Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/January 1906/Spencer Fullerton Baird
By T. D. A. COCKERELL
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO
SPENCER FULLERTON BAIRD was born at Reading, Pa., on February 3, 1823. He was the third child, as well as the third son, of Samuel Baird and Lydia Biddle Baird. Samuel Baird was a lawyer and a man of education and scholarly tastes, very much interested in natural history in a general way, although he could hardly be called a naturalist. He died when S. F. Baird was only ten years old; but it was from him, in those early years, that the latter got the original impulse toward the study of natural objects.
Professor Baird's ancestry, as we learn from Dr. Brown Goode, was English on one side; on the other Scotch and German. His paternal grandfather was Samuel Baird, of Pottstown, Pa., a surveyor by profession, whose wife was Rebecca Potts. The Bairds were from Ireland, while the Potts family removed from Germany to Pennsylvania at the close of the seventeenth century. His great grandfather on the mother's side was the Rev. Elihu Spencer, of Trenton, who was one of the war preachers of the Revolution, and was so influential that, according to tradition, a price was set on his head by the British government; his daughter married William M. Biddle, a banker of an English family for many generations established in Pennsylvania.
After the death of Professor Baird's father, his mother, with her seven children, moved to Carlisle, the county seat of Cumberland County, Pa., where her nearest relatives were then living. Young Baird was educated at the grammar school at Carlisle, and at Dickinson College, in that city; graduating from the latter at the age of seventeen. The boys of the Baird family were all interested in shooting; but the oldest, William McFunn Baird, and the subject of the present memoir at a very early age became interested not merely in killing birds, but in studying them. These brothers in their early 'teens' began to form a collection, of which they were joint proprietors. This was really the nucleus of what is now the National Museum series, and possesses a historical interest in relation to the museum similar to that possessed by the Sloane collections in relation to the British Museum. It is said that some of the early specimens were prepared 'by the simple process of evisceration, followed by stuffing the body cavities full of cotton and arsenical soap'; but the later ones were admirably prepared, and all are alike precious to those who are interested in the foundations of American ornithology.
Spencer Baird was ready to enter Dickinson College a year before he actually did so; but Miss Baird informs me that he used to say that he regretted that he had not been kept back longer, as he thought that a boy of thirteen was mentally too immature to reap the full benefit of a college course. The opportunities for scientific study in the college were, of course, very small in those days; but there is no doubt that Baird at this time had fully acquired the 'scientific spirit,' and all he needed was reasonable opportunity. His diary, beginning in 1838, when he was only fifteen years old, shows the same close observation and painstaking exactness which characterized the work of his later years. Thus we read on May 25, 1839:
About one a.m. gust came up; light wind—some thunder—rained violently for one quarter hour. Very warm all day. About two p.m. went out to creek with gun. Shot some small birds, principally flycatchers. Home at seven. Skinned and opened birds until ten.
Another entry in the diary reads:
15th, Saturday. Rode part of way home; shot six robins, young and old, under mulberry tree; warbling vireo; read-head, and downy woodpecker.
A later note, dated December 1842, states that the last-mentioned woodpecker was apparently a distinct species, and was named after Baird by J. G. Bell, of New York. 'It was on a high horizontal limb in the first bottom.'
Dickinson College must have been somewhat in advance of the times, for lectures on zoology were offered. The diary under June 18, 1839, has the record, 'Attended one of Mr. Hamilton's lectures on zoology to the senior class in the afternoon.' Baird was then a junior, but no one could deny his fitness to rank with the seniors in zoology.
After leaving college, Baird continued his natural history studies with unabating zeal, and it is evident that at this time his mission in life was fully decided, though this was not so apparent to his relatives as it now is to us. It must be remembered that in 1840 zoology had not received the recognition in America as a serious and important branch of study that it has to-day, largely as the result of Baird's work. There was no great National Museum; there were no zoologists occupying important and enviable positions; there were hardly any opportunities for the publication of zoological work. It is not surprising, therefore, that young Baird's ultra-devotion to this subject was regarded with somewhat modified approval. Here was a young man, manifestly talented and able to make his way in the world, giving himself over to birds and beasts, snakes and salamanders; things which were very well to occupy the leisure moments of a gentleman, but were not calculated to bring either fame or fortune! Nevertheless, Baird went his way, for he could not do otherwise; and even in those days he had a staunch supporter in his grandmother, while his mother was too wise to interfere with his plans.
However, it appeared necessary to select a profession of some kind; and, like so many other naturalists, he became a medical student. In 1841 we find him going to New York, where he lived during one winter, part of the time with Dr. Middleton Goldsmith, and attended a course of lectures at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He never formally completed his medical course, but in 1848 he received the degree of M.D., honoris causa, from the Philadelphia Medical College. Baird's life in New York is told in brief paragraphs in his diary. I made the following extracts:
Saturday, 6th. In evening with Dr. Goldsmith to see Mr. Audubon. Found him unlike my preconceived idea of him.
Audubon was, of course, at that time the ornithologist in this country, and Baird became his legitimate successor in the science. The first meeting (it appears that they had previously been in correspondence) led to an almost immediate intimacy, as the diary shows:
8th, Monday. Heard Watts on osteology, and Torrey on chemistry.
9th. Round to Mr. Audubon, 86 White St., to see his exquisite drawings of quadrupeds, all finished size of life. Helped Dr. Goldsmith dissect a fox-squirrel for Mr. Audubon. Heard Dr. Torrey in evening.
12, Friday. Mr. Audubon called at the office (Mr. Goldsmith's, with whom I am staying) to see me.
He very soon became acquainted with all the prominent naturalists in New York at that time, and was well received everywhere.
23rd, Thursday. Dissecting opossum all day.
