Spencer Fullerton Baird, 1823-1887
The second Smithsonian Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, served from 1878 to 1887. A naturalist, ornithologist, ichthyologist, and renowned collector from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Baird dedicated his career to creating a strong US National Museum at the Smithsonian. Born in 1823 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Baird established himself at a very young age as one of the leading naturalists in America, though his training in the field consisted mostly of self-study on collecting walks with his brother William, and informal instruction from established naturalists such as John James Audubon. Baird earned his BA and MA degrees from Dickinson College and later worked as a professor at Dickinson. While teaching, Baird used his time wisely; in addition to prolific reading and daily collecting expeditions, he also traveled and met other naturalists with whom he then corresponded and established specimen exchanges. By the time Baird began work at the Smithsonian Institution in 1850, he was recognized as one of the world’s most distinguished naturalists.
SMITHSONIAN’S FIRST CURATOR
Baird was named the first curator of the National Museum at the Smithsonian in 1850. His impressive and voluminous writings helped secure his appointment as assistant to the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry. Baird’s bibliography included more than a thousand titles, about ninety of which were formal scientific contributions. When he arrived at the Smithsonian in the fall of 1850, Baird brought with him two railroad box cars full of his personal collections. The new curator immediately focused on developing a world-class museum and soon set forth a museum program to Secretary Henry. Acknowledging Henry's stated policy of gathering only materials not previously collected by others, Baird proposed concentrating on collections illustrating the natural history of North America. He created a system of exchange using duplicate specimens and proposed to furnish travelers with the means of "determining the character of objects collected in various part of North America," thus creating an expansive network of collectors.
BUILDING A NATIONAL MUSEUM
Despite his emphasis on collecting and developing a national museum, as Assistant Secretary Baird also focused on many of Secretary Henry’s projects. Baird dutifully shepherded other scientist's research through to publication and shipped a huge quantity of exchange publications within and outside the country, fulfilling Henry’s goal of creating a publications and scientific information exchange. Baird also encouraged the development of young scientists including, William Stimpson, Robert Kennicott, Henry Ulke, and Henry Bryant. In 1857 and 1862, Henry grudgingly allowed Baird to bring in the collections amassed by the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, a predecessor of the Smithsonian, and agreed in 1858 to accept a Congressional appropriation to care for them. In 1872, Baird made a major step forward towards his goal when Secretary Henry gave him full responsibility for management of the US National Museum.
Baird also brought with him a dream, which he confided in July of 1853 to George Perkins Marsh, his mentor and a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents. Baird wrote, "I expect the accumulation of a mass of matter thus collected (which the Institution cannot or will not 'curate' efficiently) to have the effect of forcing our government into establishing a National Museum, of which (let me whisper it) I hope to be director. Still even if this argument don't weigh now; it will one of these days and I am content to wait." Although Henry opposed such a large museum collection, Baird used the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia as a chance to increase the Smithsonian’s collections and visibility. He oversaw the construction of award winning exhibits for the exposition. Further, at the exhibition’s close, Baird convinced other exhibitors to donate their specimens and collections to the Smithsonian. With such large collections, a new museum space was needed and, in 1879, the US Congress approved funding for the construction of the first US National Museum building (now the Arts and Industries Building).
SMITHSONIAN’S SECOND SECRETARY
On May 17, 1878, the Smithsonian Board of Regents unanimously elected Baird as the second Secretary of the Institution following the death of Secretary Joseph Henry. As Secretary, Baird carefully oversaw construction of the US National Museum, and in 1881, the museum opened. A culmination of Baird’s lifelong dream, the new museum provided large exhibit spaces with both natural and electric light. Also during his tenure, Smithsonian taxidermists began to keep live animals behind the Castle as models for their exhibit specimens. These soon became a popular attraction for young visitors, and led to the creation of the National Zoological Park. The Bureau of American Ethnology was also created under Baird to document Native American cultures. In addition to his Smithsonian duties, Baird served simultaneously as the first Commissioner of the US Fish Commission, the precursor to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
After Secretary Baird died on August 19, 1887, the US National Museum Building was draped in mourning the following day. During his thirty-seven years at the Institution, he had transformed the US National Museum into the premier museum in the United States, and he trained a cadre of young naturalists who continued his research and collecting. Baird was an exuberant enthusiast who wanted the Institution to play an important role in the lives of all US citizens, especially through the US National Museum. His passion for collections and public education altered the previous path of the Institution and brought new meaning to its motto of “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
- Spencer Fullerton Baird Chronology
- Spencer Fullerton Baird Bibliography
- Images of Spencer Fullerton Baird
- Spencer Fullerton Baird Records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Additional Records About Spencer Fullerton Baird Across the Smithsonian
- Collections documenting the early history of the US National Museum
- Spencer F. Baird’s Vision for the U.S. National Museum, Smithsonian Institution Archives Online Exhibition
- Spencer Baird and Ichthyology at the Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History, Division of Fishes
- Tour the Smithsonian’s Museum in 1886, Smithsonian Institution Archives 150th Anniversary of the Smithsonian Online Exhibition
- Read about Baird’s Trusted Assistant, Solomon Brown
- National Museum of Natural History's Podcast about Spencer Baird