Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

“You see sir, I have taken (after much hesitation) the liberty of writing to you. I am but a boy, and very inexperienced, as you no doubt will observe from my description of the Flycatcher.” In this way, young Spencer Fullerton Baird, seventeen years of age, introduced himself by letter to John James Audubon. His accurate description and measurements of the flycatcher enabled Audubon to declare that Baird had, indeed, discovered a new bird. In fact, he and his older brother, William, who had started Spencer in bird study the previous year (1839), published their first paper jointly as “Descriptions of two species, supposed to be new, of the genus Tyrannula Swainson, found in Cumberland County, Pa.” Today these species are known as Empidonax flaviventris Baird and E. minimus Baird, or the “yellow-bellied” and “least” flycatchers. Audubon answered young Baird with a warm Letter saying “Although you speak of yourself as being a youth, your style and the descriptions you have sent me prove to me that an old head may from time to time be found on young shoulders!” With that, Spencer Fullerton Baird was launched into the elite society of natural scien­tists. From then on, he was Audubon’s “dear young friend” and he began collecting specimens for Audubon’s last work, Quadrupeds of Our Country.

Spencer Fullerton Baird was born in Reading, on the third of February 1823, the third son of Lydia Biddle and Samuel Baird. Disaster struck the family, however, when Spencer was ten years old. His father died of cholera, leaving his mother with seven children. To help lighten the burden of raising them, Mrs. Baird moved her brood to Carlisle, Cumberland County where her mother and other relatives lived. A thriving town of over four thousand citizens with a lively social as well as intellectual life, Carlisle was the location of a large military barracks and the Dickin­son Institute, later to become Dickinson College. But to Spencer and his brother William, Carlisle’s greatest advan­tage was its proximity to a very wild countryside where new discoveries were possible. Both boys roamed the Cumberland Valley and, in 1838, Spencer began a journal in which he listed various birds and recorded the weather.

After his encouraging letter from Audubon, Spencer’s way seemed set, although initially he decided to study medicine after his graduation from Dickinson with a Master of Arts degree in 1843. Accordingly, he went to New York City to begin his medical studies. He spent most of his time, however, visiting with Audubon, who gave him draw­ing lessons, and making the acquaintance of other estab­lished scientists, such as botanist John Torrey and orni­thologist George Newbold Lawrence. His letters home to William were filled with accounts of the research he was doing, all directed toward natural history, not medicine.

After just three months in New York he caught the flu and wrote for permission to come home, effectively ending his brief foray into medicine. From then on he devoted all of his time to collecting specimens for his own collections and for Audubon’s research as well. He also began his voluminous correspondence with other naturalists in Phila­delphia and New York. When he needed information, he would walk to the State Library in Harrisburg in a day (a forty mile round trip) or occasionally walk to Washington, D.C. to visit William who had since become a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department. Frequently, if he had the funds, he caught a train to Philadelphia to visit the Academy of Natural Sciences where he was elected into membership in late 1842. Wherever he went, he had a knack for meeting the most important people. It is no wonder, however, for almost everyone who knew him found him modest, kind, gentle and sympathetic.

The year 1842 was the most physically active of his life. His letters to William were often narratives of his walking trips. One such excursion along the Susquehanna River covered four hundred miles in three weeks. “Lost 12 pounds of flesh, and burnt to color of old Aunt Rachel. Walked in a Blouse Check shirt, Beaverteen Pants, Heavy shoes and cap. Carried Knapsack and Gun,” he wrote to his brother in an abbreviated account. In all, he walked twenty-one hundred miles that year.

His mother, and particularly his grandmother, seemed willing to let Spencer find his own way, probably recognizing that he had extraordinary talents. Certainly he was never idle, although all his walking, collecting, studying and corresponding did not earn him a living. Many of his letters in those carefree years make a later reader envious of the sights Spencer saw: ”Stopping at Wagner’s Gap to gather Chestnuts, which are in greater abundance than l ever saw them before. Gathered 5 quarts in a short time, and saw three large flocks of Pigeons about 100 in each, flying through the Chestnuts, probably after the fruit.” Or, on November 28, 1842 he wrote. “Saw two superb Bald Eagles at Pike Pond.”

In July 1845, he was elected Honorary Professor of Natural History and Curator of the Cabinet of Dickinson College. But, as he recorded in his journal, “No salary and nothing to do. Received many congratulations thereupon,” including an affectionate letter from his grandmother who wrote:

The fame and credit is almost worth a principality to a young man who wishes to establish himself scientifically in the world …. Should you … require a little propping or helping up, your grandmother’s hand shall be extended to you as long as she has the power.

Apparently, his mother and brother felt the same way, for when his collections grew too large for his home, a carpen­ter was hired with their financial support for $320 to put up a new building in his backyard.