In morn went with Major Leconte to see Dr. DeKay at the Lyceum, who is preparing the State account of the Zoological Survey. He has all the animals of New York, figured. At Mr. Audubon's where saw some live Neotoma floridana (a species of woodrat) from South Carolina. Took some birds to show to J. G. Bell, when met J. P. Giraud, with whom I went to see his collection of birds, which is the finest I have seen. Gave him a Cape May warbler. He gave me a Red Phalarope and a copy of his little tract called Descriptions of 16 New Species of North American Birds from Texas.
Wednesday. At Mr. Audubon's in morn for two hours, drawing.
9th, Thursday. Thanksgiving Day. No lecture. In morn at Mr. Audubon's, taking drawing lessons; started with Tyrannula.
Although he took lessons from so great a master, he never became very skilled with the pencil; largely, of course, because the pressure of other work prevented him from spending much time in drawing. No doubt, however, his knowledge of the minute structure of Tyrannula, gained in the way just described, helped him to discriminate and describe two new species a few years later.
14th. Commenced drawing Cedar Bird at Mr. Audubon's. He is drawing common rabbit.
18th. Mr. Audubon gave me a copy of the letter press of his Biography of Birds, five volumes, royal octavo. Obtained a number of rare American bird skins from Peale, for which I am to send Helices, fossils, coins etc.
28th, Thursday. Went down to the Thomas P. Cope Liverpool Packet to see Mr. Nuttall, who is about starting for England. He has inherited an estate of $5,000 per annum, at Prescott, near Liverpool. He invited me to come and see him at it.
Mr. Nuttall was, of course, the distinguished botanist and ornithologist. Circumstances never permitted the acceptance of the invitation. Baird now went to Philadelphia for a short vacation:
29th. Went with Mr. Woodhouse to Mr. John Cassin's.
The veteran ornithologist Woodhouse only died recently. Cassin became one of Baird's most intimate friends, sharing with him in the interest of every ornithological discovery. The old colored man, Mr. Solomon Brown, who faithfully assisted Baird during his whole life in Washington, tells me that 'old John Cassin used to come down from Philadelphia about once a month to look over the collection; and he and Baird were just like brothers.'
To return, however, to the diary:
30th. In morn at T. A. Conrad's. Saw a fine collection of Siberian fossils.
31st. Took tea with Dr. and Mrs. Marshall at Isaac Lea's. Saw his very extensive collection of fossils and shells.
This also was in Philadelphia. Conrad and Lea were the famous conchologists, Lea being especially devoted to the freshwater mussels.
Baird was certainly not one of those people who wait for opportunities to engage in research. He not only went everywhere and met every naturalist within reach, and picked up all the information he could from them and from books, but he was making discoveries on his own account. Although he is known to us as a student of vertebrate zoology, he took a keen interest in botany, anthropology and many other subjects. The diary of January 17, 1844, has this item: 'Commenced making extracts from Torrey and Gray's Flora.' He needed the use of a microscope, and this was loaned to him by Dr. Haldeman, the well-known naturalist, who befriended him in many ways. In 1844 we find him visiting Dr. Melsheimer, the coleopterist. The year 1843 was one of great activity in field research and collecting. The diary says: 'Walked about 1,400 miles this year. Used about 70 lbs. shot, 8 lbs. powder, and 1,800 caps.'
Not only did Baird add much to what was known of the distribution and characters of the birds and quadrupeds of Pennsylvania, but five entirely new ones were discovered in the vicinity of Carlisle, namely, two birds, a lizard, a frog and a salamander. The birds were the yellow-bellied and least flycatchers; they formed the subject of Baird's first published paper, which appeared in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, in 1843. This paper, which was the joint product of the brothers, William and Spencer, was entitled 'Descriptions of Two Species, supposed to be New, of the Genus Tyrannula, Swainson, found in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.' The birds were named Tyrannula flaviventris and Tyrannula minima, and are to-day well-known species; they are now placed in the genus Empidonax, to which Baird subsequently removed them.
The salamander, Pseudotriton montanus, was published in 1849; it is now known as Spelerpes ruber montanus (Baird). The lizard, published in the same year, is Eumeces anthracinus (Baird), while the frog, not published until 1854, is known as Chorophilus feriarum (Baird). It will be admitted that these were interesting finds in a region so well known as Pennsylvania toward the middle of the last century; evidence that Baird was using his own eyes, and not depending too much upon the work of others. Another discovery, of some-what later date, was an apparently extinct rat of large size, the remains of which occurred in the bone caves of Pennsylvania. This animal was described in 1857 as Neotoma magister; but many years afterwards a rat was found still living in Pennsylvania, the bones of which do not seem essentially different from those of Baird's animal, and it is thought by some that the two are identical. This was the only fossil animal ever described by Baird.
In 1844 the Baird brothers published a second paper, a 'List of Birds Found in the Vicinity of Carlisle, Cumberland County, Penna., about Lat. 40° 12', N. Lon. 77° 11' W.,' which appeared in the American Journal of Science and Arts. It is characteristic of Baird's love of precision that he should cite the latitude and longitude in the title. The list enumerated 201 species observed by the brothers, with particulars about their time of appearance, abundance, etc. In 1845 a revised edition appeared, enumerating 202 species from the county, and revising the nomenclature of seven species, to bring it in accord with the strict law of priority. This edition was by S. F. Baird alone, William Baird having entered upon the practise of law, and given up active participation in scientific pursuits.
It is said that a prophet is likely to be without honor in his own country; but Baird was one of those rare men who, without pushing themselves forward, succeed in enlisting the sympathy and support of all those about them. An amusing story is told, that once he was engaged in hunting for Indian arrow-heads and other remains in a field, and some men working in an adjoining field stopped to see what he could be about. After watching him for some time, they concluded that he was an escaped lunatic, and, procuring a rope, approached with the intention of capturing him. Baird, looking up, saw them coming, and immediately began to exhibit to them his finds, and explain about the past history of the Indian tribes. In a moment, he was giving a lecture on anthropology to a thoroughly interested and admiring audience, and it is reputed that some of them subsequently took up the same study. Similarly, the doubts which may have been entertained by his family and friends faded away, and Dickinson College, in his own home town, was glad to elect him professor of natural history in 1845, when he was but twenty-two years of age.
