Agassiz, Louis

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Editors: John Merriman and Jay Winter
Date: 2006
Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1340L

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About this Person
Born: May 28, 1807 in Motier, Switzerland
Died: December 14, 1873 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Naturalist
Other Names: Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe
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AGASSIZ, LOUIS (1807–1873), American geologist, zoologist, and institution-builder.

Born a Swiss Protestant on 28 May 1807, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz studied at the universities of Zurich, Heidelberg, and Munich, earning an MD and two PhDs. His career began in 1829 with his description of the fish collected in Brazil by Johann Baptiste von Spix (1781–1826). After examining fossil fish in several museums across Europe, in December 1831 he went to Paris, where Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) became mentors. Cuvier's death in May 1832 cut short their relationship, but Agassiz always considered himself a pupil of the great Cuvier.

In September 1832 Agassiz moved to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where he created a "scientific factory": working under his direction were clerks, colleagues, apprentice scientists, and artists. In 1837 he announced a new geological theory he called the Ice Age. The idea that alpine glaciers were formerly much larger was not original to Agassiz, but his observations, especially on the Unteraar Glacier where he set up a summer camp, taught geologists to recognize the effects of glaciers: moraines, erratic boulders, and polished, grooved bedrock. His Ice Age idea was much more radical: that most of Europe had been covered by a vast, thick mass of ice. Geologists resisted but eventually he was proven right. His own printing press turned out ten volumes on glaciers, fossil fish, and echinoderms between 1833 and 1844, but in 1845 Agassiz's wife left him and he was near bankruptcy. The solution was a year abroad.

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Arriving in Boston in 1846, he charmed everyone with his enthusiasm, and he found evidence of glacial action in North America. Wealthy admirers funded a professorship for him at Harvard in 1847 and a new institution, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which opened in 1859. After the death of his wife, he brought his children to Cambridge and married Elizabeth Cabot Cary (1822–1907). She eased his entry into Boston society. His son Alexander helped run the museum and later rescued the museum's finances when mining made Alexander a millionaire.

Agassiz's lectures and writings advocated a fact-based science, in contrast to the speculative, poetic Naturphilosophie popular in his student days. Yet he also insisted that both geology and zoology point to divine causation, which endeared him to general audiences. His Ice Age had killed off all life, disproving the notion advanced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) that modern species were the changed descendants of fossil ones. He saw evidence of a thinking planner in the patterns of deep similarity between adult anatomy, embryological development, and fossil history: the so-called "threefold parallelism." Agassiz envisioned a comparative zoology that would be more scientific than simple description, and he hoped to add a fourth dimension, geographical distribution. The sumptuous Contributions to the Natural History of the United States, with its illustrations of microscopic study of the embryology of turtles and jellyfish, displayed his contradictory ambitions, for he needed the support of nonscientists, but his aim was to make zoology more professional. Its first volume, published in 1857, contained an "Essay on Classification," in which Agassiz proposed that when biologists grouped species into genera, families, orders, and classes, these categories were real; the reason they are perceived by the human intellect was that they had first been conceived in the mind of the Creator. This was not the old "argument from design" based on the fit of form to function, but a new sort of natural theology reminiscent of neoplatonism. The twentieth-century biologist Ernst Mayr (1904–2005) argued that Agassiz's "typological thinking" or essentialism made evolution logically impossible, and Mayr was right to expand the understanding of this issue beyond religion. Agassiz's stubborn opposition to evolution probably had more to do with his psychology than with philosophy. Agassiz dug in his heels when Charles Darwin (1809–1892) published another theory of evolution in 1859. In debates in the scientific societies of Boston, botanist Asa Gray (1810–1888) and geologist William Barton Rogers (1804–1882) exposed the weakness of Agassiz's position, after which, Agassiz, without altering his views, focused his attention on the growth of his museum. It is misleading to take Agassiz as typical of his day, for his novel interpretation did not impress his scientific peers, and before long his own students accepted evolution.

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"The divisions of animals according to branch, class, order, family, genus, and species, by which we express the results of our investigations into the relations of the animal kingdom, and which constitute the primary question respecting any system of Zoology seem to me to deserve the consideration of all thoughtful minds. Are these divisions artificial or natural? Are they the devices of the human mind to classify and arrange our knowledge in such a manner as to bring it more readily within our grasp and facilitate further investigations, or have they been instituted by the Divine Intelligence as the categories of his mode of thinking?"

Source: Louis Agassiz, Essay on Classification, London, 1859. Reprint edited by Edward Lurie, p. 8. Cambridge, Mass., 1952.

Startled by the slaves he encountered in the American South, Agassiz decided they could not belong to his own biological species, a view that pleased some slaveowners and now disgraces his reputation. In 1863 he helped found the National Academy of Sciences. In 1864 and 1865 he led a group of students up the Amazon, collecting evidence for his three beleaguered ideas: the Ice Age, the fixity of species, and the several species of humans. His style of teaching became legendary, for he sometimes left a student for a week with a single fish, to teach the value of close observation. His message "Study nature, not books!" was the motto of the schoolteachers who attended his summer school on Penikese Island offPage 24  |  Top of Article Cape Cod in 1873, a forerunner of later marine laboratories. He died in December 1873.


Lurie, Edward. Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science. Chicago, 1960. Thorough biography.

Mayr, Ernst. "Agassiz, Darwin, and Evolution." In Evolution and the Diversity of Life, 251–276. Cambridge, Mass., 1976. Introduces idea of Agassiz's "typological thinking" or essentialism.

Winsor, Mary P. "Louis Agassiz and the Species Question." Studies in History of Biology 4 (1979): 89–117. Contests Mayr's claim that philosophy made Agassiz blind to variation.

——. Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum. Chicago, 1991. Agassiz's science and his teaching.

——. "Agassiz's Notions of a Museum: the Vision and the Myth." In Cultures and Institutions of Natural History, edited by Michael T. Ghiselin and Alan E. Leviton, 249–271. Los Angeles, 2000. Contests idea that Agassiz invented the separation within museums of exhibits and research collections.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3446900020