The Personal Characteristics of Professor Baird

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  • This heartfelt eulogy was delivered by John Wesley Powell at a memorial service for Spencer Fullerton Baird, second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Powell praises Baird as one of the learned men of the world. He views all of Baird's scientific work as an illustration of modern inductive or scientific reasoning, as Baird knew how to accumulate facts, then organize the facts into systems, and then weld them into fundamental principles. Powell states that great contributions to science were derived from Baird arranging for scientists to accompany exploring expeditions to collect specimens for the United States National Museum, which Powell calls an outgrowth of Baird's organizing genius and a splendid monument to his memory.
  • The eulogist states that since Baird was not content with only studying land specimens, he organized the United States Fish Commission to survey and study forms of sea life; Baird made it a research agency that applied science to relieve the food needs of mankind. Baird published great works on natural history, which encouraged naturalists in their work. Baird, in turn, enlisted, trained and encouraged them in their studies of the natural sciences. Powell states that the three institutions over which Baird presided - the Smithsonian Institution, the United States National Museum, and the United States Fish Commission - were woven into one great organization, a university of instruction in the methods of scientific research.
  • Powell especially praises Baird's attributes as a man. He is viewed as wise, but modest, and poised, but hesitant to speak before a public body; he would rather talk to others by the fireplace or from his desk. Baird had remarkable insight and skill, and his leadership talents brought forth scientific advances through his insight into human character and encouragement of his assistants to work together "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Baird treated all his assistants with equal generosity; he made sure they received all honors due them, even if he had found valuable results to an investigation himself before turning it over to assistants, as their joy was his joy. Baird had a sympathetic ear and was a willing donor to those in financial need.
  • Although he was a man of great learning and force of character, Baird found great pleasure in things actually meant for children. He loved books and papers written for them, and in his late years still read "St. Nicholas" regularly; his life at home with his wife and daughter was "pure and sweet." Powell ends his eulogy to Baird by recalling the Secretary's last visit the prior summer to Wood's Hole, Massachusetts. He had created the greatest biologic laboratory in the world there and wished to impart a note of good cheer to all. Baird died three days afterward.


  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Powell, John Wesley 1834-1902
  • St. Nicholas (magazine)
  • United States National Museum
  • United States Fish Commission


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography

Contained within

Smithsonian Institution Annual Report for 1888 (Book)

Contact information

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




  • Scientific expeditions
  • Secretaries
  • Collectors and collecting
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Museums
  • National Collections
  • Biography
  • Museum exhibits
  • Museums--Collection management

Physical description

Number of pages : 6; Page numbers : 739-744

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