The Megatherium Club

Learn about the Megatherium Club, named after a giant extinct sloth that once roamed South America, which consisted of an eccentric group of young naturalists aiming to understand the natural world, and build the Smithsonian’s collection in the mid to late 1800s. 

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Spencer Fullerton Baird

Spencer Fullerton Baird Seated in Chair

Spencer Fullerton Baird was a visionary and can be rightfully credited as a co-creator of the Megatherium Club. Through his position as Assistant Secretary at the Smithsonian, and then Secretary in 1878, Baird corresponded with many of the great naturalists and explorers of his time, in hopes that they would help build the Smithsonian’s collection, and a great U.S. National Museum. In 1850, he arrived at the Smithsonian and began establishing the institution, developing its Department of Ichthyology, and producing his own research. With Secretary Joseph Henry, Baird granted work spaces, as well as living quarters, to members of the Megatherium Club.

It is evident in his correspondences with fellow Megatherium Club members that Baird was a highly respected man among the group, and was always up for a good laugh when not working. Robert Kennicott notes, “Prof. Baird is just about the best and most wonderful man I ever did see.—I never could conceive the possibility of anyone failing in respect toward him and yet he is extremely familiar with everyone—”

Portrait of Spencer Baird, second Secretary (1878-1887) of the Smithsonian Institution, as a young man. Baird arrived in Washington in 1850 to become Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a post he held for 28 years. Upon the death of Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian (1847-1878), he became Secretary. The vigorous Pennsylvanian was to launch and assist dozens of expeditions to the American West. In addition to advice, training and instructions for making scientific observations and collections in the various disciplines of natural history, the Smithsonian provided the explorers with all manner of supplies, such as shipping containers, alcohol, arsenic (a preservative), and scientific instruments. MAH64751.

Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), naturalist, ornithologist, first director of the United States National Museum (USNM), and second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1878-1887), as a young man. 2005-3755.

East Range office of Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird (1878-1887), in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle. Baird's state of the art Wooten desk, which provided a filing system with pigeon holes and writing surfaces, is visible on the far left. On wall: "Flora of the Rocky Mountains." SIA Acc. 11-006 [MAH-2337].

Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), naturalist and second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1878-1887), as a young man. This image was taken from a daguerreotype. 2002-12179 or 64750.

Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry issues a memo stating "the Assistant Secretary shall have special charge of the collections of the Institution, and of the National Museum, and shall direct the operations connected with them subject to the approval of the Secretary." One of the foremost naturalists in the United States, Baird would devote his career to the creation of a great national museum at the Smithsonian. Baird would succeed Henry as Secretary of the Smithsonian after Henry's death in 1878. SA-61 or 2004-60739.

Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), naturalist and second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1878-1887), seated for a photographic portrait during his tenure as Secretary. 786-A or MAH-786A.

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