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Spencer Baird and Ichthyology at the Smithsonian
Robert Kennicott (1835-1866)
Robert Kennicott's short life was filled with extraordinary achievements, both as a collector and as a working scientist. Plagued with poor health throughout his life, Kennicott developed an early interest in the natural world around his boyhood home in northern Illinois. In this he was encouraged and trained by his father, who at various times was a physician, horticulturist, educator, and editor.
Kennicott had little formal training, but gained much knowledge through his association with established scientists, among them Spencer Baird. By 18 Kennicott was already collecting extensively and at 21 was one of the founders of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. He inevitably came to the attention of Baird, who corresponded with him and recruited him into collecting for the Smithsonian. Kennicott first came to the Smithsonian in 1858, where he became a member of the so-called Megatherium Club (see Related Web Sites), a group of young scientists who had gathered around Spencer Baird to work on the collections that they and others had accumulated.
Kennicott was happiest when he was in the field, and he was a keen observer and recorder of everything he saw. In spite of his poor health, he repeatedly set off on expeditions to the most remote and unexplored places. He was especially intrigued by the far north and in 1859 embarked on a three-year expedition to northern Canada and Alaska, supported in part by the Smithsonian Institution and the Hudson Bay's Company. Kennicott's contagious enthusiasm for collecting spread to several of the Hudson's Bay Company's field agents, who soon became active collectors themselves. After Kennicott's departure, they continued collecting and sending valuable material to the Smithsonian, thus further expanding Baird's network of collectors and the reach of the Smithsonian collections. In 1865 Kennicott returned to the north as part of an expedition to survey a telegraph route through Alaska. There, on 13 May 1866, he died of a heart attack at the age of 31.
Kennicott, like Caleb Kennerly, was a close friend of the Baird family and often visited the Baird household when he was in Washington. He contributed 151 lots of fishes to the Smithsonian collection. The darter, Etheostoma kennicotti (Putnam, 1863) and the whitefish, Coregonus kennicotti Milner, 1883 are named after him. In addition, the town of Kennicott, Alaska bears his name.
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