Baird, Spencer Fullerton (1823-1887)

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Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887)

Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887)

American naturalist Spencer Fullerton Baird entered this world on 3 February 1823, in the city of Reading, Pennsylvania.

In 1841, at the age of 18 — one year after graduating from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania — he spent 21 days in the mountains of that state on an ornithological expedition. He is said to have traversed, on foot, some 400 miles in the process. If this be accurate, he averaged just over 19 miles a day (though 60 miles  are reputed to have been covered on the last day), studying and documenting the birds he observed along the way.

Three years earlier, he’d become friends with John James Audubon, then 53, who was so taken by young Baird’s scientific fervor that he provided him with a portion of his bird collection.

Audubon’s selfless act made Baird a lifelong student of ornithology, though his focus never settled entirely on so singular a subject of scientific interest.

Three years after his 400 mile hike, at 21, Baird began teaching natural history, physiology, and mathematics at his alma mater, Dickinson College. There he also chaired the chemistry department. Five years later, in 1850, he accepted an appointment as assistant-secretary to Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. In that position, evidently without much assistance from Henry, he mentored a group of young naturalists who, from 1857 to 1866, comprised what was known as the rather infamous Megatherium Club.

In 1878, when Joseph Henry died in 1878, Baird succeeded him as secretary of the Institution. Beginning in 1871, until his death in 1877, he also served as U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries.

As mentioned earlier, Baird was not one to be tied to one discipline. Over his lifetime he made important contributions to iconography, geology, mineralogy, botany, anthropology, zoology, and his first love, ornithology.

Between 1843 and 1882 Baird published with great fervor, and more than 1,000 papers are recorded under his authorship. Many were short articles, but his 1853 Catalog of North American Reptiles, co-authored with Charles Frederic Girard, and his 1858 encyclopedia on Birds, his 1859 Mammals of North America, and his 5-volume History of North American Birds, co-authored with Thomas Mays and Robert Ridgway, and published between 1875-1884, remain among the most impressive books on their subjects ever known.

In 1882, as the first U.S. Fish Commissioner, Baird had established a U.S. Fish Commission research station in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Inasmuch as his goal was to turn it into a major laboratory, he cajoled Alpheus Hyatt to relocate his marine biology laboratory and school there. Both men were close friends of Louis Agassiz, and had attended his short-lived summer school of natural history on Penikese Island, off the coast of Woods Hole.

Hyatt, took $10,000 raised by the Woman’s Education Association of Boston and the Boston Society of Natural History, and with it purchased land and erected a building. Thus, and the MBL was incorporated with Hyatt as the first president of the board of trustees. The Fish Commission supplied crucial support, including marine organisms and running sea water (Maienschein, 1989). It was here that Baird died in 1877.


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