Baird, Spencer Fullerton

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Baird, Spencer Fullerton

(b. Reading, Pennsylvania, 3 February 1823; d. Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 19 August 1887)

zoology, scientific administration.

Baird’s father was Samuel Baird, a lawyer of local prominence; his mother was the former Lydia MacFunn Biddle of Philadelphia. Upon Samuel’s death in 1833, Lydia and her seven children moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Where Spencer Baird entered Dickinson College in 1836, receiving a B.A. in 1840 and an M.A. in 1843. In November 1841, Baird went to New York City to study medicine, but two months later he abandoned his studies and returned to Carlisle, determined to pursue a career in zoology despite the limited opportunities then available to American biologists. Since the United States lacked institutions offering professional training in science, Baird’s education consisted of self-study and informal instruction from established naturalists, including James Dwight Dana, John James Audubon, and George N. Lawrence. In 1846 he married Mary Helen Churchill, daughter of a well-known army officer, and in the same year became professor of natural history at Dickinson College. Lucy Hunter Baird, the couple’s only child, was born in 1848.

In 1850 Baird’s writings in systematic zoology; his translation and revision of the four-volume Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature, and Arts, compiled in cooperation with many leading American scientists; and recommendations from politicians and scientists secured his appointment as assistant to Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian Institution. For the next thirty-seven years Baird used numerous governmental expeditions, plus a network of private collectors, to bring distinguished zoological and anthropological collections to the Smithsonian’s National Museum. He became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1864, over the opposition of Louis Agassiz, who had personal differences with Baird and also contended that, as a descriptive biologist, Baird contributed no new knowledge to science. In 1871 Congress established the U.S. Fish Commission under Baird’s direction. This agency conducted basic research in marine biology, propagated food fishes, and aided the fishing industry. In 1878 he succeeded Joseph Henry as secretary of the Smithsonian, a position he held until his death. Baird was noted for his serenity and modesty, but in hiss private dealings he was forceful and persistent in pursuing his ambitions. He gradually drifted from his Protestant upbringing, and after 1875 did not attend religious services.

Baird’s bibliography includes more than a thousand titles, of which about ninety were formal scientific contributions. The remaining writings were largely official reports or brief review articles in the Annual Record of Science and Industry, a semipopular series of eight volumes that he edited from 1871 to 1878. His most notable scientific papers were taxonomic studies of birds and mammals, but he also wrote on reptiles, amphibians, and fishes, usually in collaboration with Charles Girard.

His scientific writings earned Baird his reputation as the leading vertebrate zoologist of mid-nineteenth-century America. Four of his works were especially significant. The first two, Mammals (1857) and Birds (1858), were comprehensive monographs based on American collections taken north of Mexico by fifteen governmental surveys and by numerous individual naturalists. From this extensive material, Barid was able to describe seventy species of mammals and 216 bird species not previously known. Moreover, he completely recast the nomenclature and classification of the two classes. Because of the accuracy and originality of his descriptions, and his use of several specimens to establish the characteristics of a particular species, Baird’s methods were in themselves an advance. According to David Starr Jordan, Baird’s “minute exactness” thereby “departed widely from the loose and general type of description” of his predecessors, especially by “using a particular individual and then indicating with precision any deviations due to age, sex, geographical separation or other influences which might appear in other specimens” (“Spencer Fullerton Baird and the United States Fish Commission,” p.101). The two works replaced studies prepared in the preceding two decades by Audubon and John Bachman, and remained standard sources at the time of Baird’s death. Many of the species identified by Baird are now considered to be synonyms or subspecies.

A third major work, “The Distribution and Migrations of North American Birds,” was Baird’s only important attempt at scientific generalization. This 1865 paper was notable for the definition of biological zones and the discussion of “general laws” showing “certain influences exerted upon species by their distribution... and by their association with each other” (“Distribution”,” p. 189). Baird noted that an understanding of environmental influences allowed taxonomists to reduce the number of nominal species. The paper’s larger import was to reveal Baird’s support of organic evolution. It was recognized by his contemporaries as one of the major commentaries on Darwinian evolution produced by American naturalists during this era.