The appointment at first was little more than a token of regard, for there was no pay and there were no duties assigned. Both, however, began simultaneously in 1846; and in the same year he married Miss Mary Helen Churchill, the only daughter of Sylvester Churchill, Inspector General U. S. A. It is perhaps not unfitting to cite here the remark of old Mr. Solomon Brown, that "Baird was as near a perfect man as I ever met with, and I do not see how such a man could get a wife equal to himself; but that is what he did, for she was as sweet as he was," and, added Mr. Brown, "I never saw either one angry."
Baird as a teacher was indefatigable and resourceful. He had nothing resembling the luxurious laboratories of to-day, and it was necessary for him in many instances to manufacture his own apparatus. It was scarcely possible at that time to find text-books covering the necessary ground; but, in any event, it was no plan of Baird's to study books to the exclusion of out-of-door nature. Whenever it was possible, chiefly on Saturday afternoons, he took those of his classes who cared to join him on long walking trips in the neighborhood of Carlisle, botanizing, geologizing and collecting the mammals, birds, fishes and reptiles of the neighborhood. Several of the students so trained afterwards went as collectors with various exploring parties, and did good service in procuring material for the National Museum. In 1848 Baird applied for and obtained a grant from the Smithsonian Institution (then recently established) for the purpose of working up the natural history of southeastern Pennsylvania, and especially for the exploration of the bone-caves already mentioned. This was the first grant for original research made by the Smithsonian; no large amount, but wisely and well bestowed.
In 1850, Professor Henry, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, requested the regents to allow him to appoint an assistant secretary in the department of natural history, to take charge of the embryo museum, and to aid in the publication and other interests of the establishment. This being granted, he at once selected Professor Baird, who immediately accepted and entered upon his new duties. In doing so, he brought to the museum his own valuable collections, and from that time until his death devoted himself absolutely to performing and assisting scientific work on behalf of the American people.
The dream of Baird's life had been the creation of a museum, and to this end, as far as the policy of the Smithsonian Institution would permit, he bent his energies. The situation was a difficult and a delicate one, and we marvel that he was able to completely gain his ends without friction or controversy. Professor Henry, in organizing the Smithsonian, performed an exceedingly difficult task with skill and wisdom. There were all sorts of rival claimants for the disposal of the fund, some wishing to have literature provided for, others different branches of science, and many desiring that the money should be put into a large library. It was perfectly evident to Henry that, if he listened to all these demands, the Smithsonian fund would be frittered away and nothing of much consequence accomplished. He therefore laid stress on Smithson's terms of bequest, in which it was stated that the institution should be for the increase and diffusion of knowledge, and opposed the numerous elaborate plans presented to his notice. It was no part of Henry's intention, when he secured the employment of Baird, that the latter should build up a great National Museum; yet this was the very thing that Baird desired and hoped to do. Both men were right in the light of what they knew; the museum plan would probably have wrecked or crippled the Smithsonian in the hands of any one but a genius like Baird; but as it was, it gradually and naturally evolved, finding for itself public support, and in due course meeting the full approval of Henry himself. Those who were intimately acquainted with the two men speak only of their great attachment to one another, and the total lack of friction in the details of administration. In this and numerous other cases, Baird's success was due not to any form of cunning, but rather to his straightforward simplicity and manifestly unselfish devotion to his work.
In Baird's first report as assistant secretary, published in 1851, he called attention at some length to the important work needing to be done in zoology, botany and geology. It was the declared policy of the Smithsonian, at that time, not to attempt to cover the whole field of science, but to attend to those subjects which had been neglected by others. Very well, said Baird: accepting fully this plan, we must point out that we lack information on—and he proceeded to specify in detail the very numerous investigations crying out for workers, and the splendid opportunities that lay before those who should take them up.
He was by no means content to work solely through official channels. In every possible way he stirred up the enthusiasm of collectors, aided those who desired to study and persuaded travelers to secure material for the museum. When going through his letters of the year 1859, I found evidence of his wonderful perseverance which is worth citing. In March of that year he wished to send the well-known naturalist and traveler, Robert Kennicott, to the region of the Hudson Bay for specimens. The Smithsonian had absolutely no funds for such a purpose, and with any ordinary official that would have settled the matter. Not so with Baird; starting a subscription list with fifty dollars out of his own pocket, he wrote to most of the prominent naturalists of that day, asking them to subscribe what they could and receive a corresponding part of the collections. The response was prompt and satisfactory, and about $500, the amount asked by Baird, was raised. I have before me a copy of the list of subscribers containing such well-known names as those of Cassin, Brevoort, Lawrence, Ostensacken, Cresson and Lea. The Smithsonian itself did finally put in $50, in addition to the sum personally subscribed by Baird on its behalf.
About the same time Baird wished to send John Xantus, a Hungarian resident in America, and a skilled naturalist, to the little-known peninsula of Lower California. It was evidently impracticable to raise two five-hundred dollar subscriptions; but Xantus must go. It was ascertained that the U. S. Coast Survey wished to send a man to that region to examine the tides; why not Xantus? So it was readily arranged, and off he went, furnished with all facilities for collecting specimens.
Thus, without any visible resource to begin with, two important expeditions were despatched. Those who know something of the zoology of America do not need to be reminded of the great results accomplished in each case. It is hardly possible to open a work on any large group of American animals without finding references to the fruits of those two expeditions.
If Baird asked contributions from residents in distant parts, it was all for the sake of science, as they well know; yet he at his end did not spare himself in serving the personal needs of his correspondents. At one time we find him going out to purchase shoes for a whole family in Costa Rica; at another, Mrs. Baird's cooperation was secured in the selection of a 'lady's silk,' intended for the wife of a resident in a far northern post. It was no easy matter to select the cloth, not even knowing the color of the lady (she turned out afterwards to be a half breed), but the purchase was entirely satisfactory.
