Finding Aids to Personal Papers and Special Collections in the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 7002
Baird, Spencer Fullerton, 1823-1887
Spencer Fullerton Baird Papers, 1833-1889
Spencer Fullerton Baird, a zoologist and administrator, was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on February 3, 1823. After his father's death in 1833, Baird's family moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where other family members resided. Baird attended Nottingham Academy in Port Deposit, Maryland, during 1834, and Carlisle public school from 1835 to 1836. Baird then attended Dickinson College where he received an A.B. degree in 1840. During the fall of 1841, Baird was a medical apprentice under Dr. Middleton Goldsmith in New York City, but by January 1842, he decided not to pursue further studies in the medical field. He continued his education at Dickinson College and received an M.A. in 1843.
As a child in Carlisle, Baird developed an interest in natural history nurtured by long treks through the countryside in the company of his oldest brother, William, an accomplished amateur ornithologist. By 1840, Baird began a period of intensive studies and specimen collecting of natural history in the New England and mid-Atlantic states.
Baird was given an honorary professorship at Dickinson College in 1845. A year later, he received a permanent position at Dickinson in which he served as librarian and curator of the college's natural history collections, as well as professor of natural history.
In 1850, Baird left Dickinson College to become an Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (SI). He served in this capacity from 1850 to 1878. In May 1878, Baird was elected the Smithsonian's second Secretary. Baird served as Secretary until his death on August 17, 1887.
During his long career at the SI, Baird oversaw the development of the United States National Museum (USNM), the holdings of which increased from some 6,000 specimens in 1850 to over two and one half million at the time of his death. In addition, Baird oversaw a vast network of natural history collectors, administered the USNM, served as mentor and friend to a generation of young naturalists such as Robert Ridgway, William H. Dall, Robert Kennicott, and William Stimpson, and continued to produce scientific work of real distinction.
From 1871 to 1887, Baird served as the first Commissioner of the Commission of Fish and Fisheries, an unpaid position he held concurrently with his Smithsonian post. As Fish Commissioner, Baird pioneered in the development of economic ichthyology in North America; established the Marine Biological Station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts; organized the expeditions of the Fish Commission's research ship, Albatross; and coordinated the state fish hatcheries.
Baird's main scientific work was in ornithology, herpetology, and ichthyology, and several of his publications remained definitive works for decades. His meticulous description and technique influenced the American ornithological community to such degrees that he was credited with founding the so-called Bairdian school of ornithology. Baird also edited and translated the Bilder-Atlas zum Converzation Lexicon from German to English. The American version, Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature and Art, was published in 1852.
- February 23, 1823
- Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, third child and third son of Samuel Baird, II, and Lydia MacFunn Biddle; named after Spencer Fullerton, a distant relative who died a few months prior to Spencer F. Baird's birth.
- Samuel Baird, II (born 1786), died of cholera, Reading, Pennsylvania.
- Baird family moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania (Cumberland County), to live near mother's relatives. Spencer F. Baird attended Nottingham Academy near Port Deposit, Maryland, for six months.
- Attended Carlisle day school.
- Entered Dickinson College in Carlisle.
- Began keeping meteorological record of the Carlisle vicinity; and began collecting birds with oldest brother, William McFunn Baird, who was also an amateur ornithologist.
- Began keeping journal of activities, and specimen collections.
- Visited the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia; and conducted surveying trip with an uncle along the Schuykill River, near Philadelphia.
- June 4, 1840
- First letter to John James Audubon regarding a new species of fly catchers.
- June 9, 1840
- Received A.B. degree from Dickinson College.
- January 1841
- Attended the Periodical Library Association meeting. Field trip, hiked 83 miles.
- March-August, 1841
- Hiked 565 miles.
- Fall 1841
- Medical apprentice under Dr. Middleton Goldsmith, New York City.
- January 1842
- Ill with flu, returned to Carlisle; decided not to pursue a career in medical sciences.
