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SPENCER FULLERTON BAIRD

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VI.

Thee published list of his writings contains over one thousand titles. Although very many of these are brief notices and critical reviews, and a considerable number are reports and other official publications, there still remain two hundred which are formal contributions to scientific literature.

His work in ornithology was, perhaps, the most extensive and that which contributed more than any other to his reputation; for although he published only eight papers, several of them were monographic, and so exhaustive and critical in their character that their publication was epoch-making.

The first of his large works, the "Birds of North America," which constituted the ninth volume of the reports of the Pacific Railroad Survey, was published in 1858, a quarto work of more than one thousand pages, which for twenty years remained the principal authority. Indeed, this and his "Review" are still regarded by every American ornithologist as absolutely indispensable for constant reference. Coues has declared that with this publication began the "Bairdian Period" in American ornithology, a period covering almost thirty years and characterized by an activity without a parallel in the history of the science. "It represents the most important single step ever taken in the progress of American ornithology in all that relates to the technicalities. The nomenclature is entirely remodeled from that of the immediately preceding Audubonian period, and for the first time brought abreast of the then existing aspect of the case. It was adopted by the Smithsonian Institution, and thousands of separately printed copies of the 'List of Species'were distributed during succeeding years to institutions and individuals; the names came at onceinto almost universal emloy, and so continued, with scarcely appreciably diminished force, until about 1872."

The hands of so great a work, from the hands of a most methodical, learned, and sagacious naturalist, aided by two of the leading ornithologists of America [John Cassin and George N. Lawrence], exerted an influence perhaps stronger and more widely felt than that of any of its predecessors, Audubon's and Wilson's not excepted, and marked an epoch in the history of American ornithology. The synonymy and specific characters, original in this work, have been used again and again by subsequent writers, with various modification and abridgment, and are in fact a large basis of the technical portion of the subsequent `History of North American Birds' by Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway. Such a monument of original research is likely to remain for an indefinite period a source of inspiration to lesser writers, while its authority as a source of reference will always endure."

In pursuance of the same thought, Coues, Stejneger, Dall, and Ridgway have united in the characterization of what they call the "Bairdian School of Ornithologists"; a school characterized by exactitude in matters of fact, conciseness in deductive statement, and careful analysis of the subject in all its various bearings; a school whose work is marked by a careful separation of the data from the conclusions derived from them, so that the conclusions or arguments can be traced back to their sources and duly weighed.

As Doctor Stejneger has shown, the writings of the older European naturalists afford little basis for analysis, and the investigator has no recourse but to accept an author's statements and conclusions on his own responsibility.

It is scarcely probable that any American naturalist would have ventured to claim for a fellow-countryman so radical an advance in scientific method, but I am not aware that the generalization of Stejneger has met with any opposition abroad. Indeed, during the twelve years which have passed since Stejneger's characterization of the Bairdian School, its methods have been generally adopted among advanced workers on the other side of the Atlantic.

The development of this school was due not alone to the publication of the "Birds of North America," but still more to the direct influence of its author, exerted by personal intercourse and by correspondence upon a large number of American naturalists and collectors, and it is due in part to his influence that ornithology is to-day being pursued in this country by a larger number of competent and well-equipped naturalists than any other branch of natural history.

The publication of the "Review of American Birds" was begun in 1864, but never completed, having ceased with the issue of the first volume. This has been described by competent authorities as a work of unequaled merit, displaying in their perfection the author's wonderful powers of analysis and synthesis -- a work which has received unstinted praise from all competent to estimate it, and one which has made a more profound impression on foreign ornithologists than any other single work on American birds.

There were numerous minor contributions to ornithology, but no other great one from his unaided pen. The monumental "History of North American Birds," in five volumes, by Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway, presented fully the results of the Bairdian School up to 1874; and his favorite pupil and assistant, Mr. Ridgway, is now engaged upon a most important systematic treatise, which, as a summary of all that is known of the morphology and classification of the birds of north and middle America, will, when it is published, repeat in its effect the volume of 1858.

In his early years he published many minor papers upon the mammals of the West, and in 1857 appeared the eighth volume of the Pacific Railroad Survey Reports, which was devoted almost entirely to the mammals of North America. Nearly forty years have elapsed, and still no general work has been published to take its place. Everything which has been said in previous pages about his "Birds of North America," published in the same series in the following year, applies with equal or greater force to his work upon the mammals. The greatest of living American mammalogists said to the writer not long ago, that in his work to-day, when he had a description by Baird before him, he did not deem it essential to examine the specimen to which it related; something, he added, which he could not say about any other writer.1 [To illustrate his methods of work and the facility which he acquired with practice, it may be stated that he began the mammal volume in Elizabethtown, New York, August, 1853, and finished printing October, 1859; having in the last instance written about two thousand quarto pages of original matter of the most technical character within a period of eleven months, and put it through the press in the three which followed.]

