Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Department ofVertebrate Zoology

Division of Fishes

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

David Starr Jordan and Barton Warren Evermann

The Fishes of North and Middle America: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Species of Fish-Like Vertebrates found in the Waters of North America, North of the Isthmus of Panama.
(Washington, 1896-1900)

The Fishes of North and Middle America, published between 1896 and 1900 as Bulletin 47 of the United States National Museum, is the crowning achievement of American ichthyology in the 19th century. It is a monumental compendium of all the fishes known to occur in the fresh and salt waters of America north of the isthmus of Panama, including the Caribbean and West Indies, and the Galapagos Islands.

Arranged in phylogenetic order based on the classification of Theodore Gill, it contains 3313 pages and 392 plates. Part I was published on 3 October 1896 and contains the first 1,240 pages of text. Part II (pp. 1241-2183) was published exactly two years later on 3 October 1898, and Part III (pp. 2183a-3136) followed on 26 November of the same year. Part IV appeared on 26 June 1900 and includes a "Systematic Arrangement" or classification; "Additional Addenda" of species described or added since the first parts were published; an index of all the genera and species treated; and the plates.

This work was an outgrowth of Jordan and Gilbert's Synopsis of the Fishes of North America (Bulletin 16 of the United States National Museum), published in 1883. Intended as a revision of the earlier work, the Fishes of North and Middle America was greatly expanded both in the length of the species accounts and in the systematic and geographic area of coverage. Many new species had been discovered in the intervening years and had to be added. Unlike the Synopsis, the Fishes included illustrations of many of the species. Although only two authors are listed on the title page, a work of this magnitude could be made possible only through the collaboration of many others. Charles Henry Gilbert, co-author of the Synopsis, was actually responsible for much of the original work. Gilbert by that time, however, had distanced himself somewhat from Jordan and declined to participate further. Evermann, always the loyal lieutenant, came on board to help finish it. Many of Jordan's students and former students, which by then included most of the practicing ichthyologists in the United States, also contributed to the accounts. The task was, in fact, almost a corporate venture, with Jordan in charge. Jordan began preparing the manuscript in 1891, the year he became president of Stanford University. Evermann joined him in 1893 and, as Jordan said, they proceeded to give it "such of their time and energy as could be spared from engrossing official duties to which systematic ichthyology bears no relation."

In the Preface to Part I, Jordan gives credit by name to dozens of people who contributed to the successful conclusion of the project. Yet behind all these, and behind even Jordan himself, looms an even larger figure, without whom it could not have been completed: Spencer Fullerton Baird. Indeed, the Fishes of North and Middle America really began a half century earlier, when Baird arrived at the then-new Smithsonian Institution and began equipping the western surveys with the material and instructions they needed to begin sampling the fishes of the still unexplored continent. It was Baird who supported Jordan in his collecting trips to the southern states and who sent him to California to collect fishes on the west coast. The founding of the United States Fish Commission resulted in large and important collections of previously unknown marine fishes. And it was Baird's National Museum that stored the collections and made them available for study. The illustrations were done by artists employed by Baird at the Smithsonian or the Fish Commission; the most notable of these was H. L. Todd, who produced the majority of the figures. Baird's successor as National Museum director, G. Brown Goode, was the one who first suggested revising the Synopsis and lent every form of assistance and encouragement, including access to advance proof sheets of his own Oceanic Ichthyology. Finally, it was the National Museum's Bulletin that published the great work, which must have been an extraordinarily expensive undertaking.

The publication of The Fishes of North and Middle America is a fitting way to bring down the curtain on the first 50 years of ichthyology at the Smithsonian. It is a tangible record of the immense progress that had been made over such a relatively short time. And it is another of Spencer Baird's legacies to American science.

[ TOP ]