In July 1846, he received $400.00 per annum from Dickinson College and a full professorship. Wasting little time, he married Mary Churchill in August and promptly moved in with Mary’s recently widowed mother. In a letter sent to Audubon announcing his marriage he declared, “She suits me exactly, being as fond of birds and snakes and fishes etc. as myself.” In later years, he told George Brown Goode that she won his heart “by the beautiful labels she wrote for his collections.” The marriage seemed to be a good one, although Mary was frequently ill and bore only one child, a daughter, Lucy, who delighted Baird with her interest in natural history. At twenty-three months she had snakes, salamanders and fish as playthings.

Baird became a very popular professor at Dickinson, the first in the country to introduce field excursions into his zoology and botany classes. Long after Baird’s death, a former student, Moncure D. Conway, published his auto­biography and described his favorite professor: “Baird, the youngest of the Faculty, was the beloved professor and the ideal student. … He possessed the art of getting knowledge into the dullest pupil.”

“The Prof,” as he was affectionately called, continued his collecting, correspondence and visits to well-known naturalists. In 1846, for example, he traveled to Harvard and introduced himself to Asa Gray, the famous botanist. He took with him information about a “lost plant,” the box huckleberry (Vaccinium brachycerum) discovered and described by Andre Michaux in 1796, which Baird found growing near Carlisle. He offered to send Gray samples and thus began a life-long friendship. What the two scientists did noL realize at the time was the great antiquity of the plant. Today, many botanists consider it to be the oldest plant in the world.

The following year Baird received a letter from James Dwight Dana, editor of the American Journal of Science and later geology professor at Yale, recommending Baird for a position as curator for the Smithsonian Institution. Baird had met Dana in 1843 during a trip to Washington after Dana had returned from four years as geologist and mineralogist of the United States exploring expedition to the South Seas under Capt. Charles Wilkes. Despite the fact that Baird was named a full professor of chemistry and natural history at Dickinson in 1848 and given the editor­ship of a well-known German scientific work later renamed The Iconographic Encyclopedia, Baird pursued the nomina­tion to the position at the Smithsonian with great deter­mination. Voluminous correspondence and several meetings with the First Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, ensued over the next three years. Baird marshaled all his friends, the prominent scientists of the time – Dana, Audu­bon, Gray, Cassin, Marsh, Agassiz and others – to write testi­monials, but it took time to persuade the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian that Henry needed an assistant. In the meantime, Henry frequently gave money to Baird for the collection of fossils and fishes for the Smithsonian and told him that “you are my choice and … I shall nominate you to the Board in due time.”

That “due time” came on the fifth of July 1850 when the Board of Regents elected him assistant secretary of the Smithsonian. With that election, Spencer Fullerton Baird found his niche, and, with him to Washington went two freight-cars filled with his entire collection, including many choice pieces of Audubon’s as well. This inventory, along with material from the Wilkes Expedition and the National Institute, became the nucleus of what was to become the National Museum of the United States. It would be many years, however, before a separate building was erected to house them.

In the meantime, Baird fostered the growth of the in­stitution and encouraged the Smithsonian to accept collec­tions from all the government expeditions and surveys which he carefully outfitted. Furthermore, any aspiring naturalist who wrote to him was promptly answered, sup­plied with scientific literature and encouraged to gather specimens for the Smithsonian. No person was beneath Baird’s regard and often he figuratively held the hand of the more timorous or discouraged.

Museum-building and the heavy correspondence which resulted was only part of Baird’s incredible work. He also had to supervise the publishing department which meant revising memoirs, fighting printers and engravers, correcting proofs and distributing the finished copies. As part of this responsibility, he persuaded the board to set up a free inter­national exchange of scientific papers in 1852 which later became the Bureau of International Exchanges. Through all of this, his own research was not neglected. The Icono­graphic Encyclopedia was published as scheduled making him, next to Louis Agassiz, one of the best-known scientists in America. In 1857 Volume VIII of the Pacific Railroad Reports contained Baird’s Mammals of America which increased the number of known mammals by twenty-five percent. In 1858 Volume IX was published as Birds of North America by Spencer Fullerton Baird with the help of John Cassin and George Lawrence. Between 1864 and 1866 he worked on a Review of American Birds which, al­though never completed, was considered by many scientists to be his best work.

Baird was a great classifier of information, always giving full credit to those who assisted him, but he did very little theorizing. In fact, his admiring biographer, William Healey Dall, described the Bairdean School of Ornitholo­gists as “characterized by exactitude in matters of fact, con­ciseness in deductive statement, and careful analysis of the subject in all its various bearings.”

