Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)
Every great scientific truth goes through three stages. First, people say it conflicts with the Bible. Next they say it has been discovered before. Lastly they say they always believed it.
Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was a Swiss-born American biologist and geologist recognized as an innovative and prodigious scholar of Earth's natural history. Agassiz grew up in Switzerland. He received doctor of philosophy and medical degrees at Erlangen and Munich, respectively. After studying with Cuvier and Humboldt in Paris, Agassiz was appointed professor of natural history at the University of Neuchâtel. He emigrated to the United States in 1847 after visiting Harvard University. He went on to become professor of zoology and geology at Harvard, to head its Lawrence Scientific School, and to found its Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Agassiz is known for his regimen of observational data gathering and analysis. He made vast institutional and scientific contributions to zoology, geology, and related areas, including writing multivolume research books running to thousands of pages. He is particularly known for his contributions to ichthyological classification, including of extinct species such as megalodon, and to the study of geological history, including to the founding of glaciology.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, Agassiz's resistance to Darwinian evolution, belief in creationism, and the scientific racism implicit in his writings on human polygenism have tarnished his reputation, and led to controversies over his legacy.
Louis Agassiz was born in the village of Môtier now part of Haut-Vully in the Swiss canton of Fribourg. The son of a pastor, Louis Rudolphe and Rose Mayor Agassiz, he was educated first at home; his father was a Protestant clergyman, as had been his progenitors for six generations, and his mother, the daughter of a physician, a woman of intellect and refinement, assisted her husband in the education of her boys. Agassiz then spent four years of secondary school in Bienne, entering in 1818 and completing his elementary studies in Lausanne. Agassiz studied successively at the universities of Zürich, Heidelberg, and Munich; while there, he extended his knowledge of natural history, especially of botany. In 1829, he received the degree of doctor of philosophy at Erlangen, and in 1830, that of doctor of medicine at Munich. Moving to Paris, he came under the tutelage of Alexander von Humboldt and later his financial benevolence. Humboldt and Georges Cuvier launched him on his careers of geology and zoology, respectively. Ichthyology soon became a focus of his life's work.
In 1819–1820, German biologists Johann Baptist von Spix and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius undertook an expedition to Brazil. They returned home to Europe with many natural objects, including an important collection of the freshwater fish of Brazil, especially of the Amazon River. Spix, who died in 1826, did not live long enough to work out the history of these fish, and Martius selected Agassiz for this project. Agassiz threw himself into the work with an enthusiasm that would go on to characterize the rest of his life's work. The task of describing the Brazilian fish was completed and published in 1829. This was followed by research into the history of fish found in Lake Neuchâtel. Enlarging his plans, in 1830, he issued a prospectus of a History of the Freshwater Fish of Central Europe. In 1839, however, the first part of this publication appeared, and it was completed in 1842.
In November, 1832, Agassiz was appointed professor of natural history at the University of Neuchâtel, at a salary of about US$400, declining brilliant offers in Paris because of the leisure for private study that this position afforded him. The fossil fish in the rock of the surrounding region, the slates of Glarus and the limestones of Monte Bolca, soon attracted his attention. At the time, very little had been accomplished in their scientific study. Agassiz, as early as 1829, planned the publication of a work, which more than any other, laid the foundation of his worldwide fame. Five volumes of his Recherches sur les poissons fossiles Research on Fossil Fish were published from 1833 to 1843. They were magnificently illustrated, chiefly by Joseph Dinkel. In gathering materials for this work, Agassiz visited the principal museums in Europe, and meeting Cuvier in Paris, he received much encouragement and assistance from him. They had known him for seven years at the time.
In 1833 he married Cecile Braun, sister of his friend Alexander Braun, and established his household at Neuchâtel; trained to scientific drawing by her brothers, his wife was of the greatest assistance to Agassiz, some of the most beautiful plates in fossil and fresh-water fishes being drawn by her.
Agassiz found that his palaeontological analyses required a new ichthyological classification. The fossils he examined rarely showed any traces of the soft tissues of fish, but, instead, consisted chiefly of the teeth, scales, and fins, with the bones being perfectly preserved in comparatively few instances. He, therefore, adopted a classification that divided fish into four groups: ganoids, placoids, cycloids, and ctenoids, based on the nature of the scales and other dermal appendages. This did much to improve fish taxonomy, but Aggasiz's classification has since been superseded.