Baird only entered upon his labors at the Smithsonian in October, 1850, but a year had not passed before he received important and abundant materials from the west. The following letter to the distinguished botanist, Dr. George Engelmann, of St. Louis, Mo., is sufficiently characteristic:
Smithsonian, Washington, Sept. 30, 1851.
The box arrived safely during my absence, and on my return a few days ago I hastened to open it. I was enchanted out and out with the perfection of the packing, and the interest of the contents, which greatly exceeded my anticipations. Much obliged to you for the trouble you had.
I am glad that you are at work for Agassiz and myself. Make a big collection, and don't spare the liquor. Remember we want everything. Keep Lindheimer spurred up [Lindheimer was a well-known botanical collector who traveled in Texas]. Shall I send him some money, and how much; also what kind passes there.
Specimens coming in rapidly. I collected many myself and have as many sent me. Let me know how I can serve you, and believe me ever yours,
S. F. Baird.
Then again, to the accomplished collector, Arthur Schott, then at Eagle Pass, Texas:
Smithsonian Institution, Wash., May 15, 1852.
My Dear Sir:
In a letter under date of Frontera of April 10 just received from Major Emory, he was kind enough to say that he had requested you to make some zoological collections on the Lower Rio Grande and forward them here,—or at least would do so. I was much pleased to learn of the stationing so accomplished a collector as yourself in this rich region, and doubt not that you will make the position tell greatly to the advantage of natural history. You, of course, need no especial instructions in regard to the mode of collecting the objects to be gathered. In so a virgin a field as the one you are now in, everything without a single exception is desirable.
My first favorites are as you well know, vertebrata, fishes and reptiles perhaps above all, mammals and birds, however scarcely behind. . . .
On April 2, 1853, he writes to Dr. Engelmann:
I think all the western parties will go provided with naturalists. There will be a most enormous mass of matter brought in this year from the west.
In March, 1857, he writes to Dr. F. Brandt, of St. Petersburg, relative to an exchange of specimens desired by the St. Petersburg Academy. After dealing with the matter of the exchange, Baird writes:
In the enormous activity of the parties in connection or correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution, the number of species of North American Vertebrata has increased very largely in the last few years. Thus while Dr. Holbrook's work on our reptiles enumerated about 160 species of North American reptiles, we already possess nearly 400. Of fishes Dr. Girard described a few months ago about 50 species of Cyprinidæ alone from the region west of the Mississippi. We have nearly 200 species of birds not mentioned by Audubon, while of quadrupeds I have already determined about 60 species not given by Audubon and Bachman. It is here indeed that our collections show best, the addition having been at the rate of 1,000 per year for two years, not counting the small species in alcohol. The additional species embrace about 12 sorices, one Urotrichus, many Spermophiles, and squirrels, species of Ursus, Felis, Cervus, Taxidea, etc. Of every North American mammal we possess one or more skulls, except of Enhydris marina, Capera montana, Gulo luscus and Ovibos moschatus; the first and third of these we expect in a few months.
No expedition was allowed to start out under government auspices without one of Baird's missionaries, as he called them, or, if that was impracticable, some one of the party being equipped with the apparatus for collecting and preserving specimens. Even John Howard Payne, the author of 'Home, Sweet Home,' when he went to take up his duties as consul, was supplied with copper tanks, alcohol and dip nets, with which he faithfully promised to secure a collection of Tunisian fish.
Every effort was made to enlist the services of occasional correspondents who wrote to the Smithsonian for information. A letter giving the particulars desired would perhaps have a postscript asking whether there were any Indian remains to be found in the locality where the correspondent lived, or whether there was any one who could be induced to make a collection of fish, reptiles, birds, etc. In a great many instances these letters bore important fruit, and any efforts made to comply with the requests would be received with such courteous expressions of approval, often backed up by Smithsonian reports or other literature bearing upon the subject, that the collector would before long become zealous in doing his part for so appreciative an institution. It was in this way that with the expenditure of very little money—for there was little money available for the purpose—the collections of the Smithsonian grew. It is probable that Baird's courteous manner toward all correspondents had a good deal to do with forming the custom which now prevails in the scientific departments in Washington, of promptly supplying every serious enquirer with information, and, if necessary, with publications. This useful and enlightened policy is now thoroughly established in our government service, and is one of the most conspicuous marks of the superiority of our scientific bureaus over those of many nations. I have ventured to select two of Baird's letters to previously unknown correspondents as examples of his method. The first is to the sender of a hair-worm, that animal which most naturalists have learned to abhor because of the frequency with which they are called upon to explain its nature. Many of us, I fear, would have sent a curt reply, but not so Baird:
June 28, 1853.
The specimen you send is one of Gordius or hair-worm, a very interesting entozoon. The fact you mention of its crawling from the body of a cricket is very interesting as tending to settle the question whether the Gordius crawls into or out of the animal it infests. The association between the two has long been known, but every available fact bearing on the subject is of great value.
S. F. Baird.
S. N. Sanford, Esq., Granville, Ohio.
Dr. Ridgway has elsewhere published (Smithsonian Report for 1888, p. 711) his first letter from Baird; here is the first letter to E. D. Cope:
I was much pleased to receive your letter this morning and to see the minuteness of your knowledge of the Batrachia of Penna. I would be glad to know how extensive your herpetological studies have been, whether covering other branches than the Batrachia anoura, and whether you have gone at all into other classes.
In reference to your Hylodes . . . I can not without a reference to our specimens (at present somewhat inaccessible) decide. It appears, however, much like some dark varieties of the Hyla pickeringii. In a paper enclosed you will find description of some new frogs, one, Helocates feriarum hitherto only observed near Carlisle. I make the Hylodes pickeringii a Hyla, as I can not distinguish it generically. Of course not congeneric with acris. What do you mean by Hylodes . . .? This may be the feriarum.
