Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/August 1888/Sketch of Spencer F. Baird

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 33‎ | August 1888

PSM V33 D448 Spencer Fullerton Baird.jpg


IN Prof. Baird we have a conspicuous example of a man who cultivated science for itself alone. While in no sense careless of his own fame, he was always willing to prefer to it the advance of knowledge; was ready to rejoice at every new contribution, though it might tend to forestall something of his own; and was often willing to aid constructive rivals, as is expressed in one of the tributes brought out by his death, by access to his own papers and workings, at the expense of his own priority in the same field. Of another trait of his scientific character Major Powell says, "Baird was one of the learned men of the world, and to a degree perhaps unexampled in history he was the discoverer of the knowledge he possessed."

Spencer Fullerton Baird was born in Reading, Pa., February 3, 1833, and died at Wood's Holl, Mass., August 19, 1887. He was of English, Scotch, and German descent, his paternal grand-father having been of Scotch parentage, and his ancestry on the mother's side English and German. One of his great-grand-fathers was the Rev. Elihu Spencer, one of the war preachers of the Revolution, on whose head a price was set by the British Government. His father, Samuel Baird, was a lawyer in Reading, who is described as having been "a man of fine culture, a strong thinker, a close observer, and a lover of Nature and of out-of-door pursuits." He died when the son was ten years old. Spencer was sent in 1834 to a Quaker boarding-school, kept by Dr. McGraw, at Port Deposit, Md., and in the next year to the Reading Grammar School, and in 1836 he entered Dickinson College, whence he was graduated when seventeen years old. His tastes for natural history and collecting were developed early, and were shared by his elder brother, William M. Baird, whose companion he became in collecting specimens of the game-birds of Cumberland County, which the elder brother had undertaken in 1836. Six years later they published conjointly a paper describing two species, supposed to be new, of the genus Tyrannula, Swainson. A number of specimens, fruits of their joint work, are now to be seen in the National Museum at Washington. He pursued his studies in general natural history in the field for several years after leaving college, making long pedestrian excursions for observation and collection, and organizing a private cabinet, which became the nucleus of the Smithsonian collections. In 1841, when eighteen years old, he made an ornithological excursion through the mountains of Pennsylvania, walking four hundred miles in twenty-one days, and the last day sixty miles. In the following year he walked more than two thousand two hundred miles. He unquestionably derived much, benefit in bis studies from his intercourse with Audubon, which began in 1838, He contributed many facts and specimens for the "History of North American Quadrupeds" and the "Ornithological Biography." Audubon gave him a considerable part of his collection of birds. He had intended to accompany Audubon as his secretary in his six months' expedition to the Yellowstone in 1840, but was prevented by ill-health.

He read medicine, and attended a winter course of lectures at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1842; but he never formally completed the course, and the degree which he received in 1848 from the Philadelphia Medical College was an honorary one. In 1845 he was made Professor of Natural History in Dickinson College, to which chair Chemistry was afterward added. In this position—teaching the seniors in physiology, the sophomores in geometry, and the freshmen in zoölogy—he also found time to keep up his scientific researches, and to make long collecting expeditions to the Adirondacks in 1847; to Ohio in 1848, for the collection of types of the fishes of the State; to the mountains of Virginia in 1849; and to Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario in 1850. "In his own collections during this period," says the author of a tribute in "The Nation," "were developed those business-like methods of arrangement and detail for facilitating study which were subsequently adopted and extended, not only in the institutions which grew up under his supervision, but by nearly all other American scientific museums, and which form a system that for usefulness and efficiency has no parallel in any foreign museum up to the present moment."

In 1850 Prof. Baird was appointed, upon the recommendation of the Hon. George P. Marsh, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In this position he was brought into immediate relations with Prof. Henry, under whose inspiration the institution was just getting fully under way. It was the ambition of that chief to make the influence of the institution diffusive rather than concentrative. It was to be the depository of all the collections which should come into the hands of the Government. Prof. Henry would not have it to monopolize these collections or be so managed that only those might enjoy the advantages to be derived from their study who should be immediately connected with it; but he considered that, while in the study of the specimens and the publication and dissemination of the results it might properly join forces with the Government and with private persons, its part of the labor and expense should be as purely supplementary to other agencies as circumstances might permit. "The policy of the institution under Henry was to disperse as widely and freely as possible the worked-up material, and to enlist in the process of elaboration the aid and enthusiasm of every American naturalist, each in his own field." To make this policy a success, such as it eventually became, continues the author of the tribute in "The Nation" "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 co-operation was essential, a geniality to enlist the willing but unscientific collaborator, 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 Prof. Baird. In qualifications for the work, he stood pre-eminent—a head and shoulders above any man of his time, and perhaps above all other scientific men of any time."

