|Baird as Assistant Secretary and the Growth of a Dream:
In the fall of 1850, a new research-based museum approach arrived at the
in the form of one Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), naturalist, ornithologist, ichthyologist, and dedicated collector from Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He brought with him two railroad box cars full of his personal collections. Baird also brought with him a dream, which he confided in July of 1853 to George Perkins Marsh, his mentor and a Smithsonian Regent. Baird wrote, "I expect the accumulation of a mass of matter thus collected (which the Institution cannot or will not 'curate' efficiently) to have the effect of forcing our government into establishing a National Museum, of which (let me whisper it) I hope to be director. Still even if this argument don't weigh now; it will one of these days and I am content to wait."
Spencer F. Baird c. 1850
At the helm of a National Museum, he could amass a comprehensive collection of the plants, animals, minerals and ores of North America. This national voucher collection would serve as the basis for economic exploitation of those natural resources, as well as scientific research to unlock the secrets of
nature. When Baird arrived at the Smithsonian, there was a small collection of 6000 natural history specimens. The Exploring Expedition collections and Smithson mineralogical cabinet were still housed at the Patent Office Building, deteriorating through neglect and loss of associated information about the specimens. Scientists such as Baird believed it was imperative to study that natural distribution of flora and fauna before it disappeared. The distribution of such life forms would be studied to uncover the great laws governing life, especially to evaluate Charles Darwin's recently published theory on the Origin of Species. And the economic development of the country would be spurred by scientific collection and analysis of the natural resources of each region. For a collector such as Baird, each specimen was a piece of a puzzle, which when compared, contrasted, juxtaposed and arranged systematically, contributed to a larger picture of the order underlying nature. Natural specimens were beautiful, they often were curious, but most of all they were precious sources of information. He immediately set about working up the Exploring Expedition collections, starting with the reptiles in 1851.
Staff working with natural history specimens
However, Baird's first years at the Smithsonian were devoted to carrying out Secretary Henry's program of publication of new research and international exchange of
publications. Baird dutifully shepherded other scientist's research through to publication and shipped a huge quantity of exchange publications within and outside the country. But at the same time, Baird quietly but relentlessly continued to amass natural history collections. The many exploring expeditions sent out from the 1850s to the 1880s to map the North American continent sent back railroad cars of new plants, insects, birds, and rocks. Growing by over ten thousand accessions a year, by 1863, some 86,847 collections had been entered in the catalog, each containing many specimens. To obtain these collections Baird first utilized the network Henry created through his Meteorological Project and International Exchange Service. Baird was a diligent correspondent; he wrote an average of 3,500 letters a year and established correspondence with interested individuals across the continent. These collectors in turn sent Baird Indian artifacts and specimens of plants, rocks, insects, meteorites, birds and dinosaurs. He rewarded them by listing their names in the annual reports of the Institution, placing them on the mailing list for Smithsonian publications, and perhaps most enduring, naming a new species after the collector who had sent in the specimen.
International Exchange Service unloading
publication behind the Castle
Baird also gathered together and devoted much time to a group of young men
whom he taught how to explore, collect and conduct scientific research. William Stimpson, Robert Kennicott, Henry Ulke, and Henry Bryant were among Baird's favorite young explorers. A lively group, they dubbed themselves the Megatherium Society after a spectacular fossil sloth recently uncovered. Baird juggled funds to support them financially, allowed them to live in the towers and basement of the Castle, when they were not out on exploring expeditions, and used them to acquire collections and disseminate more research than he could produce on his own. Baird knew, as we do today, that he could increase his research productivity geometrically if he also brought in and trained young and eager students. The Smithsonian may not have become the National University, but it soon became a center for honing the research skills of young scholars interested in natural history and collections-based research.
The Megatherium Society
Baird ensured that naturalists accompanied the government exploring expeditions to the western part of the continent and that their collections came to the Smithsonian. In 1857 alone he took in specimens from ten government expeditions and six private exploring parties. He sent instructions on how to collect, preserve, document, and ship the specimens and arranged free shipment on railways, boats and through the mails. The fact that Baird's father-in-law, Brigadier General Sylvester Churchill, was Inspector General for the United States Army greatly facilitated his requests for collecting assistance from soldiers. Indeed, Baird's list of collectors included such military luminaries as General George B. McClellan, Captain David Farragut, and Commodore Matthew C. Perry.
During his first two decades as Assistant Secretary at the Smithsonian, Baird
dutifully continued to harry printers and ship an endless stream of publications for Secretary Henry. He had watched closely in 1855 as Henry fired the other Assistant Secretary, Charles Coffin Jewett, in a dispute over creation of a National Library. He saw the precious early collections go up in flames when fire erupted in the Castle in 1865. Baird could only try to protect his scientific collections as Henry got rid of the library and art collections, using the fire to argue that the Smithsonian could not serve as a reponsible custodian for them.
Smithsonian Institution Building on fire in 1865
Henry and Baird danced a complex pas de deux during these years, Henry grudgingly allowing Baird to bring in ever more materials. The National Institute collections were transferred to the Smithsonian in 1857 and 1862. As new collections filled the nooks and crannies of the Castle, Henry had finally agreed in 1858 to accept a Congressional appropriation to care for them, with the fiction that the appropriation for the United States National Museum was to the Department of the Interior, not the Smithsonian.
Baird simply did not share Henry's concern about loss of independence when accepting
public funding from the Congress; thus, as Assistant Secretary and later Secretary, he sought Congressional appropriations for museums, expeditions, buildings, fisheries research, and international
expositions. Baird knew his vision for a great national museum was too big for the Smithson
bequest alone and would require federal appropriations for its care. In 1872 Baird made a major
step forward towards his goal when Secretary Henry gave him full responsibility for management
of the United States National Museum. Baird now devoted much of his time to preparing budgets
and acquiring new collections.