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Spencer Baird and Ichthyology at the Smithsonian
Theodore Nicholas Gill (1837-1914)
The eminent ichthyologist and professor of zoology at George Washington University, Theodore Gill, was associated with the Smithsonian for over fifty years. Although he maintained an office at the Smithsonian and spent countless hours studying the museum specimens, for most of that time he was not a part of the paid scientific staff. Nevertheless, his name is indelibly linked to the Smithsonian, and he contributed greatly to the Smithsonian's reputation for scientific excellence.
Theodore Gill was born in New York City. His father wanted young Theodore to become a clergyman and made sure that his son received a good education soundly based in the classics. Theology held no attraction for Gill, and he decided to study law instead, eventually joining an uncle's law firm. His true interests, however, lay in science and nature. His visits to the great Fulton Fish Market and his proximity to the maritime traffic of the port of New York led him toward the study of fishes. Science offered few opportunities for employment in those days, but Gill managed to obtain a scholarship from the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia, which enabled him to pursue his studies. He began to extend his network of acquaintances, and in 1856 he met the invertebrate zoologist William Stimpson, who had recently returned from the North Pacific Exploring Expedition and was working at the Smithsonian. Stimpson returned to Washington and told Spencer Baird about the young naturalist he had met in New York. Baird and Gill became acquainted through correspondence, and Baird arranged to publish Gill's report on the fishes of New York in the Smithsonian Annual Report for 1856. In December, 1857, Gill visited Washington in preparation for an expedition he was about to make to the West Indies. There he met in person both Baird and Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry. It was the beginning of a lifelong association with the Smithsonian.
Gill returned from the West Indies with an important collection, particularly of freshwater fishes from Trinidad. In August 1858, he went to Washington to begin working up his collection, which he deposited at the Smithsonian. In 1859, he made another trip, this time to Newfoundland to help settle the estate of his grandfather. These two voyages, to the West Indies and Newfoundland, were the only extensive field work Gill ever did. He spent the remainder of his career in the museum studying the ever-growing collections.
After returning from Newfoundland, Gill was appointed by Baird to the team that was working up the results of the Northwest Boundary Survey. In 1862, Gill was put in charge of the Smithsonian's library. When the library was transferred to the Library of Congress in 1866, Gill went with it and became the Assistant and later Senior Assistant Librarian of Congress, a post he held until 1874. Aside from the Smithsonian, his longest professional association was with Columbian College in Washington, now The George Washington University. Gill began there as an adjunct professor in 1860 and progressed to lecturer (1864), professor (1884), and finally professor emeritus (1910). During that time, the University granted him four degrees: Master of Arts (1865), honorary Doctor of Medicine (1866), Doctor of Philosophy (1870), and Doctor of Laws (1895).
From all accounts, Gill was an uninspiring lecturer, and he showed no interest in administrative matters or in the day-to-day drudgery of managing the collections. Indeed at one point early in his career, after having moved the entire Smithsonian fish collection three times, he told Baird that he would have nothing more to do with it. Research was his passion, and in this he excelled. His temperament was perfectly suited to the careful, time-consuming, painstaking observations necessary for successful research in systematic biology.
Gill was a prolific worker, producing more than 500 papers over his long career. The majority of these, 388, dealt with fishes, but he also published on birds, mammals, and molluscs, as well as theoretical and general biology. For a time, he edited an ornithological magazine, The Osprey. Gill was mainly interested in relationships among animals and in constructing classifications. He used osteology and other internal characters in his studies. As a result, Gill's work has a decidedly modern ring to it, in contrast to the bare-bones taxonomic descriptions common in that era. His work was always based on careful observation, but he went beyond mere description and tried to determine the meaning and higher significance of what he saw. Gill's papers were all relatively short. He preferred to work on small groups and publish his results as he completed them. Many of his early papers were published in the Annals of the New York Lyceum of Natural History, of which he became a member in 1858, and the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, of which he was elected a correspondent in 1860. After the Proceedings of the United States National Museum were begun in 1878, most of Gill's papers appeared there. Among his most influential works was his classification of fishes (Gill, 1872), which formed the basis for the arrangement of the Smithsonian's fish collection and which was followed by ichthyologists for many years after.
Although Gill never married and spent much of his time holed up in his Smithsonian quarters, he was by no means a recluse. He participated fully and actively in the scientific and social life of Washington. He was a member of many scientific societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he was elected president in 1897. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1873. Gill was held in great affection and esteem by his colleagues. David Starr Jordan viewed Gill with a respect that bordered on hero-worship, calling him the "master of taxonomy" and the "keenest interpreter of taxonomic facts yet known in the history of ichthyology." Gill gave freely of his time and his knowledge, both to his scientific colleagues and to the public. He contributed to encyclopedias and other sources of public information, including an interview in the Washington Post on the subject of deep-sea fishes, which we reproduce here. Weakened by a stroke, Gill spent his last years quietly in Washington, where he died on 25 September 1914, the last link to the founding era of ichthyology at the Smithsonian.
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