Correspondence between Spencer Fullerton Baird and Louis Agassiz--Two Pioneer American Naturalists

Correspondence between Spencer Fullerton Baird and Louis Agassiz--Two Pioneer American Naturalists

Correspondence between Spencer Fullerton Baird and Louis Agassiz--Two Pioneer American Naturalists

Correspondence between Spencer Fullerton Baird and Louis Agassiz--Two Pioneer American Naturalists

Excerpt

A study of some 50,000 letters among the Spencer Fullerton Baird Papers in the Smithsonian Institution Archives has revealed Louis Agassiz as one of Baird's constant correspondents. These two high- ranking 19th-century naturalists saved much of their correspondence. Parts of some of their letters and a few complete letters exchanged between them have been published in their biographies. My collection of 297 letters, mostly from the Smithsonian Archives, brings together all their known correspondence.

Spencer F. Baird and Louis Agassiz were pioneers in the development of the field of natural history and in their wake left a healthy respect for American science all over the world. Their activities in that field in this country began essentially at the same time. Their impact on the world of science and their significant contributions in an age of rapid development are vividly revealed in these letters.

In the first 75 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence little international recognition had been given to the work of American zoologists. In fact, many foreigners actually despised Americans in general for their materialistic concerns and their lack of interest in culture and pure research. Many of the early American zoologists were interested mainly in explorations and making inventories of animals and plants. Descriptions of many species were made quickly, often from incomplete data. Scientists were often not particularly concerned with how the public at large was to be made familiar with new findings. However, the people in the United States were yearning for knowledge, were eager for mass education, and were ready to put an end to the European method of tutelage, by which many young persons were denied opportunities for enlightenment.

There was a need for real leadership in America to inspire budding scientists in true methods of research, point out unexplored areas, and challenge them to find the answers to some of the problems in natural history. Agassiz and Baird emerged as two of these leaders, the first by reason of his charm on the platform and the second by the force of his letters. They put into motion the methods of developing the science of natural history. They had deep human understanding, shrewd powers of observation, solid scientific training, and above all a . . .

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