- March 1842
- Field trip, hiked 105 miles.
- Walked to Baltimore, then traveled by train to Washington; examined specimens collected by the Wilkes Expedition stored at the United States Patent Office.
- Declined to join John James Audubon's expedition to the Yellowstone River Valley (Montana) due to poor health and family anxieties.
- July 13, 1843
- Received M.A. degree from Dickinson College.
- "Birds of Cumberland County," co-authored with William M. Baird, published.
- "Trees and Shrubs of Cumberland County," co-authored with William M. Baird, published.
- Fall 1845
- Elected honorary professor of natural history without pay at Dickinson College, and curator of the college's natural history cabinet.
- First visit to Boston.
- August 8, 1846
- Married Mary Helen Churchill (born 1821).
- Fall 1846
- Elected full professor of natural history with pay at Dickinson College.
- Recommended for Curator of the Smithsonian Institution's natural history collections.
- February 8, 1848
- Birth of daughter, Lucy Hunter Baird.
- Translated the Bilder-Atlas zum Conversation Lexicon from German to English; renamed the Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature and Art, published 1852.
- Field trip to western Virginia. Became seriously ill with dysentery; later recovered.
- July 5, 1850
- Appointed Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (SI).
- October 5, 1850
- Started as Assistant Secretary of the SI.
- November 3, 1850
- Transported two freight cars of personal natural history collection to SI.
- Permanent Secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS).
- Attended AAAS meeting at Cincinnati, Ohio. Field trip with J. K. Kirtland.
- "A Catalogue of North American Serpents," published.
- "A Catalogue of North American Mammals," published.
- Received Doctor of Physical Science degree, Dickinson College.
- "A Catalogue of North American Birds," and "Mammals of North America," volume 8, Pacific Railroad Report published.
- "Birds of North America," volume 9, Pacific Railroad Report published.
- "Reptiles and Amphibians of North America," volume 10, Pacific Railroad Report published.
- Summer 1861
- Field trip to New Jersey, New York, New England. Attended conference in Montreal, Canada.
- Summer 1862
- Field trip to New York and New England; first visit to Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
- "Review of North American Birds, 1864-1866," published.
- January 24, 1865
- Smithsonian Institution building fire.
- Scientific editor for the Harper's Weekly.
- Commissioner of the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries (USCFF); served without pay.
- Summer 1871
- Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
- Summer 1872
- Eastport, Maine.
- Summer 1873
- Peake's Island, Maine.
- Summer 1874
- Noank, Connecticut.
- "A History of North American Birds," co-authored with Robert Ridgway and Thomas M. Brewer, published.
- Summer 1875
- Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
- Member of the Board of Directors for the International Exposition of Philadelphia (United States Centennial). Coordinated SI, USCFF, and USNM exhibits.
- March 1877
- Visited Florida.
- Summer 1877
- Glouchester, Massachusetts. Delegate at the Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada), Fisheries Conference.
- May 18, 1878
- Death of Joseph Henry, SI's first Secretary.
- May 19, 1878
- Elected SI's second Secretary.
- Summer 1878
- Gloucester, Massachusetts.
- Summer 1879
- Provincetown, Massachusetts.
- USNM building under construction; opened 1881.
- Summers 1881-1887
- Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
- USCFF's temporary buildings at Woods Hole burned; permanent structures built.
- James Chenowith, an examiner for the United States Department of the Treasury, accused the USCFF of misappropriation of funds for staff living quarters; USCFF acquitted.
- Doctorate of Law from Harvard University.
- August 19, 1887
- Died at Woods Hole, aged 64.
- Congress compensated Baird's widow and daughter for Baird's unpaid service as USCFF Commissioner, and for the USCFF's use of Baird's home for offices, $50,000.00.
- Death of Mary Helen Churchill Baird, aged 69.
- Death of Lucy Hunter Baird, aged 65.
