Spencer Fullerton Baird

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  • Article concerns the influences of the Reading and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, areas in the early life of Second Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird, and the impact they had on his long career in science. For his first ten years, Baird's character and interests were shaped by guidance from his father Samuel, who spent time exchanging correspondence with his son and taking him for long nature walks around Reading to encourage learning first-hand; he also inspired Spencer to read, exercise his mind, and be a good citizen. After their father's death, Baird's older brother William encouraged him to pursue his interest in science. The brothers had collected specimens together when young and Baird was urged to continue the activity while attending Dickinson College.
  • William was a good friend and counsel to his brother, and after a move to Washington, D.C., Spencer visited and made contacts with many scientific men. Spencer became a professor at Dickinson College and during his time there, exchanged letters and specimens with scientists all over the world. When he began work at the Smithsonian at age 27, he was already recognized as one of the world's most competent naturalists. After William relocated back to Reading, Baird corresponded with him as well as other area residents, including Dr. Levi W. Mengel, who was instrumental in founding the Reading Public Museum. Baird also continued his letter and specimen exchanges with other naturalists--some established scientists, others not; through these contacts Baird prompted many to donate specimens to help expand collections of the United States National Museum.
  • The author states that there are over 50,000 Baird letters in existence, most of which are in the Archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Quotes from a number of them demonstrate the close relationship Baird shared with his father and brother, and to show how he gave encouragement to others engaged in scientific endeavors while collecting specimens or exploring. Baird's commitment to good citizenship was evident as he counseled government officials on the purchase of Alaska and almost single-handedly persuaded congress to establish the U. S. Fish Commission. His life and work laid the foundation for science in America.


  • Mengel, Levi W. Dr
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • United States National Museum
  • Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA)


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Seven photographs accompany the article.

Contained within

The Historical Review of Berks County Vol. XXI, No. 3 (Journal)

Contact information

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


April-June, 1956


  • Animals
  • Secretaries
  • Collectors and collecting
  • Birds
  • Naturalists
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ornithology
  • Biography



Physical description

pgs. 66-72

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