Baird, Spencer Fullerton

Life Span
Dickinson Connection
Class of 1840; Professor, 1845-1850; Master of Arts, 1843; Honorary Doctor of Physical Science, 1856
    Full name
    Spencer Fullerton Baird
    Place of Birth
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    Sectional choice
    Free State
    No. of Siblings
    No. of Spouses
    No. of Children
    Samuel Baird (father), Lydia McFunn Biddle (mother), Mary Helen Churchill (wife), Lucy Hunter Baird (daughter),
    Dickinson (Carlisle College)
    Scientist or Inventor
    Writer or Artist
    Grant Administration (1869-77)

    Spencer Fullerton Baird (Dickinson Chronicles)

    Spencer Fullerton Baird was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on February 3, 1823 to Samuel Baird and Lydia McFunn Biddle, the third of seven children. The family relocated to Carlisle, Pennsylvania following the death of Baird's father from cholera in 1833. Baird entered Dickinson College as a freshman in 1837, receiving his A.B. degree in 1840. Following graduation, Baird attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York for one year, but found that he had a dislike for the medical practice and returned to Carlisle to continue with his studies. In 1843, the College conferred upon him the degree of Master of Arts, and in 1856, an honorary degree of Doctor of Physical Science. During this time, Baird married Mary Helen Churchill, and the young couple later had a daughter, Lucy Hunter Baird.

    Baird was offered a teaching position at Dickinson College in 1845 as professor of natural history, and became popular among the students for his practice of taking the young men out into the field to study the natural world. He became chair of both the departments of natural history and chemistry  in 1848. Throughout his time as professor, Baird continued to write on subjects of natural history, quickly becoming a respected ornithologist, zoologist, and naturalist.  In 1850, Baird accepted a position as Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  It reportedly took two freight cars to transport his collection of birds, lizards, fish, skins, and skeletons, weighing 89,000 pounds, from Carlisle to Washington. Many of these specimens can still be found in the Smithsonian Museums. Upon the death of Joseph Henry in 1878, Baird succeeded him as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to this post, Baird also served as Director of the National Museum from its founding until his death and as Secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.  He was an early member of the National Academy of Sciences, and served as a trustee for the Corcoran Art Gallery, Columbia University, and Dickinson College. Baird was able to develop a career as an authority on natural history. A bibliography of his works from 1843 to 1882 contains nearly 1,200 titles, including The Birds of North America, Mammals of North America, and A History of North American Birds.

    In 1871 Baird was appointed the first U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries by President Ulysses S. Grant and he would hold that position until his death in 1887. This position led Baird to spend a great deal of time in Woods Hole, Massachusetts as he was responsible for overseeing the founding of the Marine Biology Laboratory there. Spencer Fullerton Baird died at Woods Hole on August 19, 1887 and was laid to rest at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He was sixty-five years old.
    John Osborne and James W. Gerencser, eds., “Spencer Fullerton Baird,” Dickinson Chronicles,

    Spencer Fullerton Baird (American National Biography)

    Baird's personal research and field work were hampered and essentially ended as a result of his increasing administrative duties, but through his administration and the ability to attract and train young scientists, Baird became the great facilitator that took the Smithsonian, the U.S. National Museum, and American science in general great leaps forward. Even under Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, Baird was the individual most in touch with and in support of museum collections, constantly seeking to enlarge the collections through purchase or exchange, with specific goals of clarifying species distribution patterns. He was also a great communicator, able to interpret science to the public. He wrote regularly for popular magazines and in 1871 became science editor for Harper's Weekly, a post he held for eight years.

    Baird knew how to work with people, was an excellent judge of abilities, and had the gifts of knowing when and how to compromise and the perseverance to make bureaucracy work for science. His administrative accomplishments went well beyond science into international relations. For example, Baird assisted with negotiations for the purchase of Alaska, complex negotiations with England and Canada over fishing rights, and with preparations for the Centennial Exposition of 1876, in Philadelphia, commemorating the founding of the nation. The latter efforts, through shrewd planning and hard work, resulted in the Smithsonian's acquisition of many items from foreign exhibits and congressional recognition and funding for the construction of a U.S. National Museum building.
    Jerome A. Jackson, "Baird, Spencer Fullerton," American National Biography Online, February 2000,
    Chicago Style Entry Link
    Rivinus, Edward F. and E. M. Youssef. Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. view record
    How to Cite This Page: "Baird, Spencer Fullerton," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,