When Prof. Henry died in 1878, the choice of Prof. Baird to succeed him as secretary of the institution was almost a matter of course, and it is superfluous to say that his designation to that position was by the unanimous vote of the board of regents.

It is worthy of note in connection with the record of Prof. Baird 's work in the Smithsonian Institution that the first grant made by the Institution for scientific exploration and field research was in 1848, "to Spencer F. Baird, of Carlisle, for the exploration of the bone caves and the local natural history of southeastern Pennsylvania." "This transaction," says Mr. William B, Taylor, in a memorial address, "appears to have been the occasion of first bringing the young professor to the favorable notice of the Smithsonian director. Prof. Henry, and of initiating between the two a mutual respect and friendship that continued throughout their several lives." Prof. Baird had the charge of the department of explorations, of his work in connection with which. Prof. Goode says that, "in his reports to the secretary, published year by year in the annual report of the Institution, may be found the only systematic record of Government explorations which has ever been prepared. From 1850 to 1860 several extensive Government expeditions were sent to the Western Territories, and it became the duty of Prof. Baird to enlist the sympathies of the commanders of these expeditions in the objects of the Institution, to supply them with all the appliances for collecting, as well as with instructions for their use, and also, in most cases, to organize the natural history parties, nominate the collectors, employ and supervise the artists in preparing the plates, and, in many instances, to edit the zoölogical portions of the reports. The fitting out of such expeditions was only a small part of the work; from the beginning until now there have been numerous private collections, deriving their materials, their literature, and, to a considerable extent, their enthusiasm from the Smithsonian Institution, and consequently in correspondence with its officers. The Smithsonian 'Instructions to Collectors,' which has passed through several large editions, as well as numerous circulars written with a similar purpose, were prepared by Prof. Baird in connection with this department of his work. As a result of this extensive work of organization, a large number of young men have been trained as collectors and observers, and not a few among them have become eminent in various departments of science. In addition to this extensive branch of his work, the assistant secretary had, from the start, the charge of certain departments of the routine work of the Institution; the system of international exchanges, for instance, which had ever been one of the leading objects of the Smithsonian Institution, was organized by him in its details." Major Powell, speaking of the comprehensiveness of his methods for enlisting co-operation in these enterprises, says: "When our army was distributed on the frontiers of the land, he everywhere enlisted our scholarly officers into the service of science, and he transformed the military post into a station of research, an Indian campaign into a scientific expedition. Scott, Marcy, McClellan, Thomas, and many other of the great generals of America, were students of natural history and collectors for Baird. When our navy cruised around our shores, its officers were inspired with that love of Nature which made every voyage of military duty a voyage of discovery in the realms of natural science." Explorations, railroad-surveys, and travels throughout the world, were thus utilized by him in the interests of science. The main duty of the assistant secretary, however, was the development of the natural-history collections. Prof. Baird had brought his private collection to form a nucleus around which the others should be gathered. The Institution was in the possession of a few boxes of minerals and plants; and the collections of the Wilkes Exploring Expedition were under the charge of the National Institute, to be ultimately, as was provided in the act of incorporation of the Smithsonian Institution, transferred to it. To the care of these collections, and the management of the National Museum which has grown up from them, Prof. Baird brought the methods of work which had been developed in his own experience at Carlisle; and these methods are substantially those on which the museum is organized and conducted to-day. His faithful attention to the arduous duties of his position here did not prevent his publishing a considerable number of elaborate original memoirs, among which were a catalogue of North American serpents, the "Mammals of North America," and three works on birds, in one of which Thomas M. Brewer and Robert Ridgway were his collaborators; the scientific departments of the Harpers' periodicals; and numerous official reports.