In the field of herpetology Professor Baird was still more of a pioneer, and, with the exception of Cope, to whom he resigned the field in 1859, as his chosen successor, his formal memoirs in this department were more extensive than those of any other. In his day material did not exist for a comprehensive work covering the entire continent, but in his elaborate reports upon the collections of the transcontinental surveys, and in his catalogue of North American Serpents in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, as well as in his scattered papers, he very nearly covered the same field which was occupied by his two great volumes on birds and mammals.

Nearly two hundred new species and numerous new genera of reptiles were discovered and named by him, either under his own name or in association with his assistant, Charles Girard. To illustrate the fundamental character of this work, it may be said that when the great collection of snakes, containing several thousand specimens, was taken up for study, each specimen was individualized by attaching a number tag, which served as a key to its locality. They were all then thrown into one great pile, and by a process of comparison with absolute disregard for what had been previously written, assorted, first into families, then into genera, and then into species and varieties. After this had been done, descriptions and analytical keys were prepared and provisional names were given to each. Last of all, the books were consulted in order to determine which of them had already been described and provided with names. Never in the history of zoology has a continent been classified in a manner so free from complications of previous discussion.

He published little on the morphology and classification of fishes. A few papers, in association with Girard, upon new forms found in the fresh-waters of the Southwest, and a report upon the fishes observed upon the coast of New Jersey and Long Island during the summer of 1854, were early and useful pieces of work, though not especially significant.

After he became Commissioner of Fisheries his time was so occupied that he was obliged to carry on his studies through the agency of others. In his first annual report, however, - that for 1871, - he discussed the life-histories of two important economic species, the bluefish and scuppaug. These were the beginning of a new method in ichthyological work, and served as a model and guide for all the more recent American students. These essays were life-histories of the most comprehensive type. In them he discussed geographical range, migrations, movements, habits of life, phenomena of reproduction and growth, questions of food, enemies, temperature, and all the manifold relationships of each form to its environment. Then followed a discussion of the relation of these fishes to man, the relative destructiveness of different methods of capture, and the effects of these methods in the past. The evidence in regard to the diminution of numbers was critically examined, and the statistics for the region, with which he was familiar, were treated in an exhaustive manner. A life-history equal to that of the bluefish, then printed, has never been written by any other naturalist. (4.1 hours)

It was his intention to have continued this series of papers, and had the scope of the Fish Commission not been subsequently expanded so as to include artificial culture, he would probably have been able to do this for all the fishes of the Atlantic coast. His material in regard to the herring and menhaden was particularly abundant and important.

After six years of waiting, however, he decided that it was impossible for him to give his personal attention to work of this kind, and in 1877 he proposed to me to take up the work, at the same time handing over a great mass of classified material -- his own observations supplemented by letters and abstracts relating to all the economic fishes of the United States. This was the foundation of the somewhat voluminous publication entitled "The Fishery Industries of the United States," which was published under his direction by the writer and a staff of associates.

Although he had abandoned this portion of the work, he by no means lost interest in it, but had in preparation at the time of his death a paper which, had he completed it, would have been one of the most important contributions to the literature of the fishes ever issued, dealing as it did in the broadest and most philosophical manner with the principles underlying the whole subject of fishery economy.

He attempted in later years no personal work upon the fishes, but he saw every specimen obtained by the Commission and inspected every collection, as soon as it was received, with eager enthusiasm. He was often the first to detect undescribed or novel forms, and knew more about them all than the men whom he designated to write accounts of them.

It was also with the invertebrates, especially in the early years, before the extension of the investigation into the deep sea brought in such an overwhelming wealth of new material. It was so in the museum in every department, and each of his associates knew that he was many times competent to do the work which he had made over to the others.

Particularly keen was his insight into North American archaeology. The great collection of the Smithsonian Institution grew up under his hands, and up to the time of his death every single object was handled by him as soon as it was received. No one was so quick to perceive a new fact or so keen in the detection of a fraud, and although he never published a formal contribution to archaeology, there was in his day no archaeologist who was so learned. He was, indeed, an "all-around" naturalist -- one of the last of a school which has now almost ceased to exist.

But that he, like Professor Henry, was willing to give up the pleasure of doing things himself, in order that he might provide the means by which hundreds of others might be enabled to work, the sum total of his contributions to science would have been much greater.

It was his self-chosen task to amass material for research, to secure the money for the prosecution of studies upon it, to select the men, to train them and point out to them the results to be accomplished, to watch their progress, and, when satisfied that an adequate result had been reached, to secure its publication. Like most men of active mind, he delighted to enter unfamiliar regions, to become thoroughly familiar with all that was known, and to begin some research in each field in order to satisfy himself of his competency to enter it if he chose. This having been done, he was quite willing to hand over his accumulations of notes and material to some one else, and to this trait of his character many naturalists since prominent have owed their first establishment in the fields of research which they have since occupied.

