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Department ofVertebrate Zoology

Division of Fishes

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

When Spencer Baird arrived at the Smithsonian in 1850, the Institution's natural history collections consisted only of "a few boxes of minerals and plants." Baird brought his personal collection with him and donated it to the Smithsonian. We do not know exactly how many fishes were included in Baird's original collection, but the fishes and reptiles together were contained in "more than five hundred glass jars, and in numerous barrels, kegs, and tin vessels." (Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1850: 43) Since his responsibilities included the development of natural history collections, he was quick to take advantage of the opportunities presented to him. The main sources of material during his first decade at the Smithsonian were the government expeditions sent out to explore the newly acquired western territories. These included the U.S. and Mexican Boundary Survey, the Pacific Railroad Surveys, the Northwest Boundary Survey, the North Pacific Exploring Expedition, and numerous others. Baird himself continued his own collecting activities during his annual summer field trips to various places in the northeastern United States. In addition, he encouraged many individual collectors to donate their material to the Smithsonian and worked closely with the naturalists assigned to serve on government surveys.

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Preserved Fish Specimens

The first entry in the Catalogue of Fishes was made in 1856. It was a sucker fish, Catostomus catostomus, collected by Baird at Lake George, New York, in 1850. Each entry was given a unique number, which served to locate it on the shelves and to link it with all the relevant collection data such as the number of specimens, where and when the lot was collected, name of the collector, and other pertinent information. By the end of 1862, six years after the catalog began, the number of entries reached 5,000 and the 10,000 mark was passed in 1873.

The founding of the U. S. Fish Commission in 1871 greatly accelerated the growth of the collection. Marine fishes and deep-sea fishes in particular began to form a more and more important component. The summer research stations operated along the New England coast and later in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, became valuable sources of specimens. In addition, the zoological work of the Commission stimulated great interest among the local fishermen. In 1878, for example, the Fish Commission set up a laboratory in Gloucester, Massachusetts, home port to a large and important fishing fleet. The crews began competing with each other in finding unusual specimens among their catch. Many vessels carried collecting tanks with alcohol, and it was even believed by some that it brought good luck to have a tank on board. Along with their target catch, the fishing boats brought in unusual fishes caught in deep offshore waters. This was a fauna that was almost completely unknown at the time and contained many new species. These collections are known as the "Gloucester Donation" and formed the basis for numerous species descriptions. As shown in the graph below, "Growth of Smithsonian Fish Collection," the 1870s marked a period of rapid expansion of the fish specimens housed at the U.S. National Museum.

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Growth of Smithsonian Fish Collection, 1850-1900
Graph by David G. Smith.

The 1880 Census played an important role as well. The Fish Commission, in conjunction with the Bureau of Census, conducted an exhaustive survey of the fisheries and fisheries industry of the United States. Nearly two dozen special agents explored the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts as well as the Great Lakes region. Another important factor, the acquisition of research vessels such as the Fish Hawk in 1880 and the Albatross in 1883, further enabled the coverage to be extended to even deeper waters and more distant seas. In addition to all this, the Smithsonian was actively exchanging specimens with other museums, both in the United States and abroad. This also served to expand and diversify the holdings. By 1882, the number of catalogued entries passed the 30,000 mark and in 1889 reached 40,000. By the end of the 19th century, the number stood at 49,264.

The fish collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History today contains more than 388,000 catalogued lots (a lot being all the specimens of a particular species collected at a particular place at a particular time). Approximately 19,000 lots are type specimens, that is, those specimens that form the basis for species descriptions. With an estimated number of about 4 million specimens, the Smithsonian collection is the largest of its kind in the world, both in terms of quantity and diversity of coverage. This invaluable resource of preserved fishes is used actively by research scientists from all over the world. The Smithsonian holds the collection in trust for today's scientists and those of future generations who will follow.

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