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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
Spencer Baird
Spencer F. Baird, circa 1850
Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives

In 1850, a young naturalist named Spencer F. Baird arrived at the Smithsonian to take up his duties as the new Assistant Secretary. Over the next 37 years, while occupying the posts of Assistant Secretary and then Secretary of the Smithsonian, Director of the United States National Museum, and Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, Baird, among his many other accomplishments, oversaw the establishment and development of ichthyology as a vital component of the institution's scientific mission.

In 1850, American ichthyology was still very much an individual activity, pursued without much institutional support. Those institutions that did exist were largely associations of enthusiastic amateurs with little more than their own personal resources to call on. Small natural history collections were maintained by the Boston Society of Natural History, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and a few others. Louis Agassiz, the well-known Swiss scientist, had recently arrived in the United States and was beginning to assemble a collection at Harvard University. And the federal government itself maintained a collection, under somewhat chaotic conditions, in the Patent Office building in Washington. None of these, however, could compare to the great museums of Europe. The only ichthyologist in America who could compete in stature with Georges Cuvier, A. Valenciennes, Pieter Bleeker and other leading figures in Europe was Agassiz, and he was a European transplant.

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Fifty years later, a revolution had occurred. The Smithsonian Institution became one of the premier scientific institutions in the world, earning universal respect for its accomplishments. The United States National Museum was established within the Smithsonian to preserve and display the collections owned by the federal government. The United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries was founded and played an important role in advancing the study of fishes. And the roll call of the world's leading ichthyologists now included names like G. Brown Goode, Theodore N. Gill, Tarleton H. Bean, and David S. Jordan.

The chief architect of this revolution was Spencer Baird. He established the institutions, marshaled the resources, and hired the scientists. Baird's talents unfolded as his career progressed. He continued to publish original research, but his true genius was as an administrator, an organizer, a recruiter, motivator, and visionary. He was a shrewd judge of talent and attracted the best and brightest young scientists, giving them opportunities and encouraging their work. He served as a mentor to a whole generation of scientists who carried the field forward through the last quarter of the 19th century and into the 20th. A skilled politician in the best sense of the word, Baird worked productively with people from all walks of life, from powerful political leaders to students and collectors. In this presentation, we describe the people and events that drove the development of ichthyology at the Smithsonian from 1850 to 1900.

 

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