If your time is at your own disposal, it might be worth your while to visit Washington, and examine our Herpetological collections, which are of extraordinary richness. Our specimens of North American serpents number over 600 specimens and about 140 species.
It will always give me pleasure to hear from you and to render any assistance in my power to your studies.
Spencer S. Baird.
E. D. Cope, care J. B. Garrett.
As the new material came in to the museum from all directions, it had to be taken care of and worked up. It is difficult to understand how Baird avoided being literally buried beneath the pile of accessions. In the earlier years there was very little help to be had, even of a purely mechanical sort, and he did most of the work with his own hands and with the aid of such friends as he could impress into the service. He was even obliged to pack up the Smithsonian exchanges; and for many years all his official letters were in his own hand. The first assistant curator of the embryo national museum was (speaking in wholly unofficial language) Mr. Solomon Brown, already mentioned. Appointed about two years after Baird took charge, for the purpose of assisting with the Smithsonian exchanges, this excellent colored man soon learned to skin animals and prepare skeletons, and was for nearly forty years Baird's right-hand man. If the assistance given by Brown lightened one side of the work, the other grew rapidly heavier, and for years it must have been a constant struggle for Baird and his few associates, such as Dr. Girard, to sort and label the specimens, and carry on the official correspondence. As one contemplates the old records, and remembers what was actually done and who there was to do it, it seems amazing that the mere routine work of the museum could be successfully carried on, and if ever a man had a valid excuse for not engaging in original research for lack of time surely that man was Baird. Original research, however, was the purposed end of all the accumulation. The materials obtained must be worked up and that with as little delay as possible. Baird was perfectly willing and glad to see this done by any competent person, but while securing cooperation wherever he could, he put his own shoulder to the wheel, and produced in rapid succession a series of works of the first importance.
This seemingly impossible achievement was due to the way he worked, after hours, during meals, and in fact to the limit of his capacity. Solomon Brown describes him to me as taking his coffee with one hand while he held his notes in the other; he could not stop even to eat. For nearly twenty years he kept this up; but after 1870 his executive duties having become very heavy, and the young men he had trained being well in harness, he ceased to engage in active research. That he felt obliged to do so, no naturalist can help regretting; for though it would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of his labors as head of the Smithsonian and Fish Commission, it is equally impossible to forget what we have lost in the way of illuminating investigations of our vertebrate fauna. It need not be considered an affront to those who came after him, to suggest that if Baird's time had been his own several groups would be in better order than they are to-day.
The task which Baird accomplished was, in brief, the putting in order of the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians of the North American continent, with the description of very numerous new species of these and of fishes. It will be well to give a brief summary of his labors:
Mammals.—The eighth volume of the Pacific Railroad Reports, published in 1857, is a large quarto of more than 800 pages, devoted to a complete revision of the mammals of North America, so far as the materials then available would permit. This work was much in advance of all others in the precision of the descriptions, the citation of localities and the care with which the synonymy was compiled. To this day, we have nothing that really takes its place. The matter of illustrations was not overlooked; I found among Baird's letters one dated January 24, 1852, addressed to d'Orbigny in Paris, asking how illustrations might best be made with a view to excellence and at the same time economy. What information d'Orbigny supplied I do not know, but the illustrations accompanying Baird's larger works were remarkable for their excellence, and highly creditable to the new museum.
Baird described in all sixty-three new mammals, of which forty-two are now considered valid, and twenty-one synonyms. I will confess that I was surprised at the large amount of synonymy; but it must be remembered that in the fifties large series for comparison, such as are available to-day, did not exist, while the descriptions of earlier writers were many of them imperfect. Nine genera and subgenera were proposed, of which seven are accepted to-day.
Birds.—I can not do better than quote the statements (Smithsonian Report for 1888, pp. 706-708) of Dr. Robert Ridgway, who more than any other man is to be regarded as Baird's successor in this field:
With the publication, in 1858, of (the Pacific Railroad Report on The Birds of North America) a great quarto volume of more than one thousand pages, began what my distinguished colleague, Professor Coues, has fitly termed the 'Bairdian Period' of American ornithology—a period covering almost thirty years and characterized by an activity of ornithological research and rapidity of advancement without a parallel in the history of the science. Referring to this great work, in his 'Bibliographical Appendix' to 'Birds of the Colorado Valley' (p. 650), Professor Coues says: "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. . . . The synonymy of the work is more extensive and elaborate and more reliable than any before presented; the compilation was almost entirely original, very few citations having been made at second-hand, and these being indicated by quotation-marks. The general text consists of diagnoses or descriptions of each species, with extended and elaborate criticisms, comparisons, and commentary. . . . The appearance 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. . . . 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 work of reference will always endure."
Thus are graphically described the distinctive feature of what Mr. Leonhard Stejneger has truthfully termed the Bairdian School of ornithology, a school strikingly characterized by peculiar exactness in dealing with facts, conciseness in expressing deductions, and careful analysis of the subject in its various bearings;—methods so radically different from those of the older 'European School' that, as the esteemed member whom we have just named has already remarked, conclusions or arguments can be traced back to their source and thus properly weighed, whereas the latter affords no basis for analysis. In other words, as Mr. Stejneger has, in substance, said, the European School requires the investigator to accept an author's statements and conclusions on his personal responsibility alone, while the Bairdian furnishes him with tangible facts from which to take his deductions. . . . The distinctive features of the 'Bairdian school' were still further developed by the publication in 1864-66, of the 'Review of American Birds,' a work of unequaled merit, displaying in their perfection Professor Baird's wonderful powers of analysis and synthesis, so strongly combined in his treatment of difficult problems. Unfortunately for ornithology this work was but fairly begun, only a single volume (an octavo of 450 pages) being published. . . . I have it on good authority that no single work on American ornithology has made so profound an impression on European ornithologists as Professor Baird's 'Review,' and, by the same authority, I am permitted to state that he—a European by birth and rearing—became an American citizen through its influence.
