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picture of spencer fullerton bairdNo name occupies a more honorable place in the annals of American science than that of Professor Baird. His personal contributions to systematic biology were of great extent. His influence in inspiring and training men to enter the field of natural history was very potent. As an organizer, working at a most fortunate time, he knew how to utilize his extraordinary opportunities, and he has left his impress forever fixed upon the scientific and educational institutions of the United States, more especially upon those under government control.

He was one of those rare men, perhaps more frequently met with in the New World than elsewhere, who give the impression of being able to succeed in whatever they undertake. Although he chose to be a naturalist , and of necessity became an administrator, no one who knew him could doubt that he would have been equally eminent as a lawyer, physician, mechanic, historian, business man, soldier, or statesman.


It is always interesting to search for the sources of intellectual force and capacity, especially so in this country, where the races of the Old World have mingled with such rapidity and in such volume as to develop very remarkable phases in the problem of heredity.

For an inquiry of this kind there is excellent material in the case of Professor Baird, for though he gave little attention to such matters in his later busy life, there is still in existence an elaborate "genealogical tree," prepared by himself at the age of sixteen, by the aid of which it has been practicable to identify his ancestors up to and including all those of the fifth degree, thirty in number, and in many lines far beyond.

His grandparents were all the children of colonial Pennsylvanians. He was emphatically an American, for over eighty per centum of his progenitors in the sixth degree were living in the colonies during the seventeenth century. Out of the total number of thirty-two, one, or perhaps two, were of Swedish blood; one was a Huguenot, and one or two others from the Palatinate -- companions of Pastorius in the founding of the first German community in America. The others were either natives of Great Britain or their descendants established in the American colonies. Of these there were several of Scotch, Irish, or Scotch-Irish blood, and one or two from Wales.

Although in one sense only agencies in the concentration and transmission of the various traits derived from previous generations , his immediate ancestors -- with their personal traits, the results of education and environment -- were those who had the most direct influence upon his character.

His father, Samuel Baird (1786-1833), was a lawyer, a man of fine culture, an independent and original thinker, and a lover of nature and of outdoor sports.

His mother, Lydia McFunn Biddle (1797-1861), who survived her husband nearly forty years [ either the author was incorrect with his dates or subtracted incorrectly as the period 1833 to 1861 amounts to only twenty-eight years], was a woman of fine executive powers, fascinating manners, and of a sunny and equable temperament.

His father's father, Samuel Baird, served as a quartermaster in the Revolutionary Army; he was a surveyor in the opening of coal-mines in eastern Pennsylvania, in association with his cousin, Colonel Thomas Potts, who was the first to discover the valuable properties of anthracite coal, and who interested Franklin and Rittenhouse in devising methods for its use as a fuel. Samuel Baird's father, Thomas Baird, was of Scotch-Irish origin; he came to the colony before the middle of the century, and following the current of westward travel, settled as a frontiersman in the beautiful Cumberland Valley, near the present site of Chambersburg, the westernmost of the Pennsylvania settlements, and at the very verge of civilization. His wife, Mary Douglass, was of the same race. At the close of the Revolution, her husband having died, she, with all her children but the eldest son, joined the train of emigrants which for a quarter of a century she had seen wending westward past her door, and removed to the new territory of Kentucky, and later to Fort Vincennes, Indiana, where she was still living in 1785.

His father's mother, Rebecca Potts (1753-1830), was the daughter of Thomas Potts (1721-'62), of Colebrookdale, and granddaughter of Thomas Potts, who came from Wales to Germantown early in the eighteenth century, and was a pioneer in the development of the American iron industry. His descendants owned the region in which the American Army was encamped in 1778. The Valley Forge belonged to Colonel Dewees, the husband of Rebecca Potts' sister, in whose house she was living at that time, while Washington occupied the home of her uncle on the other side of Valley Creek. During that long winter Mrs. Washington taught her how to net, and gave her a silver netting-needle, still treasured by the family. Her mother was the daughter of William Pyewell (1685-1769), of Philadelphia, one of the earliest wardens of the Christ Church, and her grandmothers were Magdelen Robeson, descended from Swedish colonies founded on the Delaware, and Mary Rutter, of Huguenot origin.

