Agassiz, Louis

Agassiz, Louis

▪ Swiss-American scientist and educator
born May 28, 1807, Motier, Switz.
died December 14, 1873, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.

      Swiss-born U.S. naturalist, geologist, and teacher who made revolutionary contributions to the study of natural science with landmark work on glacier activity and extinct fishes (fish). He achieved lasting fame through his innovative teaching methods, which altered the character of natural science education in the United States.

Early life
      Agassiz was the son of the Protestant pastor of Motier, a village on the shore of Lake Morat, Switzerland. In boyhood he attended the gymnasium in Bienne and later the academy at Lausanne. He entered the universities of Zürich, Heidelberg, and Munich and took at Erlangen the degree of doctor of philosophy and at Munich that of doctor of medicine.

      As a youth he gave some attention to the ways of the brook fish of western Switzerland, but his permanent interest in ichthyology began with his study of an extensive collection of Brazilian fishes, mostly from the Amazon River, which had been collected in 1819 and 1820 by two eminent naturalists at Munich. The classification (taxonomy) of these species was begun by one of the collectors in 1826, and when he died the collection was turned over to Agassiz. The work was completed and published in 1829 as Selecta Genera et Species Piscium. The study of fish forms became henceforth the prominent feature of his research. In 1830 he issued a prospectus of a History of the Fresh Water Fishes of Central Europe, printed in parts from 1839 to 1842.

      The year 1832 proved the most significant in Agassiz's early career because it took him first to Paris, then the centre of scientific research, and later to Neuchâtel, Switz., where he spent many years of fruitful effort. While in Paris he lived the life of an impecunious student in the Latin Quarter, supporting himself and helped at times by the kindly interest of such friends as the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (Humboldt, Alexander von)—who secured for him a professorship at Neuchâtel—and Baron Cuvier, the most eminent ichthyologist of his time.

      Already Agassiz had become interested in the rich stores of the extinct fishes of Europe, especially those of Glarus in Switzerland and of Monte Bolca near Verona, of which, at that time, only a few had been critically studied. As early as 1829 Agassiz planned a comprehensive and critical study of these fossils (paleontology) and spent much time gathering material wherever possible. His epoch-making work, Recherches sur les poissons fossiles, appeared in parts from 1833 to 1843. In it, the number of named fossil fishes was raised to more than 1,700, and the ancient seas were made to live again through the descriptions of their inhabitants. The great importance of this fundamental work rests on the impetus it gave to the study of extinct life itself. Turning his attention to other extinct animals found with the fishes, Agassiz published in 1838–42 two volumes on the fossil echinoderms of Switzerland, and later (1841–42) his Études critiques sur les mollusques fossiles.

      From 1832 to 1846 he served as professor of natural history in the University of Neuchâtel. In Neuchâtel he acted for a time as his own publisher, and his private residence became a hive of activity with numerous young men assisting him. He now began his Nomenclator Zoologicus, a catalog with references of all the names applied to genera of animals from the beginning of scientific nomenclature, a date since fixed at Jan. 1, 1758.

      In 1836 Agassiz began a new line of studies: the movements and effects of the glaciers (glaciology) of Switzerland. Several writers had expressed the opinion that these rivers of ice once had been much more extensive and that the erratic boulders scattered over the region and up to the summit of the Jura Mountains were carried by moving glaciers. On the ice of the Aar Glacier he built a hut, the “Hôtel des Neuchâtelois,” from which he and his associates traced the structure and movements of the ice. In 1840 he published his Études sur les glaciers, in some respects his most important work. In it, Agassiz showed that at a geologically recent period Switzerland had been covered by one vast ice sheet. His final conclusion was that “great sheets of ice, resembling those now existing in Greenland, once covered all the countries in which unstratified gravel (boulder drift) is found.”

