Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Website Search Box

Department ofVertebrate Zoology

Division of Fishes

Spencer F. Baird
Spencer F. Baird circa 1875
© Smithsonian Institution
Alt text

Apart from the Smithsonian Institution itself, and its component, the National Museum, the federal institution most important to the development of American ichthyology was the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, usually called simply the Fish Commission. This was entirely the creation of Spencer Baird.

By 1870, there was much concern over the decline of coastal fisheries in the southern New England states. Baird saw in this the opportunity to bring science directly into the service of the nation by improving its food resources. It was also an opportunity to conduct basic research. In 1871, he persuaded Congress to create the U. S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, with himself at its head. Baird served as Commissioner without pay, although a small operating budget was provided at first. His initial efforts at enhancing and regulating the New England fisheries were largely unsuccessful, partly because of divided jurisdictions and political resistance, but partly because of the lack of knowledge regarding the complex biology of the subject. Baird set out to remedy the latter problem.

In its early years, the Fish Commission operated almost as a de facto bureau of the Smithsonian. Baird was head of both the Commission and the National Museum, and it is often difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. Tarleton H. Bean, for example, was the Museum's Curator of Fishes, but he spent so much of his time in the service of the Commission that his title was later converted to Honorary Curator. The Fish Commission served as a major collecting arm of the National Museum. Material collected under the auspices of the Commission was eventually deposited there. Every summer between 1871 and 1880, the Commission set up research stations in a different location along the New England coast where scientists gathered to study the marine specimens obtained through dredging and trawling. Such activities not only produced ample material for Smithsonian collections but also led to the development of marine biology at a time when research opportunities were limited. The 1880 survey of United States fisheries, conducted jointly by the Fish Commission and the Bureau of Census also resulted in large collections of fishes and a multi-volume study, Fisheries and Fishery Industries (1884-1887), edited by G. Brown Goode.

At first, Baird worked with chartered vessels or ships of the Coast Survey. As the work of the Fish Commission expanded, the need for its own fleet became more and more apparent. Two vessels were designed and built, the Fish Hawk and the Albatross, launched in 1880 and 1883, respectively. These two ships are credited with being the first large vessels built expressly for marine research. The Fish Hawk was the smaller of the two and was used mostly as a hatchery ship and for trawling in shallow water. The Albatross, designed to go anywhere in the world and work in the greatest depths, contributed more to our knowledge of marine fishes than any other ship. The shelves in the Fish Division's collection today are filled with specimens brought back by this ship during her 38 years of service, and these specimens are still the subject of active research. The classic Oceanic Ichthyology (1896) by G. Brown Goode and T.H. Bean was based largely on the deep-sea fishes collected by the Albatross. From 1884 to late 1887, the Albatross worked off the Atlantic coast of North America. In 1888 she went to the Pacific and stayed until 1914, making collections from South America to Alaska, and across the ocean to Hawaii, Japan, and the Philippines. The number of scientific papers based on the work of the Albatross has never been counted, but it runs into many hundreds.

Baird also used the Fish Commission to assist many young naturalists in their careers. In turn, Baird obtained the services of enthusiastic scientists who served as a virtual staff for an institution that had little money to hire its own. For example, G. Brown Goode volunteered his services at the Commission's summer research facilities for a number of years before he was recruited by the Smithsonian. Among the young men Baird hired to work at the Commission were Frederick W. True (1858-1914) and Richard Rathbun (1852-1918). First employed as a clerk, True moved to the U.S. National Museum in 1881, where he occupied a number of administrative positions and developed the marine mammals collection. Rathbun served as a scientific assistant for the Fish Commission while curating the Smithsonian's marine invertebrates collection (1880-1896). He was appointed assistant secretary in charge of the U.S. National Museum in 1898, a position he held for 20 years. Both True and Rathbun participated in the 1880 Census of the fishing industries and contributed reports to the Fisheries and Fishery Industries (1884-1887).

Upon Baird's death in 1887, George Brown Goode became acting Commissioner until a permanent successor could be named. Shortly afterward, Congress made it a salaried position, and the Commission became an independent agency. Additional information about the history of the Fish Commission is available at the Web site of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Woods Hole, MA. (See Related Web Sites.)

[ TOP ]