Spencer Fullerton Baird and the Foundations of American Marine Science

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  • This article concerns the origins and early development of American marine science studies and the formation of the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, the forerunner of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Commission was established by the U. S. Congress in 1871; President Ulysses S. Grant appointed then-Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Spencer Fullerton Baird as the new government agency's Fish Commissioner, a position retained after he was appointed Smithsonian Secretary in 1878 and held until his death in 1887.
  • Baird, a renowned zoologist, had been Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian and director of the United States National Museum for thirteen years when he first visited Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1863 to do research to further pursue his expanding interest in marine biology. Baird recognized that European biologists, such as Italy's Anton Dohrn, were concentrating on marine research, and he envisioned expanding such research in the United States. The opportunity to pursue his idea arose when he returned to Woods Hole in 1870, after a local controversy had developed among conflicting fishery interests.
  • Baird thought the dispute could be resolved through scientific study of marine life and began the process which established the Fish Commission. While serving in his Smithsonian roles, Baird had become skilled in obtaining Federal government funding for the United States National Museum through his many contacts with Congressional friends. Baird utilized those talents to secure federal financing for the Commission to fulfill its initial mandate: to determine whether or not American fish stocks had declined, and if such a decline were the case, to find the cause and propose remedies.
  • Broad studies conducted in 1871 by the new Commission evidenced declines in the number of fish off New England's southern coast. Baird made recommendations for a solution, but when conflicting data was collected the following year, he concluded that intensified research efforts were needed to more fully understand the complexities of marine life.
  • The author describes various studies undertaken to increase knowledge of fish and fisheries. Information compiled and specimens collected by Baird and other scientists, such as William G. Farlow and Addison Verrill, and a number of Verrill's students, including Edmund G. Wilson and C. Hart Merriam, were analyzed and used in producing numerous scientific publications. A. S. Packard and John Ryder also made contributions to Baird's efforts. Baird's Assistant Director of the National Museum George Brown Goode prepared an extensive fisheries study that resulted in publication of a seven-volume work in 1882. Goode also published "Oceanic Ichthyology" with Tarleton Bean in 1896. The steamer "Fish Hawk" was built in the late 1870's as a floating hatchery; the schooner "Grampus," and the Commission's own research vessels, especially "Albatross," were instrumental in the collection and study of marine specimens.
  • Also discussed are some of Baird's successful and failed efforts while leading the Fish Commission; details regarding his work with states to ensure the success of fish culture and efforts made to resolve conflicting state and Federal regulations; the role Baird played in a fishery dispute with Canada that resulted in encouraging the use of alternative fishing devices and seeking ways to make the United States independent of Canadian inshore fisheries.
  • The author concludes that during Baird's tenure as Fish Commissioner, decisive steps were taken to gain a greater understanding of marine life and fisheries in the waters of the United States. He also credits Baird with laying the groundwork that enabled scientists such as Alpheus Hyatt to establish Woods Hole as a vital and flourishing scientific laboratory complex that continues to be a leader in American marine science studies.


  • Farlow, W. G (William Gilson) 1844-1919
  • Hyatt, Alpheus 1838-1902
  • Merriam, Clinton Hart
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Grant, Ulysses S (Ulysses Simpson) 1822-1885
  • Ryder, John A (John Adam) 1852-1895
  • Dohrn, Anton 1840-1909
  • Packard, A. S (Alpheus Spring) 1839-1905
  • Wilson, Edmund B (Edmund Beecher) 1856-1939
  • Verrill, A. E (Addison Emery) 1839-1926
  • Goode, G. Brown (George Brown) 1851-1896
  • Bean, Tarleton H (Tarleton Hoffman) 1846-1916
  • Albatross (Steamer)
  • Fish Hawk (steamer)
  • Grampus (Schooner)
  • Halifax Fisheries Commission
  • United States President (1869-1877 : Grant)
  • United States President
  • United States Fish Commission
  • United States Congress
  • Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole, Mass.)
  • National Marine Fisheries Service
  • United States National Museum


Smithsonian History Bibliography


This article was first published in 1985 by the International Association of Marine Science Libraries and Information Centers in their 10th annual conference proceedings "Year of the oceans: Science of Information Handling;" the conference was held October 2-5, 1984, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Contained within

Marine Fisheries Review Vol. 50, Issue 4 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu


Fall 1988


  • Oceans
  • Zoology
  • Secretaries
  • Marine sciences
  • Fisheries
  • Ichthyology
  • Marine resources
  • Administrative agencies
  • History
  • Federal Government
  • Marine Biology
  • Assistant Secretaries
  • Oceanographic research ships
  • Fishes
  • Controversies
  • Fishery research stations
  • Marine biologists
  • Federal Government, Relations with SI
  • Biography
  • Zoologists
  • Marine biology
  • Oceanography--Research
  • Oceanography
  • Fisheries--History
  • Canada


  • Canada
  • United States
  • Woods Hole (Mass.)

Physical description

Number of pages: 6; Page numbers : 124-129

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