Professor Baird's mother's father, William McFunn Biddle, was the son of William McFunn, an officer of the British Navy, who was present with the fleet at the siege of Quebec, and while stationed on the Delaware was married, in 1752, to Lydia Biddle. Ordered to duty at Antigua, he contracted a disease which caused his death at Philadelphia, in 1768. In that most interesting volume, the "Autobiography of Charles Biddle," are occasional references to Captain McFunn, who was evidently a bluff and hardy English seaman of the old heroic type. His son, William Biddle McFunn, became, by transposition of his two last names, William McFunn Biddle. He was a banker, an accomplished musician, and the friend of Robert Morris, and became involved in some of the ambitious projects which "the financier of the Revolution" organized in the early days of the Republic -- especially the American Land Company. At one time the richest young man in Philadelphia, he went with Morris to a debtor's cell, where he remained until relieved by the passage of the first United States bankrupt law, in 1800. His mother, Lydia Biddle, belonged to an old Philadelphia family, for many generations prominent in commercial and banking enterprises and as officers in the Army and Navy, the descendants of WIlliam Biddle, one of the first Quaker colonists of Pennsylvania. She was descended maternaly from Nicholas Scull, the friend of Franklin, one of the earliest members of the American Philosophical Society, and the first surveyor- general of Philadelphia.

His mother's mother, Lydia Spencer Biddle, survived her husband for half a century, and died in 1858 at the age of ninety-three. Her memories of the Revolution were vivid, for her father was the patriot preacher Elihu Spencer, who had been a chaplain in the French and Indian Wars, and was despatched by Congress to North Carolina to aid in winning over the Scotch colonists, who were slow to abandon their allegiance to the British Crown -- a man whose eloquence rendered him so conspicuous that a reward was offered his head. Her sister's husband, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, was a member of the Continental Congress. As a young lady at Trenton she talked with General Mercer just before he marched to his death at Princeton, and on Christmas night in 1776 saw Washington depart for the crossing of the Delaware. Her father was the brother of General Joseph Spencer of the Revolution, second cousin to Timothy Edwards, the great New England theologian, and own cousin to John and Edward Brainerd, missionaries to the Indians; she was aunt to John and Thomas Sergeant, of Philadelphia, eminent lawyers, the former a candidate for Vice-President with Clay in 1832, the latter judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Through her mother, Joanna Eaton, she was descended from Thomas Eaton, one of the earliest American Quakers, who came to Rhode Island in 1761, and also from Thomas Wardell and Isaac Perkins, first-comers to Massachusetts Bay (1630-'35), who, as disciples of Anne Hutchinson in the Antinomian controversy, were banished from the colony as heretics, and went with the Reverend John Wheelwright beyond the limits of the colony into the forests of New Hampshire. Among her nearest of kin, the children and grandchildren of her aunts, were all the LeContes, eminent in science as zoologists, geologists, and chemists; John Mcpherson Berrien, of Georgia, the "American Cicero," early Attorney-General of the United States and Regent of the Smithsonian Institution; as well as Admiral Montgomery and Commodore Berrien of the United States Navy.

These were all representative men and women, leaders in the communities in which they lived, a group even more remarkable for their abilities than for their diversity in origin and character. Many of them were Quakers, but there were also Churchmen, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Among them were soldiers, sailors, clergymen, lawyers, financiers, surveyors, miners, farmers, mechanics, military officers, British and American; patriots and loyalists, Whigs and Tories, Federalists and Republicans. With such ancestral resources to draw upon, it is not strange that Professor Baird should have been a man of varied and commanding abilities. His administrative capacity, his power of directing and controlling men, and his personal charm of manner, came to him perhaps chiefly from his mother; while to his father's family he owed his love of outdoor life, his taste for the study of nature, and his magnificent physique, a heritag from generations fo pioneers and frontiersmen. Those who knew best may be disposed to attribute to his Quaker ancestry his quiet and unasssuming manner, his dislike for publicity, and his preference for a simple garb of gray.


SPENCER FULLERTON BAIRD was born February 23, 1823, in Reading, Pennsylvania. His father died when he was ten years old, and his mother soon removed with her family to Carlisle, a village in the beautiful Cumberland Valley, which was the seat of Dickinson College and of a government military post, and the home of many people of culture and refinement.