Dr. D. S. Jordan writes, concerning Baird's methods:
He taught us to say, not that the birds from such and such a region show such and such peculiarities, but that 'I have the following specimens, which indicate the presence of certain peculiarities in the birds of certain regions. The first was taken on such a day of such a month, at such a place, by such a person, and is numbered so and so on the National Museum records.
This habit of exactness, introduced by Baird (who himself exhibited it, as we have seen, when still a boy), has been followed by most of our ornithologists, with the result that this subject has been brought to a remarkable degree of completeness. Let any one compare the current literature on birds with that on insects, and the immense influence and value of the Bairdian method will be at once apparent.
The 'Review of American Birds' described and classified a number of species from Costa Rica and adjacent countries; and Dr. Ridgway, who is now studying the birds of Costa Rica, with materials vastly more abundant and satisfactory than those possessed by Baird, tells me that he marvels at Baird's accuracy and insight. From Costa Rica alone, Dr. Ridgway has obtained from 3,000 to 3,500 birds, a greater number than Baird had from all middle America, including the West Indies; and yet Baird's work still stands, with very few modifications. Baird described about 124 new species and subspecies of birds, including a few which were published by others from his manuscripts. He established about 28 new genera and subgenera, most of which are now accepted and in current use. Quite a large number of the species are now reduced to subspecies, but this is explained by the fact that in Baird's day the trinomial system had not come into general use, and consequently binomials were used for birds which would now be considered to have less than full specific rank. It must also be remembered that the great series now available show intergrading forms which were not known fifty years ago. A certain number of synonyms were based on individual variations and immature states of plumage, and in one case a bird proved to be Asiatic, with a wrong locality. On the whole, judging by the modifications introduced by later authors, it appears that Baird's work on birds was of a higher grade than that on other groups; but it may be that this is largely to be explained by the relatively chaotic condition of the then-existing knowledge of the other classes, making the task of reducing them to order more difficult.
Batrachia.—In 1849, before he went to Washington, Baird published (Jour. Acad. Nat. Sci. Philadelphia) an important paper entitled 'Revision of the North American Tailed Batrachia' In this work the nomenclature of the species was wholly revised, some new species were indicated, and the genus Desmognathus was established. This genus is now universally recognized, and Cope has made it the type of a distinct family, Desmognathidæ. Papers on Batrachia, containing descriptions of new species, and a few new genera, continued to be published until 1850, most of them in conjunction with Dr. Girard. After that date, in 1867, 1869 and 1889, a few species were published by Cope from Baird's manuscript. In all 42 species and varieties were published as new, and of these 26 are recognized as valid by Cope in his revision issued in 1889.
Reptiles.— Dr. W. H. Dall ('Smithsonian Report' for 1888) writes thus:
Many of his herpetological papers were elaborate studies. One of the most important of the early memoirs was that on the reptiles of Stansbury's expedition to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, and another, that on those collected by the United States exploring expedition under Wilkes. The catalogue of North American Reptiles in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution is a classical work, serving to the present day as a text-book for students of herpetology. In 1859 appeared his great study of the reptiles collected by the parties engaged in the explorations for a Pacific Railroad, a monument of patient research and discriminating analysis. After this his contributions to the subject were mostly short papers or announcements of new or interesting facts. Nearly all of this was the joint work of Baird and Girard, but Baird alone published a paper describing many new lizards in 1859. I find that 28 genera and about 120 species were introduced as new; of these, 11 genera and 34 species have been treated by Cope as synonyms.
Fishes.—Aside from the popular and economic work, Baird published descriptive works on fishes during the years 1853 to 1855, almost all the work being done jointly with Girard. Fifty-seven species and subspecies were proposed; 34 of these stand to-day as valid, according to Jordan and Evermann. Of six genera proposed as new, three stand as proposed, and a fourth as a subgenus. Most of the work relates to fresh-water fishes, but in 1854 Baird spent an eventful six weeks on the coasts of New Jersey and Long Island, and subsequently published a list of the marine species obtained. It is surprising to find that as the result of so brief an examination of such a supposedly well-known region it was possible to announce a new genus and seven new species. Two of the species have proved not valid, but the others are good, and no less than three of them have been made by Gill the types of new genera, making, with the genus described in the paper cited, four new genera as a result of the six weeks' work.
It must not be imagined that invertebrate zoology, botany, anthropology and other kindred subjects were neglected. Baird had a good general knowledge of all these, and, in particular, made himself familiar with the different workers all over the country, and sought their cooperation. Thus in his hands the museum actively prompted many branches of science, and a broad and stable foundation was laid. Dr. W. H. Dall, in The Nation of December 1, 1887, has eloquently described this phase of Baird's activities, and I can not do better than to quote his words:
To make this policy (of wide cooperation) a success, such as it eventually became, required qualifications of no ordinary kind. Not only must the work of mediation be guided by the most advanced biological science of the time, but the individual intrusted with it must possess a spirit of impartial liberality, tempered by a sound discretion in business methods; a thorough knowledge and just estimate of men; an untiring patience to meet the peculiarities and caprices of the independent, and often one-sided specialists, whose cooperation was essential; a geniality to enlist the willing but unscientific colaborer; and an instant detection of humbug in every guise. Providentially for the future of natural science in this country, the need and the man met in the selection of Professor Baird. In qualifications for the work he stood preeminent—head and shoulders above any man of his time, and perhaps above all the scientific men of any time. He joined to a marvelous faculty for systmatizing business a capacity for study and continuous work only limited by his waking hours. His frank, genial and wholly unaffected manner put the scientist and the laboring man alike at ease. Always busy, he yet always seemed to have time for a friendly chat with every comer. His memory appeared an inexhaustible storehouse of facts on every subject where any desired datum lay ready to his hand. He knew every specialist in the country. Not only did he hold amicable relations with scientists actually at work, but one might think there was not a schoolboy of extraordinary genius for bird's-nesting or fishing whom he could not lay his hands on . . . If he guided the activity of others as one would use impersonal agencies in the pursuance of a definite end, he was not less exacting with himself. He not only offered freely to others, sometimes constructive rivals, the raw material of research which he collected, but in many cases he put in the hands of those whom he thought worthy, his own more or less elaborated manuscripts, to use in their investigations, thus waiving his own priority in the field. His insistence on giving full credit to collaborators of every degree, both in publication and in records, labels, and reports, was proverbial. To the tyro treading with uncertain step the entrance ways of science he was ever cordial; always a friend, guide and helper. While Professor Henry lived, the affectionate loyalty of Baird to his venerable chief was an inspiration to those about him. . . .
