For the Birds: Spencer Baird and the Army Surgeons
Careful study of shorebird flocks at this time of year can yield sightings of peeps that are a bit larger than the Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Sandpipers that are so common this time of year. This larger sandpiper has wings that extend beyond the tail and tends to feed in the upper portion of the intertidal zone or lake edge. This species is the Baird’s Sandpiper. This species has been seen this fall in Fryeburg, Appledore Island, Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Reid State Park, Machias and Lubec.
Today’s column is not about this sandpiper but rather it’s namesake. Spencer Fullerton Baird was one of the great scientists of the 19th century. He made great contributions to ornithology and ichthyology. A prolific author, he also wrote papers on geology, botany, anthropology and general zoology.
Baird’s accomplishments are commemorated not only in the name of Baird’s Sandpiper but Baird’s Sparrow of the western U.S., Baird’s Trogon from Costa Rica and Panama, Baird’s Beaked Whale, a number of fish species and even a species of crab.
Baird was born in 1823 in Reading, Pennsylvania and graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1840. Baird became interested in birds in his mid-teens and began to assemble his own bird collection. He visited the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences in 1839 to read the works of John James Audubon. Baird gathered the courage to write to Audubon in 1840 about a flycatcher that Baird thought might be a new species. Audubon responded in short order and the two became friends.
After graduating from Dickinson College, Baird began medical studies in New York City. Medical studies failed to captivate him and he discontinued his medical education after three months. Baird returned to Dickinson College where he accepted a position as professor of natural history. Baird was an extremely popular professor, leading students on long field trips and maintaining the natural history museum.
In 1847, Baird learned that the Smithsonian Institution was opening. He wrote to Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, asking for a position as a curator. Baird heard nothing for a while but Henry eventually decided the Smithsonian should have a museum. He offered Baird the job of organizing the museum. Baird eagerly accepted in 1850. He shipped his collection to the Smithsonian, a collection that filled two railroad boxcars! This collection included over 500 species of birds. This generous donation became the core of what is now the United States National Museum of Natural History.
Baird served as the assistant-secretary of the Smithsonian from 1850 until 1878. He became secretary in 1878 when Joseph Henry died.
At the Smithsonian, Baird developed a large network of collectors and natural historians in this country and abroad. Their numbers were in the hundreds. He prepared detailed instructions for the collection and preparation of various kinds of organisms. These instructions were distributed to his network of collectors. He offered encouragement, advice, supplies and money in exchange for the steady stream of specimens arriving regularly in the museum. Baird described many of the new species the collectors found in honor of the collector.
During Baird’s tenure at the Smithsonian, westward exploration was capturing the imagination of many Americans. From 1850 to 1880, the U. S. government initiated a number of expeditions to map the regions and find suitable areas for roads and railroads. Many of these expeditions were conducted by the U. S. Army.
Baird realized a good opportunity when he saw it and recruited physicians with interests in natural history, especially ornithology and mammalogy, to accompany these army expeditions. These physicians collected specimens in their free time, often with the assistance of enlisted soldiers and even sometimes their commanding officers.
These physician/naturalists will be familiar because their names are memorialized in the names of western birds. Elliot Coues was probably the most influential of all of these surgeon/naturalists. The Greater Pewee was formerly called Coues’ Flycatcher. Born in New Hampshire, Coues published his first ornithological paper before his 20th birthday. He spent time in New Mexico and Arizona. Grace’s Warbler in Arizona was first collected by Coues in Arizona. The species was formally described by Baird and named in honor of Coues’s sister, Grace. Baird also named Virginia’s Warbler after the wife of another physician/naturalist, William Anderson.
Other surgeon/naturalists in Baird’s network were John Xantus (Xanthus’s Murrelet), Charles Bendire (Bendire’s Thrasher), William Hammond (Hammond’s Flycatcher) and Adolphus Heermann (Heermann’s Gull).
Baird retired from the Smithsonian to Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He played a major role in the creation of the Marine Biological Lab there, one of the most respected marine laboratories in the world.
[Originally published on September 20, 2008]