The office of Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries was instituted, without salary, in 1874, with the attendant duties of inquiring into the decline of valuable fisheries on the coast and lakes of the United States, investigating its causes, and seeking for measures to prevent it and to restore the supply of food-fishes. Prof. Baird was appointed to this office. Under his direction it grew yearly in importance, and made the results of its work more widely and directly felt in all parts of the United States. An impulse was communicated by its workings to the efforts of the several States in caring for their fish-supplies, which became more systematic and regular; and the effects of its labors are now palpable in all parts of the Union in the restocking of our rivers and ponds, which has been to a large extent practically effected through the co-operation of the Commissioner's industrious assistants and the State and local authorities. Its work, according to Prof. G. Brown Goode, is naturally divided into three sections: The systematic investigation of the waters of the United States, and the biological and physical problems which they present—in which Prof. Baird included not only the life-histories of species of economic value, but also the histories of the animals and plants on which they feed or on which their food is nourished, the histories of their enemies and friends, and of the friends and foes of their enemies and friends, as well as the currents, temperatures, and other physical phenomena of the waters in relation to migration, reproduction, and growth; the investigation of the methods of fishing, past and present, and the statistics of production and commerce of fishery products, with particular attention to the influence of man upon their abundance; and the introduction and multiplication of useful food-fishes throughout the country, especially in waters under the jurisdiction of the General Government, or those common to several States, none of which might feel willing to make expenditures for the benefit of the others. The published reports of this commission, which seem to grow in volume every year, form extensive treasuries of knowledge on every subject which can be referred to these three headings. By means of these reports, and his various articles bearing on ichthyology, he was instrumental, according to Mr. W. H. Dall, "in bringing together for the use and benefit of the English-speaking public the largest body of facts relating to fish and fisheries ever prepared and digested for such purposes by any individual or organization. Recognized by experts of foreign countries with one accord as the most eminent living authority on economic ichthyology, America owes to his fostering care and unwearied labor the existence of a whole generation of ichthyologists, breeders of fishes, and inventors of appliances of all sorts for use in connection with the taking, preservation, and increase of these animals. . . . Whether germane to the subject of scientific research or not, the most narrow specialist can hardly judge 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 were repopulated. . . . 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."

As estimated by Mr. Dall, the proportion of the vertebrate fauna first made known by Baird to the total number recognized at the time as North American, varied from twenty-two per cent of the whole to forty per cent in different groups. His method of study of new material was as far removed as possible from bookishness. Prof. Baird's early life, Mr. Dall adds, "had included so much of exercise in the shape of long pedestrian journeys with gun and game-bag, so much familiarity with the wood-life of his favorite birds and mammals, that it would have been in any case impossible to class him with the closet-naturalist; while to this knowledge he added a genius for thorough, patient, and exhaustive research into all which concerned the subject of his study, and a wonderful inventiveness in labor-saving devices for labeling, museum-work, and registration. He had a wonderful capacity for work." These qualities, and others consonant with them, enabled him to draw conclusions which subsequent accumulations of material have verified in a surprising manner.

Prof. Baird was a man of great literary activity. The number of his works and contributions down to the end of 1882, recorded in Prof. G. Brown Goode's "Bibliography" is 1,063, of which, however, 775 are brief notices and critical reviews contributed to "The Annual Record of Science and Industry," 31 reports relating to the work of the Smithsonian Institution, 7 reports upon the American fisheries, 25 schedules and circulars officially issued, and 25 are volumes or papers edited; but many of these papers also contain important original matter. Of the remaining 200 papers, the majority are formal contributions to scientific literature. Some 20 or more of the papers were prepared conjointly with some other author—his brother, William M. Baird, Charles Girard, Messrs. Cassin and Lawrence, or Messrs. Brewer and Ridgway. Of all the papers, 73 relate to mammals, 80 to birds, 43 to reptiles, 431 to fishes, 61 to invertebrates, 16 to plants, 88 to geographical distribution, 46 to geology, mineralogy, and paleontology, 45 to anthropology, 31 to industry and art, and 109 to exploration and travel. In them all, 361 new species are described. The earliest contribution in the list is the description of two new species of the genus Tyrannula, Swainson (1843), which he prepared in conjunction with his brother. An application of bichromate of potassa to photographic purposes, published in 1844, was employed by him in taking leaf photographs, a collection of which, preserved in the National Museum, has been one of the standard resources of American palæophytologists, and has been used in the preparation of many of the works on the fossil botany of the United States. In a "Summary of Suggestions in Regard to Future Operations of the Smithsonian Institution in the Department of Natural History" (1851), the purpose is outlined not to attempt collections of all natural objects, but rather to gather up such materials for investigation as have been comparatively neglected by others. In the same paper occurs a statement in reference to Japan which sounds curiously now when the activity and co-operation of the Japanese in scientific matters are so conspicuous. After speaking of Japan as a region in some respects more closely allied to our country than even Europe, the author remarks: "Unfortunately, there are at the present time almost insuperable difficulties in the way of procuring Japanese specimens, the Dutch naturalists being the only ones who have succeeded in exploring even the shores of this country. Little can be done, therefore, except by exchange with the museums of Holland." In 1851 he translated from the German and edited the "Iconographic Encyclopædia," an elaborately illustrated dictionary of physical facts and art, of unquestioned merit, which had great currency till it was superseded by later works reflecting the progress of science. The volume on "Birds," in the series of the Reports of the Explorations and Surveys for a Railroad Route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean (1858), was prepared by Prof. Baird, with the co-operation of John Cassin and George N. Lawrence. Prof, Coues says, respecting it, that "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, 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 like to remain for an indefinite period a source of inspiration to lesser writers, while its authority as a work of reference will always endure." "The Annual Record of Science and Industry," which was published for several years under Prof. Baird's editorial supervision, was made up from the items and articles that had been published during the year in the Harpers' weekly and monthly periodicals. Many of them were original contributions to knowledge, never elsewhere published. Others were critical reviews or notes upon the current literature of science. Others are abstracts of scientific papers, with the addition of explanatory or illustrative remarks. Others still are abstracts of papers for the most part in the words of the authors of the papers or of some other reviewer. A modification of the plan of the "Record" was introduced in 1877, under which, instead of merely general summaries of progress in various branches, with abstracts of papers, more space was given to the former part, and the summaries were prepared by eminent specialists, and published under their names.