It may be imagined that in his home life Professor Baird was altogether lovable, and we can not feel that we are laying sacrilegious hands upon the veil in saying that not the least of the benefits conferred upon American science was embodied in the influence which extended from that home upon a host of boyish students gathered from year to year under the brown towers of the Smithsonian Institution, slender as to their resources, half Bohemian as to their living, let loose with little restraint in that great disjointed village, the Washington of twenty years ago.
Dr. Jordan writes in the same strain, of—
the splendid benevolent personality that made Professor Baird the 'grandfather of us all,'—always interested in the scientific work of young men, and always ready to give them any help possible in that direction.
Every Sunday evening from eight onwards Baird's house was open to scientists young and old, and these informal receptions engendered a spirit of comradeship which must have done much to make lives happy and work run smoothly. The modern Cosmos Club, serviceable as it is, can not quite take the place of that nameless association of friendly spirits.
As an example of Baird's attitude toward young men, I am permitted to relate the circumstances of Dr. O. T. Mason's first meeting with him. The Smithsonian had received some Semitic inscriptions which had lain without being unpacked for some time, nobody taking much interest in them. Mr. Mason, hearing of their arrival, went to the museum to examine them; for he had already become much interested in Semitic ethnology, and expected to make it the chief study of his life. Professor Baird received him most cordially, and placing his hand on his shoulder said, 'these things have been waiting for you for six months.' So they were unpacked and set out where they could be seen; Professor Henry came in, and the three went over them carefully, the young man explaining them as well as he could in the light of his studies. When it was all over and Mr. Mason turned to go, Baird turned to him and said, 'Now I want you to give all this up.' While the young man almost gasped in astonishment, Baird continued: 'If you devote your life to such a subject as this, you will have to take the leavings of European workers. It will not be possible for you here in America to obtain the material for important researches; but—I give you the two Americas!' And Dr. Mason said to me, 'I was born again that day.' Before the young man left, Baird added an invitation to visit him at his house the following Friday; and for many years this visit was repeated on each successive Friday.
It would be impossible to select a better example of benevolent and helpful wisdom than that just described. Keen to pick out good men, wise in directing their activities, even in fields not specially his own, kindness itself in his dealings with them, it is no wonder that he gave an impetus to the study of natural history in this country which is not yet spent, and it may well be, will continue as a living influence for many generations. It was just the same in his dealings with his official subordinates, from the highest to the lowest. Every day he made the round of the departments, offering a suggestion or cheering word to each worker; and, as Dr. Ridgway tells me, there was no matter too small to excite his interest. He himself knew too much of the details of scientific research not to care about every step leading to the final results. It is just this sort of interest that distinguishes the true worker from the outsider; and fortunate it was for the growing museum that the chief could be thus a true comrade to each member of the staff.
This sympathetic attitude extended to every one about him. Mr. Pollock, who was a messenger under Baird, tells me that he was like a father to him. When Pollock had to go on some errand down town, if the day was hot, Baird would thoughtfully offer him his carriage; and if he saw him walking on the street, would stop and take him in. Baird's manners were absolutely democratic, and that without the least loss of dignity; he was thus an ideal American.
Dr. Ridgway tells me that Mrs. Ridgway often recalls the first time she ever saw Agassiz. It was in the great public hall of the Smithsonian, and Baird and Agassiz were walking side by side, each eating his lunch, while they chatted and examined the specimens. What a picture the scene would have made! Is there no artist who may yet attempt to do it justice?
When Professor Henry died, in 1878, it was inevitable that Baird should become his successor as head of the Smithsonian. Thus additional heavy cares were thrown upon his shoulders; and when, in 1882, the new building was completed, he had to superintend the reorganization of the museum, with an increased staff suited to its new opportunities. Dr. Dall told me the story of the origin of the National Museum building. The need was very great, but congress did not seem at all disposed to do anything. However, when the Centennial Exhibition was held at Philadelphia, money was loaned by the government to that city, and the congressional committee on appropriations was persuaded to agree that if the money was repaid a portion of it should go for a museum building. This was a qualified sort of promise, especially since many supposed that the money would never be seen again; but Baird was determined to make the best of it. He called together his associates, and explained the situation, adding that undoubtedly the final action of congress would depend very largely on the sort of exhibit they could make at the centennial. Under these circumstances, said he, it was for the staff to do their utmost, and he depended upon them to help him to produce an exhibit such as the people of America would be proud of. So they all worked day and night for six months or more, several of them without financial compensation, and when the exhibition was opened, every one was delighted with the result. The money was repaid by Philadelphia, the museum appropriation went through in 1879, and the building was ready for occupation in 1882. To-day it is as crowded as the old one was then, and happily another and better building is in course of erection. It is thus seen, that from first to last, it is no exaggeration to say that our National Museum owes its very existence to Baird. It is difficult to say what would be the condition of biological science in this country to-day had he not lived. It is at least probable that our credit as an enlightened and progressive nation would in this direction be very different, so greatly does a country depend upon its gifted sons!
As time went on, and the museum expanded, Baird was obliged to seek an assistant to share the administrative duties, and his choice fell upon Dr. George Brown Goode, who was already connected with the Fish Commission. In 1887 Dr. Goode was made assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in charge of the National Museum.
