881.[1] In September 1883, he was unanimously declared a founding member of the American Ornithologists' Union even though his duties prevented him from attending their first convention.[27] During the February 1887, Baird went on leave due to "intellectual exertion".[5] Samuel P. Langley would serve as Acting Secretary.[28]

Second Secretary at the Smithsonian

[1].Arts and Industries Building approved construction for the first National Museum building, which is now the Congress Due to the large amount of objects collected, in 1879, [24] filled with 4,000 cartons of objects.boxcars In total, Baird left with sixty-two [1] many of which won awards. When the exposition ended, Baird was successful in persuading other exhibitors to contribute the objects from their exhibits to the Smithsonian.[19],Centennial Exposition He created all of the United States federal exhibits in the [7] today.ornithology which was published in 1874 and continues to be an important publication in A History of North American Birds, He was the primary writer of [1]

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