When he was eleven he was sent to a Friends' boarding-school, kept by Doctor McGraw, in Port Deposit, Maryland; a year later entered the grammar school in Carlisle, and in 1836 Dickinson College, from which he was graduated in 1840, at the age of seventeen.

His interest in collecting and classifying facts and in observing nature began when he was still a boy. His early note-books contain systematic lists of various kinds. He gathered specimens of the wood and leaves of plants, and at the age of fourteen joined his elder brother William, who had similar tastes, in making a collection of the game-birds of Cumberland county. Specimens prepared by these boys sixty years ago are still preserved in the National Museum.

After leaving college, since he was too young to enter any profession, he was allowed to follow his own tastes for a time, and his inclination for science developed in such a remarkable manner that his mother felt that she was justified in allowing him to devote himself for several years to his favorite pursuits. There were at that time no schools for young naturalists, and his education was in a large degree self-directed. He began to read medicine, attended a course of lectures at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York in the winter of 1841-'42, and made excursions, often on foot, in search of specimens and to visit collections. He made long visits to friends in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, and thus saw the museums and important private collections and became familiar with what were at that time the principal centers of learning. In those days were formed many of the friendships and scientific partnerships which influenced his after life.

Among his early companions and correspondents were George N. Lawrence (1841), Charles Pickering and John Torrey (1842), John Cassin and James D. Dana (1843), Thomas M. Brewer, Stephen S. Haldeman, Joseph Leidy, and Frederick E. Melsheimer (1844), and Philo R. Hoy and John S. Newberry (1850).

Still earlier was his friendship with Audubon, with whom he began a correspondence in 1838, and from whom he received instruction in making drawings of birds; and it was to him, and still more to his own kinsman, Major John LeConte, one of the early Southern naturalists, that was due his determination to devote his life to natural history.

In 1843 he translated Ehrenberg's work on the corals of the Red Sea for Dana, who was then engaged upon his report for the Wilkes exploring expedition. In 1846 he appears to have been occupied in the preparation of a synonymy of North American birds, and to have visited Boston to consult in the libraries of Amos Binney and the Boston Society of Natural History certain books not to be found in Philadelphia. That he was already at that time a trained student is shown by the fact that the material then gathered was utilized by him twelve years later in his "Birds of North America."

During all this time he was engaged in organizing a private cabinet of natural history, taking long excursions through the mountains of Pennsylvania; in making dissections and preparing slides for the microscope; and in preserving specimens, most of which are still in existence and available for scientific study in the National Museum.

In 1841 he walked 420 miles in twenty-one days; on the last day 60 miles between daylight and rest. In 1842 he walked more than 2100 miles. In the course of these excursions he visited Audubon, Haldeman, Melsheimer, and Morris, in order to examine their collections. His fine physique and capacity for work in after days were perhaps due in part to these years of outdoor life.

I find in his note-book a memorandum that on his birthday in 1840, at the age of seventeen, his height was five feet ten and a quarter inches; a year later he measured five feet eleven and three quarters inches, and weighed one hundred and fifty pounds. During his long walk in the following fall he made some curious experiments upon himself. At night, after carrying a load of forty pounds for ten miles, he measured five feet eleven and a quarter inches, and the next morning six feet, showing that his height had been compressed by weight three quarters of an inch.

His home studies were carried on for a number of years, and were scarcely interrupted by his election in 1846 to the chair of natural history and chemistry in Dickinson College. In this capacity he taught the seniors physiology; the sophomores, geometry; freshmen, zoology; and the preparatory students, something else. He found time, however, to carry on the work begun in previous years and to make each summer an extended collecting expedition: in 1847, to the Adirondacks; in 1848, to Ohio, to collect, in company with Doctor Kirtland, from the original localities of the types, the species described by him in his work on the fishes of Ohio; in 1849, to the mountains of Virginia, with C. B. R. Kennerly; and in 1850, to Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario.

He remained in Carlisle until 1850, and there he married, in 1846, Mary Helen Churchill, the daughter of General Sylvester Churchill, Inspector-General United States Army. He used to say that his wife won his heart as a girl by the beautiful labels she wrote for his collections, and she was always afterward his companion and assistant in his work.