With the two Louis de Coulon, father and son, he founded the Societé des Sciences Naturelles, of which he was the first secretary, and in conjunction with the Coulons also arranged a provisional museum of natural history in the orphan's home. Agassiz needed financial support to continue his work. The British Association and the Earl of Ellesmere—then Lord Francis Egerton—stepped in to help. The 1,290 original drawings made for the work were purchased by the Earl, and presented by him to the Geological Society of London. In 1836, the Wollaston Medal was awarded to Agassiz by the council of that society for his work on fossil ichthyology; and, in 1838, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society. Meanwhile, invertebrate animals engaged his attention. In 1837, he issued the "Prodrome" of a monograph on the recent and fossil Echinodermata, the first part of which appeared in 1838; in 1839–40, he published two quarto volumes on the fossil echinoderms of Switzerland; and in 1840–45, he issued his Études critiques sur les mollusques fossiles Critical Studies on Fossil Mollusks.
Before Agassiz's first visit to England in 1834, Hugh Miller and other geologists had brought to light the remarkable fossil fish of the Old Red Sandstone of the northeast of Scotland. The strange forms of Pterichthys, Coccosteus and other genera were then made known to geologists for the first time. They were of intense interest to Agassiz, and formed the subject of a monograph by him published in 1844–45: Monographie des poissons fossiles du Vieux Grès Rouge, ou Système Dévonien Old Red Sandstone des Îles Britanniques et de Russie Monograph on Fossil Fish of the Old Red Sandstone, or Devonian System of the British Isles and of Russia. In the early stages of his career in Neuchatel, Agassiz also made a name for himself as a man who could run a scientific department well. Under his care, the University of Neuchâtel soon became a leading institution for scientific inquiry.
In 1842–1846, Agassiz issued his Nomenclator Zoologicus, a classification list, with references, of all names used in zoological genera and groups.
The vacation of 1836 was spent by Agassiz and his wife in the little village of Bex, where he met Jean de Charpentier and Ignaz Venetz, whose recently announced glacial theories had startled the scientific world, and Agassiz returned to Neuchâtel an enthusiastic convert. In 1837, Agassiz proposed that the Earth had been subjected to a past ice age. He presented the theory to the Helvetic Society that not only had ancient glaciers flowed outward from the Alps, but even larger glaciers had covered the plains and mountains of Europe, Asia, and North America, smothering the entire Northern Hemisphere in a prolonged ice age. In the same year, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Prior to this proposal, Goethe, de Saussure, Ignaz Venet, Jean de Charpentier, Karl Friedrich Schimper, and others had studied the glaciers of the Alps, and Goethe, Charpentier, and Schimper had even concluded that the erratic blocks of alpine rocks scattered over the slopes and summits of the Jura Mountains had been moved there by glaciers. These ideas attracted the attention of Agassiz, and he discussed them with Charpentier and Schimper, whom he accompanied on successive trips to the Alps. Agassiz even had a hut constructed upon one of the Aar Glaciers, which for a time he made his home, to investigate the structure and movements of the ice.
Agassiz visited England, and with William Buckland, the only English naturalist who shared his ideas, made a tour of the British Isles in search of glacial phenomena, and became satisfied that his theory of an ice-age was correct. In 1840, Agassiz published a two-volume work entitled Études sur les glaciers Studies on Glaciers. In this, he discussed the movements of the glaciers, their moraines, and their influence in grooving and rounding the rocks and in producing the striations and roches moutonnees seen in Alpine-style landscapes. He accepted Charpentier and Schimper's idea that some of the alpine glaciers had extended across the wide plains and valleys of the Aar and Rhône, but he went further, concluding that, in the recent past, Switzerland had been covered with one vast sheet of ice, originating in the higher Alps and extending over the valley of northwestern Switzerland to southern slopes of the Jura. The publication of this work gave fresh impetus to the study of glacial phenomena in all parts of the world.
Familiar, then, with recent glaciation, Agassiz and English geologist William Buckland visited the mountains of Scotland in 1840. There, they found clear evidence in different locations of glacial action. The discovery was announced to the Geological Society of London in successive communications. The mountainous districts of England, Wales, and Ireland were understood to have been centres for the dispersion of glacial debris. Agassiz remarked, "that great sheets of ice, resembling those now existing in Greenland, once covered all the countries in which unstratified gravel boulder drift is found; that this gravel was in general produced by the trituration of the sheets of ice upon the subjacent surface, etc."