One of Baird’s most faithful correspondents was Louis Agassiz, the flamboyant Swiss emigrant scientist. With a large ego and unbounded self-confidence, Agassiz made a favorable impression, particularly in the lecture halls. He too built a museum, the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, and published many books and papers. Agassiz, however, believed that the true mark of a scientist lay in the realm of the theoretical. In 1863, he and his scientific cohorts, nicknamed the Lazzaroni (anti-Darwinians), pushed through Congress a bill establishing a National Academy of Sciences. This elite group was to supply in­formation on science and art to governmental agencies upon request. Despite the apparent friendship between Baird and Agassiz, Agassiz tried to block Baird’s election to the Academy because he was a descriptive rather than a theoretical and philosophical scientist. Word of this reached Baird’s friend Asa Gray at Harvard who had his own differences with Agassiz since Gray championed Darwin’s theories. Gray believed that if Baird was kept out of the Academy, it would be an unnecessary triumph for the Lazzaroni. Bolstered by Gray’s support, Baird was elected to the Academy by an overwhelming majority. Despite Agassiz’s high-handed attitude toward him, Baird continued to correspond with him and sent specimens to him as often as possible.

With the passing of years, Baird’s workload became increasingly demanding, especially after his decision to in­vestigate the decrease of food fishes along the coasts of America. In 1870. Joseph Henry put aside $100 from Smithsonian funds to aid in Baird’s work. The U.S. Trea­sury Department loaned its sloop, Mazeppa, from the New Bedford Custom House and Baird spent that summer exploring the fishing grounds off New England. He quickly discovered that the traps which lined the shores made it impossible for the shad and herring to reach their spawning grounds.

Due in part to this work, the following year Baird was made head of the Fish Commission by President Grant, but he refused any salary, fearing a conflict of interest charge by influential congressmen. Politically, it was impossible to forbid the fish traps and nets, so instead Baird turned his attention to the study of fish cultures, establishing his base of operations at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Fresh and marine water fish hatcheries were created in appropriate places, new fish were introduced where practical and studies of fish parasites were begun. By 1880, the whole world recognized Baird’s expertise in this area. Calling him the first fish culturist of the world, the German Emperor William I awarded him a silver trophy, the first prize of honor at the first International Fishery Exhibition.

The fishery work was all incidental to his unremitting labor for the Smithsonian and, in 1878, two momentous things occurred. First, after years of agitation, Baird finally received funds to build a National Museum but not without some maneuvering. Congress very enthusiastically appro­priated money to both the Smithsonian and the Fish Com­mission for creating worthy exhibitions at the Centennial Exposition to be held in Philadelphia in 1876. In addition, directors of the exposition were lent money by Congress to prepare facilities with no hope that the “loan” would be repaid. However, to quiet Baird, Congressmen of both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees promised him that if the directors of the exposition ever repaid the loan, he should have his money for a National Museum building. That was all the encouragement Baird needed. He called together the scientific staff of the museum and told them to prepare an exhibit that would capture the attention of the public. Dall, in his biography of Baird, says that “Every man burned with enthusiasm and hope, and each vowed to himself that nothing on his part should be wanting to ensure success. For once the labors of the staff …. approximated in energy and perseverance to those of Professor Baird.” When the exposition opened, the national exhibit was considered the best of all, and to the surprise of Congress, receipts for the exposition were so high that the loan to its directors was indeed repaid. Two years later, Baird had his money, an architect was hired and, in 1881, President Garfield’s inaugural ball was held in the new National Museum building. Finally, all the collections Baird had labored so hard to obtain had a permanent home.

Also in 1878, Professor Henry died and Baird became Secretary of the Smithsonian. He still retained his position as Fish Commissioner and, of course, directed the museum work. Summers he spent at Woods Hole and the rest of the year in Washington. But his incredible pace at work began to break his health. The corruption of the government in the 1880s with false accusations of misuse of funds directed toward Baird and the Fish Commission weakened him, and he became ill so frequently that he and his wife prepared their wills. Specialists in New York advised him to avoid overwork, so in early 1887 he finally resigned his position at the Smithsonian and returned to Woods Hole that sum­mer. Dall says “for everyone he had a word of cheer, though he knew it was the last.”

On August 19, Spencer Fullerton Baird died. Of the many eulogies and appreciations recorded both then and later about him, the most interesting and ironical was read by J. S. Billings on April 17, 1889 as a biographical memoir before the National Academy of Sciences. He said:

The two men who have exerted the strongest in­fluence upon natural history studies in this country are Louis Agassiz [who died in 1873] and Professor Baird …. Each of them created a great museum in spite of many obstacles …. The first [Agassiz] had a vivid imagination which led him to frame many theories and hypotheses to be verified or disproved by future investigations and research; the second classified the facts before him, but theorized very little …. The pupils of Agassiz and Baird are the working naturalists of today 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 ….

But it was the ornithologist Robert Ridgway, one of the many young naturalists Baird had encouraged and nurtured, who said it best in the Smithsonian Report of 1888. Spen­cer Fullerton Baird – “one who in history must hold a place at the head of American naturalists, and in the hearts of those who knew him …. ”


Marcia Bonta writes a weekly country and nature editorial column for the Altoona Mirror entitled “Brush Mountain Notebook.” Escape to the Mountain, her first book just recently released, deals with the same theme. Her latest article, covering Baird’s Pennsylvania years, appeared in the February/March issue of The Pennsylvania Naturalist.