- "Spencer Fullerton Baird," by William H. Dall, published.
The Spencer F. Baird Papers are the combination of several different deposits. One group was originally labeled "Private" by the Smithsonian Institution Archives at the time they were received. Another group came to the Smithsonian from Lucy Hunter Baird (Baird's daughter), or from her estate after her death.
The Spencer F. Baird Collection documents Baird's personal and professional life. Included are records from his career as administrator at the Smithsonian Institution (SI), the United States National Museum (USNM), the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries (USCFF), and to a lesser extent, Dickinson College. Some of the collection postdates Baird's life, including condolences to family members, the lobbying efforts to compensate Baird's widow and daughter for Baird's unpaid service at the USCFF, and correspondence between Baird's biographers and acquaintances. Also, there are documents which predate Baird's life, including mementos from Baird's wife's family.
Spencer F. Baird was a prolific letter writer. This collection includes a correspondence register which lists incoming and outgoing correspondence, 1850-1853; and Baird's private correspondence, incoming and outgoing, 1845-1888. Correspondents include family members, naturalists, personal acquaintances, politicians, field collectors, publishers, newspaper reporters, medical physicians, merchants, business associates, government officials, staff members, and scientific organizations.
Other materials relating to Baird's life include diaries and journals, newspaper and journal articles, photographs, drawings, personal miscellany, medical miscellany, and fiscal matters. Papers relating to Baird's family include correspondence, photographs, genealogical information, drawings, and mementos.
Papers relating to Baird's scientific interests, especially in the synonymy of North American fauna and flora, include specimen lists; a draft of the synopsis of North American birds; monograph drafts; extracts from scientific publications; bibliographical references; portions of Baird's translations of the Iconographic Encyclopedia; an unbound German version of the Bilder-Atlas; and lithographs.
Papers relating to Baird's career as a professor at Dickinson College include drafts of annual reports and lecture notes.
Materials concerning the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) include correspondence, member lists, meeting announcements, fiscal records, and circulars sent out to AAAS members in 1852.
Papers relating to SI and the USNM contain Baird's drafts of SI annual reports, including drafts of annual reports for the USCFF; diaries, mostly documenting library and visitor activities; lists and distribution records of SI publications and specimens; correspondence, mostly concerning specimens; memoranda; and circulars sent to SI correspondents, 1875.
Materials relating to explorations in which Baird distributed equipment and information to field collectors and collaborators include correspondence, reports, account books, lists, and receipts for equipment purchased.
Papers relating to the USCFF include documentation relating to the Chenowith Case of 1885; the lobbying efforts to compensate the Baird family for Baird's unpaid service as USCFF Commissioner; reports and expense receipts; newspaper articles; correspondence; and memoranda.
Papers relating to Baird's daughter, Lucy Hunter Baird, include typescripts of entries extracted from her father's journals and correspondence, including notations, and correspondence with family members and acquaintances.
Papers relating to the biographers (George Brown Goode, William H. Dall, and Lucy Hunter Baird) include correspondence with Baird acquaintances; and a photograph of the Baird family home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1914.
Oversize materials include certificates of membership to scientific organizations, diplomas, Baird drawings, a German lithograph portrait with Baird's handwriting, 1855, and a photograph of Baird, circa 1880.
(1) Some items cannot be reproduced because of legibility and bindings; (2) record unit partially microfilmed.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Baird, Spencer Fullerton, 1823-1887
- Ringgold, Cadwalader, 1802-1867
- Baird, Lucy Hunter, 1848-1913
- Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873
- United States and Mexican Boundary Survey
- United States Fish Commission
- Smithsonian Institution. Assistant Secretary
- Smithsonian Institution. Office of the Secretary
- Smithsonian Institution
- United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856)
- Hudson Bay Territory Expeditions
- Northern Pacific Railroad Route Expedition
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7002, Spencer Fullerton Baird Papers