With the aid of a grant of money from the King of Prussia, Agassiz crossed the Atlantic in the autumn of 1846 to investigate the natural history and geology of North America and to deliver a course of lectures on "The Plan of Creation as shown in the Animal Kingdom," by invitation from J. A. Lowell, at the Lowell Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. The financial offers presented to him in the United States induced him to settle there, where he remained to the end of his life. He was elected a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1846. Agassiz had a cordial relationship with Harvard botanist Asa Gray, but they disagreed on some scientific issues. For example, Agassiz was a member of the Scientific Lazzaroni, a group of mostly physical scientists who wanted American academia to mimic the autocratic academic structures of European universities, whereas Gray was a staunch opponent of that group. Agassiz also felt each human race had different origins, but Gray believed in the unity of all humans.
Agassiz's engagement for the Lowell Institute lectures precipitated the establishment, in 1847, of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University, with Agassiz as its head. Harvard appointed him professor of zoology and geology, and he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology there in 1859, serving as the museum's first director until his death in 1873. During his tenure at Harvard, Agassiz studied the effect of the last ice age on North America. In August, 1857, Agassiz was offered the chair of palaeontology in the Museum of Natural History in Paris, which he refused; later he was decorated with the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Agassiz continued his lectures for the Lowell Institute. In succeeding years, he gave lectures on "Ichthyology" 1847–48 season, "Comparative Embryology" 1848–49, "Functions of Life in Lower Animals" 1850–51, "Natural History" 1853–54, "Methods of Study in Natural History" 1861–62, "Glaciers and the Ice Period" 1864–65, "Brazil" 1866–67, and "Deep Sea Dredging" 1869–70. In 1850, he married an American college teacher, Elizabeth Cabot Cary, who later wrote introductory books about natural history and a lengthy biography of her husband after he died.
Agassiz served as a nonresident lecturer at Cornell University while also being on faculty at Harvard. In 1852, he accepted a medical professorship of comparative anatomy at Charlestown, Massachusetts, but resigned in two years. From this time, Agassiz's, scientific studies dropped off, but he became one of the best-known scientists in the world. By 1857, Agassiz was so well-loved that his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote "The fiftieth birthday of Agassiz" in his honor, and read it at a dinner given for Agassiz by the Saturday Club in Cambridge. His own writing continued with four of a planned 10 volumes of Natural History of the United States, published from 1857 to 1862. He also published a catalog of papers in his field, Bibliographia Zoologiae et Geologiae, in four volumes between 1848 and 1854.
Stricken by ill health in the 1860s, Agassiz resolved to return to the field for relaxation and to resume his studies of Brazilian fish. In April 1865, he led a party to Brazil. Following his return in August 1866, an account of this expedition, entitled A Journey in Brazil, was published in 1868. In December 1871, he made a second eight-month excursion, known as the Hassler expedition under the command of Commander Philip Carrigan Johnson brother of Eastman Johnson, visiting South America on its southern Atlantic and Pacific seaboards. The ship explored the Magellan Strait, drawing the praise of Charles Darwin.
His second wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, daughter of Thomas Graves Cary, of Boston, who was president of Radcliffe college in 1898, desired to share his studies, and aided her distinguished husband in preparing his A Journey in Brazil, and in connection with his son, Alexander Agassiz, wrote Seaside Studies in Natural History, and Marine Animals of Massachusetts. Elizabeth wrote, at the Strait: '... the Hassler pursued her course, past a seemingly endless panorama of mountains and forests rising into the pale regions of snow and ice, where lay glaciers in which every rift and crevasse, as well as the many cascades flowing down to join the waters beneath, could be counted as she steamed by them. ... These were weeks of exquisite delight to Agassiz. The vessel often skirted the shore so closely that its geology could be studied from the deck.'
From his first marriage to Cecilie Bruan, Agassiz had two daughters in addition to son Alexander. In 1863, Agassiz's daughter Ida married Henry Lee Higginson, who later founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was a benefactor to Harvard and other schools. On November 30, 1860, Agassiz's daughter Pauline was married to Quincy Adams Shaw 1825–1908, a wealthy Boston merchant and later benefactor to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Pauline Agassiz Shaw later became a prominent educator, suffragist, and philanthropist.