The coming of Agassiz to America in 1846 was an inspiration to the young naturalist. One of the first great works projected by the Swiss savant was a memoir upon the freshwater fishes of North America, in the authorship of which Professor Baird was to be his associate -- a work which was never completed.

Agassiz did not establish himself in Cambridge until 1848, and to Baird should belong the credit of having introduced into American schools the system of laboratory practice and field exploration as an essential part of instruction in natural history. Doctor Moncure D. Conway, one of his pupils, has often spoken to me of his fascinating explanations of natural phenomena, and how the contagion of his enthusiasm spread among his pupils, who frequently followed him over the hills twenty or thirty miles a day. Once, while collecting insects in the field, they were surrounded by a party of German farmers, who thought they were escaped lunatics and proposed to take them to an asylum.


His mentor at this time was the Honorable George P. Marsh, of Vermont, who was always his friend and admirer, and to him Professor Baird always felt that he owed his real start in life. Mr. Marsh, feeling that his prot‚g‚ was disposed to bury himself in the technicalities of a specialty, insisted that he should undertake to translate and edit an edition of the "Iconographic Cyclopaedia," a version Heck's "Bilder-Atlas," published in connection with the famous "Konservations-Lexikon" of Brockhaus. This, his first extensive literary task, though exceedingly laborious and confining to a man so young and entirely untrained in literary methods, was efficiently and rapidly performed. The result was a great expansion in his tastes and sympathies, while the training and confidence which he acquired served as an excellent preparation for the tremendous literary tasks which he undertook without hesitation in later years.

It was also to Mr. Marsh, who was one of the earliest Smithsonian Regents, that he owed his election as Assistant Secretary of the Institution, then recently organized. His selection, as is indicated by a statement in Professor Henry's fifth report, was due quite as much to his training in editorial methods as to his professional acquirements. His appointment, as is there stated, was made at that time more particularly that he might have charge of the publications, and that the Institution might take advantage of the ample experience which he had gained in editorial work.

He first met Henry, as his diary shows, on July 167, 1848, visited with him the building then being constructed, and undertook to collect natural history objects for the Smithsonian.

The Regents of the Institution did not, of course, appreciate the fact that he had originated, in connection with his work upon his own private collections, a system of museum administration which was to be of the utmost value in the management of the great National Museum, which developed so rapidly under his charge.

All the efficient methods which are now in use in the National Museum were practiced in the little museum which he had organized at home, and which he brought with him to form the nucleus of the Smithsonian collection. Among the treasures of his cabinet, which filled two large freight cars, and which are still cherished by the Institution, were a number of the choicest bird skins collected by Audubon, who entertained for him a sincere friendship from the time when he proposed to him, a boy of nineteen, that he accompany him on a voyage to the headwaters of the Missouri, and who sought him as a partner in the preparation of the great work "Quadrupeds of North America."

The position of Assistant Secretary was accepted July 5, 1850, and on the third of October, at the age of twenty-seven years, he entered upon his life-work in connection with the Smithsonian Institution.


IT would be interesting to dwell upon the details of his work, but his life was so full of interests that it is only by careful condensation that even an adequate outline of its eventful features can be presented in this volume.

There were several distinct activities in his career, distributed somewhat as follows: (1) a period of twenty-six years (1843-'69) devoted to laborious investigation of the vertebrate fauna of North America; (2) forty years (1840-'80) of continuous contribution to scientific literature, of which at least ten were devoted to scientific editorship; (3) four years (1846-'50) devoted to educational work; (4) forty-one years (1846-'87) years devoted to the encouragement and promotion of scientific enterprises, and the development of new workers among the young men with whom he was brought into contact; (5) thirty-seven years (1850-'87) devoted to administrative work as an officer of the Smithsonian Institution and in charge of the scientific collections of the government - twenty-eight years (1850-'78) its principal executive officer and nine years (1878-'87) the Secretary and responsible head of the Institution; (6) sixteen years (1871-'78) as head of the United States Fish Commission, a philanthropic labor for the increase of the food supply of the world, and incidentally for the promotion of the interests of biological and physical investigation.


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