The Smithsonian and Guano

The Smithsonian’s first two Secretaries were involved in analyzing and promoting seabird guano as an agricultural fertilizer.
In March 1858, U.S. Navy Secretary Isaac Toucey asked the Smithsonian’s first Secretary Joseph Henry to analyze samples of seabird guano from the Pacific New Nantucket and Jarvis islands. Three months later, he reported to Toucey that “the deposits submitted to examination do not possess the peculiar characteristics of Peruvian guano . . . and are not equal to it in value.” 
 
The second Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Baird also was involved in the guano business through his work at the port of Woods Hole, Massachusetts. He was interested in mixing nutrient-rich meal from abundant menhaden fish with the rapidly depleting Pacific guano to extend its supply. In 1875 he urged the Pacific Guano Company of Woods Hole to exhibit its products at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial.
Facsimile of SI Secretary Joseph Henry 1858
Letter Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
 

 
 

Smithsonian Institution
Washington, May 28, 1858 
 
Hon I. Toucey
Secretary of the Navy
 
Sir,
In accordance with the request contained in your letter of Mar 8th 1858, that we would cause to be analyzed samples of the soil or deposites of the New Nantucket and Jarvis islands in the Pacific Ocean, we employed two chemists in whose knowledge and practical skill we have full confidence, to make the investigations required in the laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution.
The report which I have the honor herewith to transmit, contains a brief account of the results which they have obtained, which we trust will be sufficient for the purposes of the Department. Should any further information be required, we will endeavor to furnish it.
From this report it will be seen that the deposits submitted to examination do not possess the peculiar characteristics of Peruvian guano, although of the same origin, and are not equal to it in value. In some cases they might be considered as valuable as bone dust, but not generally. They differ from the latter in being almost entirely deficient in nitrogeneous matter, and therefore their importance for agricultural purposes depends upon their mineral ingredients, which are of a valuable character, being the same as the inorganic matter of bones. The want of nitrogeneous matter however renders a strict comparison between them and bone-dust impossible  
I have the honor to be
very respectfully
your obed’t serv’t
Joseph Henry
Secretary S.I.