Reference has been made to the characteristics of the Bairdian Period and the School of Ornithology, which have been recognized. No one has proposed similar periods and schools in other departments of zoology, but in mammals particularly there is even more justification for the use of these terms, for his influence is here even more dominant to the present day. Indeed, these terms might well be extended to cover the entire field of systematic zoology in North America, in which he has been even more prominent than was his contemporary Agassiz in the related fields of animal morphology.

VII.

The most judicious estimate of the biological work of Baird is, perhaps, that presented by Doctor Billings in his memoir read before the National Academy in 1889.

Doctor Billings points out that his writings contain not merely descriptions of a large number of new species, but a general revision of the classification and nomenclature, and that the principles upon which these were founded have for the most part stood the test of time, showing the keenness of his insight into what may be called "fundamental morphology." His larger works are still standards of reference, and the additions which have been made to them are mainly the work of his own pupils or of those who have been trained in his methods. His work was necessarily confined to descriptive morphology, systematization, and nomenclature, but his early training as a field naturalist entirely removed him from the category of mere species describers. His determinations were founded mainly on bones and skins, which formed the bulk of the material available at the time.

"It is not," continues Doctor Billings, "an easy matter to estimate fairly the importance of this kind of work and the influence which it has on scientific progress and general culture, and it is very likely under- or over-valued by those who are not familiar with the study of living organisms. Classification, description, and naming of different forms are the essential foundations of scientific biology, for until this has been done identification of particular forms is either difficult or impossible, cooperative work on the part of scattered students is greatly restricted, and broad generalizations can only be put in the form of theories and conjectures. Such work as was done by Professor Baird in this direction gives a starting point to many observers and investigators in different localities, stimulates farther inquiry, and, when done on the extensive scale on which he did it, based on the examination and comparison of a large number of specimens from widely different localities, exercises exercises a powerful influence for years to come on lines of exploration, collection, and critical research. To those who have never tried it, it may seem an easy matter to sort out specimens of different kinds when a large number are brought together, or to prepare descriptions sufficient to enable another man to identify his specimen; but in reality it requires not only much experience and careful study, but a certain aptitude, power of grasping salient points, and of putting aside unessentials such as are rarely possessed by any man."

As an example of Professor Baird's ability in generalization, Doctor Billings cites his paper on the distribution and migrations of North American birds. In this he maps out the country into regions corresponding to the distribution of different kinds of birds; discusses the relations of these regions to surface topography, altitude, temperature, mountain chains, etc.; points out that there are certain correspondences in the distribution of reptiles and fishes, and draws the conclusion that North American birds of wide distribution in latitude, whether migrants or residents, will be found to be larger the higher the latitude of their place of birth; that specimens from the Pacific coast are apt to be darker than those from the interior, and that specimens from near the line of junction of two well-marked provinces or regions often show the influence of hybridization. When he comes to discuss migrations, it is their relations to the laws of the winds of the Northern Hemisphere that he studies them, and concludes that the transfer of American birds to Europe is maninly due to air currents.

He did not himself produce much of this sort of scientific literature, for he had not the opportunity, since at the very period of his career when he was best fitted to make such studies, he had to give almost his whole time and energy to routine administrative duties. "This paper alone," says Billings, " is sufficient evidence of his capacity for generalization from a series of isolated facts."

"The two men," continues Billings, "who have exerted the strongest influence upon natural history studies in this country are Louis Agassiz and Professor Baird. In many respects they were very unlike; circumstances gave them widely different fields, and they worked on different plans and by different methods. They began their public career in this country almost together; but Agassiz was already famous as the result of seventeen years' incessant work, while Baird was an almost unknown youth. Agassiz was a born teacher, a fascinating lecturer, gifted with eloquence which won its way everywhere; Baird could only speak freely in the presence of a few, and for the most part taught only by the pen and by example. Each of them created a great museum in spite of many obstacles, the first winning the means largely from private contributions, which were a tribute to his eloquence; the second gaining his end more indirectly, through his connection with the Smithsonian Institution and government. Each of them gathered around him young men who were stimulated and encouraged by his example, who followed his methods, have continued his work, and have taught others, so that there are now observers and workers almost everywhere. The first made great use of the microscope and embryology; the second very little, for he had to use the material available. The first had a vivid imagination which led him to frame many theories and hypotheses to be verified or disproved by future investigation and research; the second classified the facts before him, but theorized very little. Professor Baird's career as an original investigator was hampered and finally stopped by his administrative work, but in proportion as this latter increased he was able to furnish materials and opportunities for others. The pupils of Agassiz and Baird are the working naturalists of to-day and the teachers of those who are to come, and the two methods of study are being combined and developed to produce results of which we already have good reason to be proud, and the end of which no man can foresee."

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