Human Journey

Dr. Frank Baker: If Only He Had Been Allowed To Treat President Garfield

The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

Dr. Frank Baker, a well-known Washington physician and the second Superintendent of the National Zoo, was also a founder of the National Geographic Society.

He was born at Pulaski, New York, on August 22, 1841, the son of Thomas C. and Sybil S. (Weed) Baker. Before he was 20, his education was interrupted by the Civil War. In 1861 he enlisted with the 37th New York Volunteers–and for the next two years took part in battles such as Seven Pines, the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville before the regiment was mustered out in June 1863.

At that point, the young veteran began working as a clerk in one of the many government bureaus crowding the capital during the war years. He became fast friends with two other men also bouncing around in government service, John Burroughs and Walt Whitman. Perhaps he joined the future naturalist and the famous poet as they walked and talked and drifted animatedly about the city.

After the war, Baker resumed his education and married May E. Cole on September 13, 1873. In 1880, he graduated an M.D. from Columbian University (now George Washington University). The newly-minted doctor continued his studies for years thereafter, receiving a Master of Arts degree from Georgetown University in 1888, and a Ph.D. from that same institution in 1890.

It was while working toward these two latter degrees that in 1881 Dr. Baker was one of the numerous medical and scientific men who became engrossed in the treatment of President James A. Garfield, who had been shot in July by a would-be assassin, and no one knew for certain where the bullet had finally lodged. For over two months Garfield lingered on his deathbed while doctors sought some means of finding and removing the slug. Dr. Baker drew up a diagram that proved to be remarkably accurate and shared it with Dr. Smith Townsend, who had been the first to examine the President.  However, Dr. D. Willard Bliss, the physician in charge, was adamantly opposed to second opinions, and Baker did not press to have his theory presented.   At the same time, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, tried to locate the projectile using a magnet, while George Kennan, a young journalist, was in charge of all the telegraphic reports describing the President’s condition that were sent out to the world . But it was all to no avail, and President Garfield died in September.

In 1883 Baker became a professor of anatomy at Georgetown, and he remained there the rest of his professional life. He was described as having a “fine presence” and “lively sense of humor” that made him a very popular lecturer. Colleagues considered him “as probably the most erudite physician in Washington.”

Baker was also active in those circles that, in the late 19th century, were hoping to make Washington the intellectual as well as political capital of the country. He was a founder of the Anthropological and Biological Societies of Washington and a member of the Cosmos Club. It was in the Cosmos Club on the night of Friday, January 13, 1888, that Baker and 32 other like-minded citizens, including Kennan, assembled to form what became the National Geographic Society. He was not particularly active in the new organization, however, possibly because he had so many commitments elsewhere, including serving a stint as editor of the American Anthropologist, the official journal of the Anthropological Society of Washington, a publication that in terms of format and appeal to a broad audience bore a striking resemblance to its younger cousin, the early National Geographic magazine.

Another such commitment surfaced in 1889 when Baker was appointed the acting manager of the new National Zoological Park. Long in the works, the zoo was really the product of  George Brown Goode, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and director of its National Museum, and William T. Hornaday, one of his taxidermists. By 1888, they had brought 58 live animals back from the West, penning them on the Mall. After Congress voted funds to establish a National Zoo, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted began designing a park for it near Rock Creek. Hornaday, the first superintendent, soon resigned, and Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley appointed Baker temporarily to the post.

For the next quarter century, Baker–appointed Superintendent in 1893–built up the National Zoo despite a very tight budget. After the park was designed and built, it was formally inaugurated on April 30, 1891, when the elephants Dunk and Gold Dust and French the lion led a procession across town to their new quarters. Baker hired the head animal keeper of the Barnum and Bailey Circus to care for them. Further acquisition of animals proceeded slowly, due to budget constraints, and proper housing for them was always inadequate. Nevertheless, under Baker’s administration, the National Zoo began to take shape. The anatomist-turned-zoo director even left his mark on another famous example of the type: He designed the Bird Cage for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, which in turn led to the formation of the world-renowned St. Louis Zoo.

Dr. Frank Baker retired in 1916, and died on September 30, 1918, at the age of 77.

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