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

David Starr Jordan (1851-1931)

David Starr Jordan
David Starr Jordan
©Smithsonian Institution

David Starr Jordan was the most influential of all American ichthyologists. He and his students dominated the field in the late 19th and early 20 century. It has been said that all ichthyologists today can trace their professional ancestry back to Jordan. Most of Jordan's scientific career was spent at Indiana University (1879-1891) and Stanford University (1891-1931), but he was closely associated with the Smithsonian for much of his career. He was even offered, at different times, the positions of National Museum director and Smithsonian Secretary, but he declined both. Like so many naturalists of his generation, Jordan owed much to Spencer Baird. Reminiscing in later years, he said that the three figures who contributed most to his own development were Andrew Dickson White (president of Cornell University, where Jordan studied), Louis Agassiz, and Spencer Baird.

Jordan visited Baird's summer laboratory of the U.S. Fish Commission at Noank, Connecticut, in 1874. Although Baird himself was absent, Jordan met several of Baird's group, including G. Brown Goode. Here, as Jordan tells it, is where he first came under Baird's influence. Baird by this time was certainly aware of Jordan and recognized his talents. From the mid-1870s into the 1880s, Jordan and his students made summer collecting trips into the southern states, whose fishes were poorly known at the time. Baird provided financial support and collecting equipment, and most of the fishes collected were deposited at the Smithsonian. Jordan, in effect, became part of Baird's vast network of collectors and greatly contributed to the growth of the Smithsonian's fish collection. The relationship was mutually beneficial and created a synergy that produced much more than either could have accomplished on his own. In Jordan, Baird found not just an individual collector, but a fellow scientist who had his own network of student assistants. Jordan not only collected the fishes, but studied and published on them as well. Baird, in turn, gave Jordan access to resources he would not otherwise have had. In those days, the Smithsonian and the U.S. Fish Commission were closely intertwined, as Baird headed both organizations. Jordan worked in association with both agencies and published much of his work in their journals.

Jordan's collecting trips began in 1875 in Indiana and Wisconsin. His most important field work was done in the southern states, where he spent several summers, beginning in 1876. In 1880, as part of the Tenth Census, Baird organized a survey of the fisheries in the United States, and in connection with this he asked Jordan to explore the Pacific coast. Jordan and his assistants collected fishes along the entire west coast, from the Mexican border to Canada. The collecting was extended by Jordan's student and assistant, Charles Henry Gilbert, to Mexico and Central America. In 1884, at the request of G. Brown Goode of the U.S. National Museum, Jordan undertook an extensive survey of the fresh-water fishes of southern United States. Assisted by C.H. Gilbert, J. Swain, and S.E. Meek, he explored various rivers in Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, and Tennessee. It was, to date, the most detailed exploration of fresh-water fishes in the U.S. (See: "Record of Collections of Fishes," 1885). Jordan's various expeditions constituted, in effect, a survey of North American fishes, complementing the railroad and boundary surveys of the 1850s. These collections formed much of the basis for the classic Fishes of North and Middle America by Jordan and Evermann, published between 1896 and 1900. In the years that followed Baird's death in 1887, Jordan maintained his association with the Smithsonian and the Fish Commission by undertaking expeditions to Hawaii, Alaska, Samoa, and Japan.

When G. Brown Goode died in 1896, Jordan was offered the directorship of the National Museum. He was then early in his tenure as president of Stanford University and did not feel he could leave during its critical formative years. In 1906, he was offered the post of Smithsonian Secretary. This time he was strongly tempted to accept, but then the great earthquake struck the San Francisco area, and Jordan again felt it was his duty to stay. The history of ichthyology might have been quite different if Jordan had decided to accept either of these offers. In 1921, on the occasion of Jordan's 70th birthday, the Smithsonian Secretary Charles D. Walcott sent him a letter of congratulations, acknowledging his close ties to the Institution. "Your early associations were with Baird, Gill, Brown Goode, and Tarleton Bean," he said, "and your name will go down in the Museum's history linked with theirs. No wonder we have always regarded you as one of us, and we know that this sentiment is being reciprocated by you."

[ TOP ]