Activities in the United States
      In 1846 Agassiz visited the United States for the general purpose of studying natural history and geology there but more specifically to give a course of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston. The lectures were followed by another series in Charleston and, later, by both popular and technical lectures in various cities. In 1847 he accepted a professorship of zoology at Harvard University; and in 1850, after his first wife's death, he married Elizabeth Cabot Cary of Boston, who was well known as a writer and a promoter of women's education.

      In the United States his chief volumes of scientific research were the following: Lake Superior (1850); Contributions to the Natural History of the United States (1857–62), in four quarto volumes, the most notable being on the embryology of turtles; and the Essay on Classification (1859), a brilliant publication, which, however, failed to grasp the fact that zoology was moving away from the doctrine of special creation toward the doctrine of evolution. Besides these extensive contributions there appeared a multitude of short papers on natural history and especially on the fishes of the U.S. His two expeditions of most importance were, first, to Brazil in 1865 and, second, to California in 1871, the latter trip involving both shores of South America. A Journey in Brazil (1868), written by Mrs. Agassiz and himself, gives an account of their experiences. His most important paper on U.S. fishes dealt with the group of viviparous surf fishes of California.

      Agassiz was deeply absorbed in his cherished plan of developing at Harvard a comprehensive museum of zoological research. This institution, which was established in 1859 and ultimately grew into the present museum of comparative zoology, enjoyed his fostering care during the rest of his lifetime. In the U.S., Agassiz's industry and devotion to scientific pursuits continued, but two other traits now assumed importance. Quite possibly he was the ablest science teacher, administrator, promoter, and fund raiser in the U.S. in the 19th century. In addition, he was devoted to his students, who were in the highest sense co-workers with him.

      Agassiz's method as teacher (pedagogy) was to give contact with nature rather than information. He discouraged the use of books except in detailed research. The result of his instruction at Harvard was a complete revolution in the study of natural history in the U.S. The purpose of study was not to acquire a category of facts from others but to be able, through active contact with the natural world, to gather the needed facts. As a result of his activities, every notable teacher of natural history in the U.S. for the second half of the 19th century was a pupil either of Agassiz or of one of his students.

      In the interests of better teaching and of scientific enthusiasm, he organized in the summer of 1873 the Anderson School of Natural History at Penikese, an island in Buzzards Bay. This school, which had the greatest influence on science teaching in America, was run solely by Agassiz. After his death it vanished.

Agassiz and Darwin
      Because Agassiz was beyond question one of the ablest, wisest, and best informed of the biologists of his day, it may be asked why his attitude toward Darwin (Darwinism)'s Origin of Species, published in 1859, was cold and unsympathetic. It is likely that Agassiz's lifelong view of nature determined his attitude toward the new doctrine of evolution. Although Agassiz was quite familiar with the factual evidence concerning environmental change, variability, and hereditary modification on which Darwin built his arguments, he held that the organic world represented repeated interventions by the Supreme Being. Ordinary physical events on which Darwin relied, such as climatic and geologic change, and even glaciers, could bring about extinctions but not new species. The sequence in the fossil record from simple animals and plants in the ancient, deeper strata to the more complex, recent forms found near the surface represented a progressive development, Agassiz agreed, but these different animals and plants did not arise because of interactions between populations and external environmental changes, as Darwin argued. Agassiz maintained that since organisms arose by a series of independent and special creations, there could be no hereditary continuity between different types of organisms. Each species of plant and animal was a “thought of God,” and homologies or anatomical similarities were “associations of ideas in the Divine Mind.” Agassiz's view of nature was historically derived from the thought of Plato, for whom the unseen world had more reality than the world of sense experience. Agassiz, therefore, could not accept Darwin's conceptual view of nature, in which environmental events could evoke organic change.

David Starr Jordan

Additional Reading
The definitive biography is Edward Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (1960; abridged ed., 1967), a substantial, documented analysis of his scientific thought. It contains an extensively annotated bibliography relating to earlier biographical materials and particular aspects of his scientific career.

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Universalium. 2010.

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