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Spencer Fullerton Baird Collection

An inventory of the collection at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: KM
Date: 18 Apr 1989

Biographical History

Spencer Fullerton Baird was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1823 and graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1840. The next year Baird made an ornithological excursion through the mountains of Pennsylvania, walking (says one of his biographers) 400 miles in 21 days. While still in college Baird met noted naturalist John James Audubon, who gave part of his own collection of birds to the young man and inspired in him a lifelong interest in ornithological studies.

Baird became professor of natural history at Dickinson College in 1845; he was also chair of the chemistry department and taught physiology and mathematics. In 1850 he was appointed assistant-secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., where he encouraged the work of the young naturalists in the Megatherium Club. On the death of Joseph Henry in 1878 he became secretary of the Institution, and from 1871 until his death he was also U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries.

Baird's studies and publication topics include iconography, geology, mineralogy, botany, anthropology, general zoology, and, in particular, ornithology. For several years he edited an annual volume summarizing progress in all scientific lines of investigation, and between 1850 and 1860 he supervised a number of government scientific explorations of the western territories of the United States, preparing for them a manual of Instructions to Collectors.

According to a bibliography by George Brown Goode, from 1843 to 1882 Baird published over a thousand pieces of writing, 775 of them being short articles in his Annual Record. Among the most significant works were his Catalog of North American Reptiles (1853, with Charles Frederic Girard); Birds (1858); Mammals of North America: Descriptions based on Collections in the Smithsonian Institution (Philadelphia, 1859); and the impressive History of North American Birds (Boston, 1875-1884; 5 vols, with Thomas Mayo Brewer and Robert Ridgway).

Baird died in 1887 at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, an institution which was largely the result of his own efforts and which continues to play an important role in ochthyology today.

[Portions of this biographical sketch adapted from "Spencer Fullerton Baird" Wikipedia article.]

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Spencer Fullerton Baird Collection consists of seven outgoing letters and a single item of writing, "Natural History Memoranda for Dr. Hayes," all of which were generated during the zoologist's tenure at the Smithsonian Institution.

The letters are arranged chronologically from 1858 to 1882, and an index of correspondents is also included. Some of the lettesr (A. Bolmar, J.C. Green, Thomas Louis Ogier) contain answers to, or requests for, various publications; however the most interesting letters in the collection are those to American explorer and physicist I.I. Hayes in reference to his 1860 Arctic expedition. The second letter to Hayes (24 June 1860) indicates that several instruments for the collection of specimens were also sent, including "drills for perforating eggs" and a blow pipe. An enclosure to this letter, a copy of "Natural History Memoranda for Dr. Hayes," filed with Writings, reflects the Smithsonian Institution's interest in obtaining Arctic zoological specimens for its collections, and the particular ornithological predilection of its secretary:

All zoological collections from the Arctic regions are of interest, especiallyin view of the fact that very few or any of the specimens collected in the high north are in the museums of the United States.
Shells, crustaceans and fishes will throw much light upon questions in regard to currents of the ocean, etc.
Eggs of Arctic birds, sparrows, hawks, owls, ducks, gulls, etc will be of particular interest to the Smithsonian Institution in connection with its work on biology. No occasion should be unimproved to collect eggs of all land birds that may be met with, as also of plovers, snipe, curlew, sand pipers, etc. Some of these specimens can be sold at a high price.
Of all the gulls and ducks, a good series ofeggs should be secured.
Among the species of birds to which particular attention should be paid are:
1. All land birds. Many of these are stragglers from the United States, the goegraphical distribution of which it is very desirable to ascertain.
2. Any unusual or rare dovekies or species of that group.
3. The small gull with black ring around the neck, and a wedge-shaped bill. Also pure white gulls.
4. The great auk...This is a very large sea bird considerably larger than a domestic duck. Something like a murre in appearance but with a high bill and a square white patch at its base. The wings are rudimentary. Good skins and eggs of this bird will realize $50.00 each and perhaps more.
It will be best to attempt the collection of a full series of all the birds met with in Greenland.
The mammals of chief interest are the different kinds of lemmings, mice & rats. Next to these any marmots & ground squirrels. Also, hares in both winter and summer dress. Also, any bears, seals, foxes, wolves, weasels, etc that appear to be unusual or peculiar, although it will not be worth while to collect such as may be found in more southern latitudes.
Any marine mammals from the open polar sea will be of much interest as illustrating points of physical geography. Note as fully as possible all facts relating to the habits, migrations, numbers, reproduction, etc. of all animals met with.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Baird, Spencer Fullerton, 1823-1887.
Bolmar, Antoine.
Green, J. C. (Jesse Cope), 1817-1920.
Hayes, I. I. (Isaac Israel), 1832-1881.
Ogier, Thomas Louis.

Corporate Bodies

Smithsonian Institution.


Arctic regions -- Discovery and exploration.
Natural history museums -- United States.
Zoological museums -- United States.
Zoological specimens -- Collection and preservation.
Zoologists -- United States.
Zoology -- Arctic regions.

Genres and Forms




Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Spencer Fullerton Baird Collection
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Table of Contents



Index to correspondence


Index to correspondence