Baird had met Goode in 1872 on the Maine coast and had at once become greatly interested in him. Miss Baird writes:
From the time of their first meeting, a warm personal attachment sprang up between them, which deepened every year up to the time of my father's death. From the time when Mr. Goode became associated with the museum work, my father's burdens in connection therewith greatly lessened, as year by year Mr. Goode's ability in that line developed. No cloud ever obscured their harmonious relations. I can recall but one difference between them, and that was on an occasion where some idea having been carried out in connection with the museum work in which they both felt a natural pride, each was so determined that all the credit belonged to the other, and argued so strongly, that they absolutely grew a little hot in discussing the matter! My father wished Mr. Goode to take all the credit, and Mr. Goode insisted that he had only developed what my father had directed.
My own opinion is that if my father had no other title to the gratitude of the scientific world, it would have cause to remember him with gratitude for having afforded the facilities for the development of Mr. Goode's genius, which, however, would have made itself known in time without aid.
The attention of the public had been called, at the beginning of the seventies, to the increasing scarcity of food fishes on our coasts and in our rivers. By a joint resolution of congress, approved February 9, 1871, President Grant was authorized and required to appoint a person of proved scientific and practical acquaintance with the fishes of the coast to be Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, with the duty to promote investigation into the causes of diminution, if any, in number of the food-fishes of the coast and the lakes of the United States, and to report whether any and what protective, prohibitory, or precautionary measures should be adopted. The one man to whom the above description was applicable was of course Baird, and he was requested to assume charge of the work. This he did, and not content with merely carrying out the instructions given, he proceeded to build up a great national institution for the study of fishes in their economic and scientific relations, proving to the world that the fish-supply was capable of being largely controlled and increased, and the available food of mankind thereby increased enormously. Without going into details, the growth and work of the Fish Commission under Baird can be best described in the words of Dr. Dall—
No more emphatic object-lesson of the vital relations existing between research, as such, and the promotion of the material interests of mankind has ever been furnished to the so-called 'practical man' than that afforded by the work of the United States Fish Commission as directed by Professor Baird. Whether germane to the subject of scientific research or not, the most narrow specialist can hardly begrudge an allusion to the grandeur of the methods by which the food supply of a nation was provided, hundreds of rivers stocked with fish, and the very depths of the ocean repopulated. Typically American we may call them in their audacity and their success. The fishery boards of foreign countries, first quietly indifferent, then loudly incredulous, in due time became interested inquirers and enthusiastic followers. In a few years we may fairly expect to see the food supply of the entire civilized world materially increased, with all the benefits which that implies, and this result will in the main be owing to the unremunerated and devoted exertions of Spencer F. Baird.
Baird's writings, according to Dr. Goode's bibliography, number 1,063, this including a few republications. A very large number of titles refer to popular articles, contributed in the main to Harper's Magazine and Harper's Weekly, and republished in the Annual Record of Science and Industry. These articles called attention to many phases of scientific activity, usually with critical comment, and must have been important instruments of public education. There were also numerous short contributions to Forest and Stream, and the Chicago Field, relating to the popular phases of the fish work.
Baird's incessant labor at length began to tell upon his health. Unwilling to rest, he was finally informed by his medical adviser that complete relaxation was imperative, and he reluctantly accepted the decision. Professor Langley had taken charge of the Smithsonian, and the well-beloved and trusted Dr. Goode was caring for the National Museum; it seemed that the well-earned rest might be taken in peace. It was too late, however, and realizing that the end was near, he permitted himself to be taken to Wood's Holl, to the seaside laboratory of the Fish Commission. We may fitly close the story in the words of Major Powell:
For many long months he contemplated the day of parting. Labor that knew no rest, responsibility that was never lifted from his shoulders, too soon brought his life to an end. In the summer of the past year (1887) he returned to his work by the seaside, that he might die in its midst. There at Wood's Hole he had created the greatest biologic laboratory of the world; and in that laboratory, with the best results of his life-work all about him, he calmly and philosophically waited for the time of times. Three days before he died he asked to be placed in a chair provided with wheels. On this he was moved around the pier, past the vessels which he had built for research, and through the laboratory, where many men were at work at their biologic investigations. For every one he had a word of good cheer, though he knew it was the last. At the same time, along the pier and through the laboratory, a little child was wheeled. 'We are rivals,' he said, 'but I think that I am the bigger baby.' In this supreme hour he was playing with a child. Then he was carried to his chamber, where he soon became insensible and remained so until he was no more.
He died on August 19, 1887.
- I am greatly indebted to Miss Lucy H. Baird for information, for access to portions of Professor Baird's diary, and especially for some unpublished notes for a memoir of her father, written by herself. The last, with her kind permission, has been freely used and incorporated in the present work. I am also much indebted to the authorities of the Smithsonian Institution for permission to examine Baird's letter-books; and to Drs. Dall, Ridgway, Gill, Mason and others for much kind help. I have also availed myself of the published memoirs of Baird, especially that of Dr. Brown Goode, with the accompanying bibliography (Bull. 20, U. S. Nat. Museum).
- Properly speaking, 'Scotch-Irish,' i. e., from Ireland, but of Scotch blood.
- It was, apparently, never published. I could find no reference to it, and Dr. Ridgway, to whom I applied for help, is also unaware of any such bird having been published.
- In Marcou's 'Life of Agassiz,' Vol. II., p. 74, the matter is presented in a somewhat different way, but not quite accurately. For example, as I learn from Miss Baird, Geo. P. Marsh was a member of the House of Representatives, not a senator; and he was acquainted with Baird prior to 1848. Furthermore, Henry was of course well aware of Baird's existence and his qualifications.
- The letter, as copied, is in a few places indistinct, but Dr. Gill has kindly interpreted the few difficult passages.
- I omit the specific names which Cope appears to have given to the two frogs referred to, as they seem not to have been published.
- Dr. Brown Goode (Bull. 20, U. S. N. M.) says 70, but searching the literature I have found a large number of additions.
- Solomon Brown said to me, that he never heard him say he forgot anything.—T. D. A. C.