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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Department ofVertebrate Zoology

Division of Fishes

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

Charles Frederic Girard (1822-1895)

Charles Girard was the Smithsonian's first ichthyologist as well as its first herpetologist. He led a remarkably versatile and productive life, spanning 73 years and two continents. Girard was born in Mulhouse, in the Alsatian region of France. He studied at the College of Neuch√Ętel, Switzerland, where he was a student of Louis Agassiz. When Agassiz moved to the United States in 1847, Girard accompanied him and worked as his assistant at Harvard College. There he published his first scientific paper, on cottid fishes (sculpins), in 1849.

Charles Girard
Charles Frederic Girard
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives

Spencer Baird brought him to the Smithsonian in 1850 to assist in identifying and describing the north American reptiles and other natural history collections that were accumulating at the Smithsonian. Eventually, Girard was assigned the fishes and amphibians, and these became the main subjects of his studies. His interests were not confined to these groups, however, and he also published on such varied organisms as spiders, insects, and worms, and on theoretical issues. Girard was largely a museum scientist; although he studied material collected from far-flung corners of the world, he did little collecting himself. He was a prolific worker who turned out many publications during his 10 years at the Smithsonian, some of them in collaboration with Baird. Among his more important ichthyological papers were a monograph of the cottoids, (Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, 1852), a review of the cyprinoid fishes (minnows and suckers) of the western United States (Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1856), and the reports on fishes of the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey and the Pacific Railroad Surveys. In herpetology, his major works were a catalog of snakes in the Smithsonian museum, and the report on reptiles and amphibians collected on the Wilkes Expedition (1838-1842). During all this activity, he somehow found time to earn his medical degree from Georgetown University (Washington, DC) in 1856.

In 1859, Girard returned to Europe for an extended visit, and there in 1861 he was awarded the Cuvier Prize by the Institute of France for his work on western regions of the New World and for his work on fishes and reptiles. Although he had become an American citizen in 1854, Girard never returned to the Smithsonian. While he was in Europe, the Civil War broke out in America, and his sympathies were firmly on the side of the South. He joined the Confederate war effort by promoting the Confederate cause in Europe and accepting a commission to supply the Southern armies with medical equipment and arms. In 1863, he slipped through the blockade into the Confederacy and traveled through Virginia and the Carolinas. He published an account of this trip in Paris the following year. When the war ended, Girard chose to remain in Europe and embark on a career in medicine. During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he served as a military physician during the siege of Paris. Based on his experiences there, he wrote an important treatise on the etiology of typhoid fever. Following that war, which his side also lost, Girard continued in his medical practice until about 1888, when he renewed his interest in natural history. Over the next three years, he wrote eight more papers, seven on fishes and one on flatworms. He spent the remaining years of his life in quiet seclusion near Paris, where he died on 29 January 1895. Girard never married and left no descendents, but in his work, he left a lasting legacy to the Smithsonian.

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