In the last years of his life, Agassiz worked to establish a permanent school where zoological science could be pursued amid the living subjects of its study. In 1873, a private philanthropist John Anderson gave Agassiz the island of Penikese, in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts south of New Bedford, and presented him with $50,000 to permanently endow it as a practical school of natural science, especially devoted to the study of marine zoology. The John Anderson school collapsed soon after Agassiz's death; it is considered a precursor of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, which is nearby.
Agassiz had a profound influence on the American branches of his two fields, teaching many future scientists who would go on to prominence, including Alpheus Hyatt, David Starr Jordan, Joel Asaph Allen, Joseph Le Conte, Ernest Ingersoll, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, Nathaniel Shaler, Samuel Hubbard Scudder, Alpheus Packard, and his son Alexander Emanuel Agassiz, among others. He had a profound impact on paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott and natural scientist Edward S. Morse. Agassiz had a reputation for being a demanding teacher. He would allegedly "lock a student up in a room full of turtle-shells, or lobster-shells, or oyster-shells, without a book or a word to help him, and not let him out till he had discovered all the truths which the objects contained." Two of Agassiz's most prominent students detailed their personal experiences under his tutelage: Scudder, in a short magazine article for Every Saturday, and Shaler, in his Autobiography. These and other recollections were collected and published by Lane Cooper in 1917, which Ezra Pound was to draw on for his anecdote of Agassiz and the sunfish.
In the early 1840s, Agassiz named two fossil fish species after Mary Anning —Acrodus anningiae, and Belenostomus anningiae— and another after her friend, Elizabeth Philpot. Anning was a paleontologist known around the world for important finds, but because of her gender, she was often not formally recognized for her work. Agassiz was grateful for the help the women gave him in examining fossil fish specimens during his visit to Lyme Regis in 1834.
Agassiz died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1873 and was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, joined later by his wife. His monument is a boulder from a glacial moraine of the Aar near the site of the old Hôtel des Neuchâtelois, not far from the spot where his hut once stood; his grave is sheltered by pine trees from his old home in Switzerland.
The Cambridge elementary school north of Harvard University was named in his honor and the surrounding neighborhood became known as "Agassiz" as a result. The school's name was changed to the Maria L. Baldwin School on May 21, 2002, due to concerns about Agassiz's involvement in scientific racism, and to honor Maria Louise Baldwin the African-American principal of the school, who served from 1889 until 1922. The neighborhood, however, continues to be known as Agassiz. An elementary school called the Agassiz Elementary School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, existed from 1922 to 1981.
An ancient glacial lake that formed in the Great Lakes region of North America, Lake Agassiz, is named after him, as are Mount Agassiz in California's Palisades, Mount Agassiz, in the Uinta Mountains, Agassiz Peak in Arizona, and in his native Switzerland, the Agassizhorn in the Bernese Alps. Agassiz Glacier Montana and Agassiz Creek in Glacier National Park and Agassiz Glacier Alaska in Saint Elias Mountains, Mount Agassiz in Bethlehem, New Hampshire in the White Mountains also bear his name. A crater on Mars Crater Agassiz and a promontorium on the moon are also named in his honor. A headland situated in Palmer Land, Antarctica, is named in his honor, Cape Agassiz. A main-belt asteroid named 2267 Agassiz is also named in association with Louis Agassiz.
Several animal species are named in honor of Louis Agassiz, including Apistogramma agassizii Steindachner, 1875 Agassiz's dwarf cichlid; Isocapnia agassizi Ricker, 1943 a stonefly; Publius agassizi Kaup, 1871 a passalid beetle; Xylocrius agassizi LeConte, 1861 a longhorn beetle; Exoprosopa agassizii Loew, 1869 a bee fly; Chelonia agassizii Bocourt, 1868 Galápagos green turtle; Philodryas agassizii Jan, 1863 a South American snake; and the most well-known, Gopherus agassizii Cooper, 1863 the desert tortoise.. More recently in 2020, a new genus of pycnodont fish Actinopterygii, Pycnodontiformes named Agassazilia erfoundina Cooper and Martill, 2020 from the Moroccan Kem Kem Group was named in honor of Agassiz who first identified the group in the 1830s.
In 2005, the European Geosciences Union Division on Cryospheric Sciences established the Louis Agassiz Medal, awarded to individuals in recognition of their outstanding scientific contribution to the study of the cryosphere on Earth or elsewhere in the solar system.
