Spencer Fullerton Baird

Ashton Nichols, Department of English, and Jennifer Lindbeck, Class of '98

Cover of Baird's field notebook (Dickinson College Special Collections)
Spencer Fullerton Baird was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1823. He attended West Nottingham Academy near Port Deposit, Maryland. He entered Dickinson College at the age of 13 and received a bachelor's degree in 1840 and a master's degree in 1843. By 1842, he had collected 650 bird skins representing 128 different species. While still a student at Dickinson, he began corresponding with Audubon and other leading ornithologists and naturalists of the day. In the fall of 1846, he was appointed Professor of Natural History and Curator of the Museum (natural history collection) at Dickinson. Baird was a pioneer in the use of field trips for his students as part of a scientific education. He collected specimens widely in Carlisle and the Cumberland Valley. He sometimes worked with his older brother, William, on the the field study and identification of new and disputed species. William Baird, who went on to become a lawyer, contributed over 3,000 natural history specimens to his brother's collection. Baird also helped to establish field and laboratory research, as well as careful record keeping, as the basis of museum work in natural history. He sent Audubon a yellow-bellied flycatcher that turned out to be a new species. Audubon, in return, gave the greater part of his collection of birds to Baird and also named Baird's bunting (now Baird's sparrow) after him. Other naturalists with whom Baird worked included Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, George Newbold Lawrence, John Cassin, and Thomas M. Brewer. In 1850, at the age of 27, Baird was appointed to a post as Assistant Secretary at the recently formed Smithsonian Institution. When he departed from Carlisle, Baird transported two boxcars full of specimens with him: stuffed European and American mammals and skins, botanical specimens, vertebrate skeletons, and fossils. The collection included over four thousand bird skins, reptiles and fish in solution, and boxes filled with bird's nests and eggs. Parts of this collection are still held by the Smithsonian in Washington. In 1868, he published a four volume series that catalogued all known North American bird species. Baird became one of the first naturalists in America to argue for the careful study of the already vanishing natural landscape of the United States. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, he anticipated the potential for human destruction of natural habitats.

Baird's descriptions of "Land Birds such as probably visit Pennsylvania," including
"Cooper's Hawk," "Black Hawk," and "Short Winged Buzzard."

Spencer Fullerton Baird links:

Baird's report as curator to Dickinson College (1846)

Baird's notebooks

Baird at Dickinson College: field notebook

Baird at the Smithsonian


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