August 19: Spencer Fullerton Baird (1887)

In 1878, the Smithsonian Board of Regents unanimously elected Spencer F. Baird as the second Secretary of the Institution following the death of Secretary Joseph Henry. Baird had joined the institution in 1850 as its first curator. As Secretary, Baird carefully oversaw construction of the U.S. National Museum, which opened in 1881. A culmination of Baird’s lifelong dream, the new museum provided large exhibit spaces with both natural and electric light. Also during his tenure, Smithsonian taxidermists began to keep live animals behind the Castle as models for their exhibit specimens. These soon became a popular attraction for young visitors, and led to the creation of the National Zoological Park. The Bureau of American Ethnology was also created under Baird to document Native American cultures.

After Secretary Baird died on August 19, 1887, the U.S. National Museum Building was draped in mourning the following day. During his thirty-seven years at the Institution, he had transformed the U.S. National Museum into the premier museum in the United States, and he trained a cadre of young naturalists who continued his research and collecting. Baird was an exuberant enthusiast who wanted the Institution to play an important role in the lives of all U.S. citizens. His passion for collections and public education altered the previous path of the Institution and brought new meaning to its motto of “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Baird’s funeral took place at Epiphany in 1887, followed by his wife’s in 1891 and his daughter’s in 1913.

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