Baird, Spencer Fullerton

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  • After providing Spencer Fullerton Baird's (1823-1889) basic biographical information and citing Baird's expertise in zoology and scientific administration, the entry begins with a brief mention of Baird's parents. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, went New York City in 1841 to study medicine, but returned to Carlisle two months later, determined to pursue a career in zoology.
  • As conventional education in zoology was nonexistent, Baird's training in the field consisted of self-study and informal instruction from established naturalists such as John James Audubon. Baird married Mary Helen Churchill in 1846 and their only child, Lucy Hunter Baird, was born in 1848.
  • Baird's impressive and voluminous writings helped secure his appointment in 1850 as assistant to the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, and over the next 37 years he worked to bring zoological and anthropological collections to the Smithsonian's National Museum.
  • Despite the objection of Louis Agassiz, with whom he had personal differences, Baird became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1864. He directed the U.S. Fish Commission after he assisted in its 1871 establishment, and in 1878 Baird succeeded Joseph Henry as Smithsonian Secretary, a position he held until his death.
  • The author comments at length on Baird's prolific writings, which earned him his reputation as the leading vertebrate zoologist of mid-nineteenth-century America. Baird's bibliography includes more than a thousand titles, with about ninety being formal scientific contributions. His final major work was a three-volume study of land birds entitled "A History of North American Birds," written with the assistance of Thomas M. Brewer and Robert Ridgway. Published in 1874, it remained a standard treatise on ornithological life history throughout the nineteenth century.
  • Baird is viewed by the author as having greater significance as a teacher and manager of scientific institutions than through his personal scientific work. It is noted that during the last ten years of his life, Baird led the U. S. Fish Commission in its research work to conduct the first sustained biological study of American waters, while simultaneously guiding the United States National Museum to great prominence in the field of zoology and supervising expansion of the Smithsonian Institution through increased governmental financing, which was a reversal of Joseph Henry's funding philosophy.


  • Audubon, John James 1785-1851
  • Baird, Mary Helen Churchill
  • Baird, Lucy Hunter
  • Agassiz, Louis 1807-1873
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Brewer, T. M (Thomas Mayo) 1814-1880
  • Ridgway, Robert 1850-1929
  • National Collections
  • National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)
  • United States National Museum
  • Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian
  • United States Fish Commission
  • Dickinson College
  • Smithsonian Institution General History


Smithsonian History Bibliography


This authoritative biographical entry on Spencer Fullerton Baird, the second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, appears in Volume I of the first fourteen volumes of the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Separate bibliographies of original works and secondary literature follow the biographical entry.

Contained within

Dictionary of Scientific Biography Vol. I (Book)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Scientific expeditions
  • Animals
  • Secretaries
  • Zoology
  • Birds
  • Learned institutions and societies
  • Museums
  • Management
  • Biography
  • Ornithologists
  • Ornithology
  • Management--Museums


United States

Physical description

Number of pages: 3; Page numbers: 404-406

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