Spencer Fullerton Baird with Daughter, Lucy, 1882, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Image no. MAH-3461.

Lucy Hunter Baird: Much More Than a Devoted Daughter

Lucy Hunter Baird’s work on her father’s biography reveals a long history of strong, independent, and intellectually curious women in the Baird family. Lucy, who was inspired by their examples and supported by the Smithsonian’s second Secretary, developed her own expertise in natural history and exhibited a lifelong commitment to science.

Lucy Hunter Baird did not shy away from her father’s towering legacy in American science, she embraced it. As the only child of Spencer Fullerton Baird, second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Lucy Baird developed a passion for her father’s discipline of ornithology (the study of birds) and strove to chronicle his extraordinary life in a biography. Although she was unable to complete the project before her death, Baird’s work reveals a long history of strong, independent, and intellectually curious women in the family. Baird, who was inspired by their examples and supported by her father, developed her own expertise in natural history and exhibited a lifelong commitment to science.

Spencer and Mary Baird sit in chairs and Lucy Baird stands behind her father.

Baird began compiling the biography during her father’s tenure at the Smithsonian. She collected letters, recorded family histories, and worked closely with Secretary Baird’s colleague and friend George Brown Goode, the second director of the United States National Museum. However, following the deaths of her father and Goode, Baird suffered from a chronic illness that prevented her from completing the book before she passed away in 1913. Per her last will and testament, Baird called for another author to finish the project. Her executor chose William Healey Dall, a naturalist and knowledgeable friend of Spencer Fullerton Baird. While Dall wrote much of the biography, he reproduced Baird’s notes word-for-word in its pages and included the letters she curated from her father’s papers.

Significant portions of the book consist of Baird’s personal recollections, including descriptions of strong and inspirational women in her family. For example, she briefly recounts the life of her great grandmother, Lydia Spencer Biddle, who “was a woman of great decision and energy of character.” When Biddle’s husband was imprisoned for unpaid debts, she “put her own shoulder to the wheel” and operated “a successful business venture” to earn an income and pay for her children’s education. Baird proudly explained that her great grandmother “had no fear whatsoever of disregarding the smaller conventionalities in anything which she herself deemed right and dignified.”

Baird also incorporated discussions of her mother’s intellectual prowess into the biography. Despite persistent and often debilitating health problems, Mary Helen Churchill Baird regularly read and edited her husband’s scientific writings, especially those intended for “the public at large.” Baird characterized her mother as possessing “what might be considered an expert knowledge of the English language,” an opinion her father echoed in several of his own personal letters. With strong-willed and smart role models like Lydia and Mary, Baird understood her sex to be capable of independent thought and action.  

Spencer and Lucy Baird walk on a pathway outdoors. Both are wearing fairly formal attire.

Spencer Fullerton Baird delighted in his daughter’s self-confidence and encouraged her to explore the scientific topics he loved. In an 1850 letter reproduced in the biography, Spencer Baird described his then two-year-old child as “passionately fond of Natural History, admiring young snakes above all things.” He jovially explained that she had “one or more as playthings, which range[d] from six inches to six feet in length (living).” The only animals that similarly commanded the girl’s admiration were ducks. With his tender words, Spencer Baird paints a picture of young Lucy Baird “dragging” a wooden duck on wheels “from morning till night,” pausing occasionally to draw “ducks and the like with her pencil.” In adulthood, Lucy accompanied her father on field trips and supported his work at the Smithsonian when she was not caring for her ailing mother.

By following in the footsteps of independent women and seizing the educational opportunities tendered by her father’s research, Baird carved out a role for herself in American science. She held a fourteen-year appointment as an Associate with the American Ornithologist’s Union and personally knew and corresponded with several leading scientists who conducted research for the Smithsonian and the U.S. Fish Commission. Even with her illness, Baird remained committed to the study of science. Since the origin and nature of her fatal disease was a mystery, Baird instructed her doctors to conduct an autopsy when she passed to “further medical knowledge.” Her will also stipulated donations to the Philadelphia Orthopedic Hospital and Infirmary for Nervous Diseases and the Smithsonian Institution. Lucy Hunter Baird was much more than a devoted daughter. She was a knowledgeable naturalist supported by generations of strong women and a loving father.

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