The Making of a Naturalist: Spencer F. Baird, The Early Years

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  • In an attempt to understand the process by which Spencer F. Baird, Second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, established himself at a very young age as one of the leading naturalists in America, the author examines Baird's formative years prior to1850, especially the 1840 to 1846 period. Baird was born in 1823 in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he credited his early interest in natural history to gardening and walking in the woods with his father, who died when Spencer was 10 years old. However, the author states that it is apparent the main influence was his older brother William, a talented amateur ornithologist who helped collect vast numbers of specimens before leaving for a Washington, D.C., job in 1840, the same year Spencer graduated from Dickinson College.
  • Baird was unemployed from graduation until he accepted a professorship at Dickinson in 1846, but, supported by his family during those six years, was allowed to have a period of time to pursue and develop his interest in natural history, particularly ornithological collecting. Baird used that time wisely in reading and daily collecting expeditions; he also traveled and met other naturalists with whom he then corresponded, and he established specimen exchanges with them. By the time Baird began work at the Smithsonian Institution in 1850, he was recognized as one of the world's most competent naturalists.


  • Baird, William 1803-1872
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • United States National Museum
  • Dickinson College


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


In "From Linnaeus to Darwin: Commentaries on the History of Biology and Geology, Papers from the Fifth Easter Meeting of the Society for the History of Natural History, 28-31 March, 1983."

Contained within

Society for the History of Natural History Vol. Special Publication 3 (Journal)

Contact information

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




  • Secretaries
  • Collectors and collecting
  • Naturalists
  • Biography

Physical description

pp. 141-148

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