In 1874 Baird, assisted by Thomas M. Brewer and Robert Ridgway, published his final major work, a three-volume study of land birds entitled A History of North American Birds. Baird and Ridgway prepared the technical descriptions while Brewer, working primarily from field notes forwarded to the smithsonian by Baird’s collectors, contributed accounts of the habit of individual species. The History was notable for presenting the first comprehensive information on the behavior of birds in Arctic breeding grounds. It remained a standard treatise on ornithological life history throughout the nineteenth century.

Baird’s significance as a teacher and as a molder of scientific institutions was probably greater than his personal scientific work. He was the patron of numerous naturalists who collected for him or studied informally at the Smithsonian. Among his most important portégés were George Brown Goode, C. Hart Merriam, Robert Ridgway, and William Healey Dall. Baird’s simultaneous direction of the U.S. Fish Commission, the U.S. National Museum, and the Smithsonian during the last ten years of his life indicates his influence on American scientific institutions. From 1871 through 1887, the Fish Commission’s research ships and volunteer scientists undertook the first sustained biological study of American waters. The U.S. National Museum, along with Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, were the leaders in American zoology during this period. The Smithsonian, under Baird’s administration, was who longer restrained by its modest private income. In contrast with Joseph Henry, who feared that government funds would lead to political interference, Baird did not hesitate to seek congressional appropriations to expand the work of the Smithsonian.


1.Original Works. For a comprehensive bibliography of Baird’s writings, see George Brown Goode. The Published Writings of Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1843-1882 (Washington, D.C., 1883). Baird’s two monographs on mammals and birds were initially published as Vols. VIII and IX of Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean(Washington, D.C., 1857, 1858). An abstract of “The Distribution and Migrations of North American Birds,” read to the National Academy of Sciences in 1865. appears in The American Journal of Science and Arts, 2nd ser., 41 (Jan.-May 1866), 78-90, 184-192, 337-347.

Two valuable sources presenting portions of Baird’s scientific correspondence are Ruthven Deane, “Unpublished Letters of John James Audubon and Spencer F. Baird,” in The Auk, 23 (Apr. and July 1906). 194-209, 318-334, and 24 (Jan. 1907), 53-70; and Elmer Charles Herber, ed., Correspondence Between Spencer Fullerton Baird and Louis Agassiz, Two Pioneer American Naturalists (Washington, D.C., 1963).

Baird’s personal papers and letters documenting his work as a Smithsonian official are held by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The comprehensive records of the U.S. Fish Commission are in the U.S. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

II. Secondary Literature. The only biography is William Healey Dall, Spencer Fullerton Baird: A Biography (Philadelphia, 1915). Dall presents much useful data, but the work is now dated. He slights the last seventeen years of Baird’s career.

Among the most useful brief sketches of Baird are John Shaw Billings. “Memoir of Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1823-1887,” in Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, III (Washington, D.C., 1895), 141-160; George Brown Goode, “The Three Secretaries,” in The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896, George Brown Goode, ed. (washington, D.C., 1897), pp. 115-234; and David Starr Jordan, “Spencer Fullerton Baird and the United States Fish Commission,” in The Scientific Monthly, 17 (Aug. 1923), 97-107. A detailed assessment of Baird’s personal scientific work is presented in T.D.A. Cockerell, “Spencer Fullerton Baird,” in Popular Science Monthly, 68 (Jan. 1906), 63-83.

A recent and extended discussion of Baird’s career, concentrating on his work with the Fish Commission, is Dean C. Allard, “Spencer Fullerton Baird and the U.S. Fish Commission: A Study in the History of American Science,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (Washington, D.C., 1967). This work contains a lengthy bibliography of published literature relating to Baird.

Dean C. Allard

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