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

Tarleton Hoffman Bean (1846-1916)

Tarleton Hoffman Bean has the distinction of being the first Curator of Fishes at the Smithsonian Institution. As an effective manager of collections, a field collector, a researcher, and a prolific writer, he contributed greatly to the development of American ichthyology. He was also an internationally known authority on fish culture, the artificial propagation of game and food fishes.

Tarleton H. Bean
Tarleton H. Bean
©Smithsonian Institution

Tarleton Bean was a native Pennsylvanian, born and raised in the small town of Bainbridge, on the lower Susquehanna River. He attended college at the state normal school at nearby Millersville, where he specialized in botany. After graduating in 1866, he taught for several years and served as the principal of Wilkes-Barre high school from 1871 to 1874. There he became an assistant to J. T. Rothrock, botanist to the U. S. Geological Survey. Bean's interest clearly lay in science rather than teaching, and in 1874 he made two important moves. That summer he began his association with the U. S. Fish Commission, working at the Commission's summer station at Noank, Connecticut. Then he moved to Washington and began medical studies at Columbian College (now George Washington University). He was granted an M.D. degree in 1876 but never became a practicing physician. Instead, he turned his full attention to the Smithsonian and the Fish Commission, which in those days were closely intertwined.

Over the next two decades, Tarleton Bean assumed a variety of duties in both organizations. In 1877, he became a full-time staff member of the U.S. National Museum, first as Assistant in Ichthyology and then as Curator of Fishes in 1879. Throughout this period, he continued to work for the Fish Commission. Most summers found him in the field at one of the Commission's shore stations or aboard one of its vessels. In 1880, he spent a good part of the year in Alaska, exploring the fishes of the region under the auspices of the Census Bureau and the Fish Commission. The work resulted in the description of many new species, and eventually led to his long-time interest in Alaskan fishes. Following the 1880 census, the Museum received larger collections of fishes than ever before, and Bean increasingly spent time managing collections, supervising the day-to-day functions of preserving and cataloging fishes, and displaying them in the Museum's exhibit halls. By 1882, for example, the Department of Fishes had 20,000 'reserve' specimens, 20,000 specimens on exhibit, and 10,000 duplicates. Bean's detailed instructions found in the "Directions for Collecting and Preserving Fish" reveal the extent of the work that went into managing the ichthyological collections. In addition, he supervised the work of artists who were engaged in preparing illustrations of fishes for the department.

In 1883, the Fish Commission and the Smithsonian participated in the Fisheries Exhibition in London. Bean assisted G. Brown Goode, who was in charge of the American exhibits, and published a catalog of 450 fish specimens that were displayed in London. While in Europe, he visited natural history museums in Berlin, Paris and Genoa, studying the American fishes held in their collections. From 1878-1886, he was the editor of the Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum and supervised the printing of the Bulletin. By 1888, his duties with the Fish Commission had become so demanding that he reduced his Smithsonian title to Honorary Curator and took his pay entirely from the Fish Commission. About the time of this administrative change, Tarleton Bean's younger brother, Barton Appler Bean (1860-1947), who had been working as assistant since 1882, became Assistant Curator of Fishes, a position he held until 1932.

In 1889, Tarleton Bean was appointed the editor of the Commission's publications, while continuing to hold the title of Ichthyologist. Most of his work at the Commission related to fish culture. In 1893, he represented the Commission at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. By this time, Bean's reputation as a fish culturist was such that the New York Aquarium asked him to be its director and to oversee its reorganization and rebuilding. He served there with notable distinction from 1895-1898, when political changes led to his resignation. For the next eight years, he occupied a series of temporary positions. He served as the director of the forestry and fisheries exhibit for the United States at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and as chief of the departments of fish, game and forestry at the World's Fair in St. Louis from 1902-l905. In 1905, he approached the Field Museum in Chicago about collecting fishes in Bermuda. His request was approved, and he spent that summer and fall collecting and preserving fishes in Bermuda. The resulting catalog of Bermuda fishes was published by the Field Museum in 1906. In that year, Bean was appointed head fish culturist for the State of New York, a position he held until his death in 1916.

Bean's name will always be linked with that of his colleague, G. Brown Goode, with whom he wrote some 39 papers, culminating in the classic Oceanic Ichthyology. Their first joint paper was published in 1877, a description of two deep-water fishes collected while they were both aboard the Fish Commission steamer Speedwell. This incident left a deep impression on both of them and is recounted in the introduction of their last work, Oceanic Ichthyology, published the year Goode died and the year after Bean left Washington. Bean published more than 300 papers over the course of his career, about eighty percent of them dating from the time when he was at the Smithsonian and the Fish Commission. Most of his shorter systematic papers appeared in the Proceedings of the U. S. National Museum. Among his larger works, besides Oceanic Ichthyology, are The Fishes of Pennsylvania (1893), Catalogue of the Fishes of Long Island (1901), Food and Game Fishes of New York (1902), and Catalogue of the Fishes of New York (1903). Most of his later papers dealt with fish culture, and he published numerous popular articles in Forest and Stream magazine. Although the great majority of his work was on fishes, Bean also had considerable expertise in forestry and conservation. By the end of his life, he was generally considered to be the premier fish culturist in the world. His accomplishments were widely recognized in his time, and he received numerous awards from the US and other countries.

[ TOP ]