Agassiz took part in a monthly gathering called the Saturday Club at the Parker House, a meeting of Boston writers and intellectuals. He was, therefore, mentioned in a stanza of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. poem "At the Saturday Club":
There, at the table's further end I see
In his old place our Poet's vis-à-vis,
The great PROFESSOR, strong, broad-shouldered, square,
In life's rich noontide, joyous, debonair
How will her realm be darkened, losing thee,
Her darling, whom we call our AGASSIZ!
Daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia Taylor
In 1850 Agassiz commissioned daguerreotypes, described as "haunting and voyeuristic" of the enslaved Renty Taylor and Taylor's daughter Delia to further his arguments about black inferiority. They are the earliest known photographs of slaves. Agassiz left the images to Harvard and they remained in the Peabody Museum’s attic until 1976 when they were re-discovered by Ellie Reichlin, a former staff member. The fifteen daguerrotypes were in a case with the embossing "J. T. Zealy, Photographer, Columbia" with several handwritten labels, which helped in later identification. Reichlin spent months doing research in order to try to identify the people in the photos, but Harvard University did not make efforts to contact the families and licensed the photos for use.
In 2011, Tamara Lanier wrote a letter to the president of Harvard, identifying herself as a direct descendant of the Taylors and asking for the return of the photos.
In 2019, Taylor's descendants sued Harvard for the return of the images and unspecified damages. The lawsuit was supported by forty-three living descendants of Louis Agassiz, they wrote a letter of support that read in part "For Harvard to give the daguerreotypes to Ms. Lanier and her family would begin to make amends for its use of the photos as exhibits for the white supremacist theory Agassiz espoused,” and that everyone must evaluate fully "his role in promoting a pseudoscientific justification for white supremacy."
After Agassiz came to the United States, he wrote prolifically on polygenism, which holds that animals, plants, and humans were all created in "special provinces" with distinct populations of species created in and for each province, and that these populations were endowed with unequal attributes. Agassiz denied that migration and adaptation could account for the geographical age or any of the past. Adaptation takes time; in an example, Agassiz questioned how plants or animals could migrate through regions they were not equipped to handle.
Agassiz was influenced by philosophical idealism and the scientific work of Georges Cuvier. Agassiz believed one species of humans exists, but many different creations of races occurred.
Agassiz, like other polygenists, believed the Book of Genesis recounted the origin of the white race only and that the animals and plants in the Bible refer only to those species proximate and familiar to Adam and Eve. Agassiz believed that the writers of the Bible knew only of regional events; for example that Noah's flood was a local event known only to the regions near those populated by ancient Hebrews.
Stephen Jay Gould asserted that Agassiz's observations sprang from racist bias, in particular from his revulsion on first encountering African-Americans in the United States. However, others have asserted that, despite favoring polygenism, Agassiz rejected racism and believed in a spiritualized human unity. Agassiz never supported slavery and claimed his views on polygenism had nothing to do with politics; however his views on polygenism emboldened proponents of slavery.
Accusations of racism against Agassiz have prompted the renaming of landmarks, schoolhouses, and other institutions which abound in Massachusetts that bear his name. Opinions on these events are often mixed, given his extensive scientific legacy in other areas. In 2007, the Swiss government acknowledged his "racist thinking," but declined to rename the Agassizhorn summit. In 2017, the Swiss Alpine Club declined to revoke Agassiz's status as a member of honor, which he received in 1865 for his scientific work, because the club considered this status to have lapsed on Agassiz's death. In 2020, the Stanford Department of Psychology requested to remove a statue of Louis Agassiz from the front façade of its building.
- Recherches sur les poissons fossiles 1833–1843
- History of the Freshwater Fishes of Central Europe 1839–1842
- Études sur les glaciers 1840
- Études critiques sur les mollusques fossiles 1840–1845
- Nomenclator Zoologicus 1842–1846
- Monographie des poissons fossiles du Vieux Gres Rouge, ou Systeme Devonien Old Red Sandstone des Iles Britanniques et de Russie 1844–1845
- Bibliographia Zoologiae et Geologiae 1848
- with A. A. Gould Principles of Zoology for the use of Schools and Colleges Boston, 1848
- Lake Superior: Its Physical Character, Vegetation and Animals, compared with those of other and similar regions Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1850
- Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of America Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1857–1862
- Geological Sketches Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1866
- A Journey in Brazil 1868
- De l'espèce et de la classification en zoologie [Essay on classification] Trans. Felix Vogeli. Paris: Bailière, 1869
- Geological Sketches Second Series Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1876
- Essay on Classification, by Louis Agassiz 1962, Cambridge
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