A beautiful picture of Prof. Baird's personal character and of his unselfish devotion to science is given in the tribute which was published in "The Nation." In selecting men for particular positions or lines of work, "he was very rarely mistaken in his judgment. In his position he was called upon to advise in nearly all Government appointments which had a scientific bearing, direct or indirect, and the total number of selections which he determined during his career must have been many hundreds, and have included nearly every available person among the younger generation of students. The most surprising element in it all, to those cognizant of the details, was the calm impartiality which he brought to the task. No thought of self seemed to enter into his calculations. . . . It is evident that, in promoting the studies of others, and in holding as a trust for the general benefit the vast collections which passed under his control, opportunities must have been numerous for giving precedence to the progress of his own researches rather than of those of others engaged in the same lines. In such cases, we believe, he never hesitated, and the decision against himself was in more than one instance known by him at the time to be of pecuniary as well as of scientific disadvantage to his own interests. He never spoke of this sort of self-denial, and it was in a majority of cases known but to a few persons incidentally connected with the researches in question. . . . Two things," the author of the tribute says in conclusion, "his experiences may be said to have lacked—he never had a personal controversy, nor, so far as we have ever heard or had reason to suspect, an avowed enemy."

In illustration of his modesty, which amounted almost to timidity, and was yet so engaging as to secure him advocates whenever he presented his views, Mr. Garrick Mallery relates that he once joined Prof. Baird on his way to a meeting of the Philosophical Society of Washington, where he was to deliver an address on a subject connected with fish propagation. During the walk, says Mr. Mallery, "he spoke of the struggle at that moment between the sense of duty requiring him to take part in the proceedings of the society, and his reluctance to making any formal address. This modesty—indeed, timidity—in an eminent writer and thinker whose lightest words were sure of eager attention in a society composed mainly of his personal friends and wholly of his admirers, was the more remarkable because his address, presented a few minutes later, was most pleasing in its delivery as well as instructive in its substance.

About a year before his death, Prof. Baird was informed by his medical adviser that complete rest from mental exertion was necessary to the restoration of his nervous energies. He accordingly obtained the appointment of two assistants to relieve him of the burden of his cares, and sought the recuperation which he needed. In the summer of 1887 he returned to his work by the sea-side, to Wood's Holl, where he had created the greatest biological laboratory in the world; and in that laboratory, says Major Powell, "with the best results of his life-work all about him, he calmly and philosophically waited for the time of times. Thursday, 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 the 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 his 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.'" Then he was carried to his chamber, where he soon became insensible.

Of the honors given to Prof. Baird, besides the usual supplementary college degrees conferred by Dickinson College and Columbian University, he was awarded the silver medal of the Acclimatization Society of Melbourne, the gold medal of the Société d'Acclimatation of France, the first honor-prize (the gift of the Emperor of Germany) of the Internationale Fischerei Ausstellung at Berlin, and the decoration of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olaf. He was a member of the council of the National Academy of Sciences, was permanent secretary of the American Association in 1850 and 1851, was trustee of the Corcoran Art Gallery, president of the Cosmos Club, a trustee of Columbian University, and a member of the Historical Society of New York. Among foreign societies in which he held honorary or other memberships, were the Linnæan and Zoölogical Societies of London, the Linnæan Society of New South Wales, the New Zealand Institute, the Geographical Society of Quebec, and Royal or other scientific societies in Vienna, Lisbon, Batavia, Buda-Pesth, Cherbourg, Jena, Halle, Nuremberg, and Berlin. More than twenty-five species and one genus in zoölogy, and a post-office in Shasta County, Cal., bear his name.