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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department ofVertebrate Zoology

Division of Fishes

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

William Stimpson (1832-1872)

William Stimpson was a native of Boston, Massachusetts, where he studied under Louis Agassiz. He was primarily interested in marine invertebrates, but his collections in the field included many fishes that found their way into the Smithsonian collection. At the age of 21, Stimpson was appointed as naturalist on the North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856), which returned one of the largest and most important collections of marine organisms that had yet been made. Stimpson's efforts were largely responsible for this success. After the completion of the expedition, Stimpson followed the collections to the Smithsonian, where he began to work up the results

William Stimpson
William Stimpson
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives

In Washington, Stimpson became head of the department of invertebrates and was the leader of a group of young naturalists, the Megatherium Club, who had gathered around Spencer Baird (see Related Web Sites). He also traveled to Europe, visiting the great museums and collecting in European seas. He was granted an honorary M.D. degree from Columbian University (now George Washington) in 1860, and in 1868 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1865, Stimpson was called to direct the Chicago Academy of Sciences by his friend, Robert Kennicott. There, he assembled all the material he would need to complete his work. What material he did not have at hand, he borrowed from other institutions. The Smithsonian loaned a large collection of crustaceans preserved in alcohol, and virtually all the invertebrate material from the North Pacific Expedition was transferred to Chicago. Manuscripts in various stages of completion, drawings, and reference volumes filled the offices and laboratories. By 1871, perhaps only the Smithsonian contained more valuable scientific material than Stimpson had accumulated at Chicago. The Academy building was designed to be fireproof, but nothing could have withstood the firestorm that swept Chicago on 8 October 1871. Glass melted, iron turned to wax, and everything combustible burned. In one night, Stimpson lost his entire life's work. He valiantly tried to start over, joining a Coast Survey cruise in the Gulf of Mexico the following winter. But his health was broken and he died in May 1872.

The goby Sicydium stimpsoni Gill, 1860 and the eel Bathycongrus stimpsoni Fowler, 1934 are named after William Stimpson.

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