Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (May 28, 1807 – December 14, 1873) was a Biologist, Paleontologist, Glaciologist and a prominent innovator in the study of the Earth's natural history. He grew up in Switzerland and became a professor of natural history at University of Neuchâtel at the faculty of Biological Science. Later, he accepted a professorship at Harvard University in the United States.
Early life and education
Louis Agassiz was born in Môtier (now part of Haut-Vully) in the canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. Educated first at home, then spending four years of secondary school in Bienne, he completed his elementary studies in Lausanne. Having adopted medicine as his first profession, but then soon, he changed idea, since has been fascinated and attracted from the theories that ran in all Biological Science, in relation to Natural History of animal and plant kingdoms and to human beings. So, he studied successively at the universities of Zürich, Heidelberg and Munich; while there he extended his knowledge of natural history, especially of botany at the faculty of Biological Science. In 1829 he received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and Biology at Erlangen. Moving to Paris he fell under the tutelage of Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier, who launched him on his careers of botany and zoology respectively. Previously he had not paid special attention to the study of ichthyology, but it soon became the great focus of his life's work.
In 1819–1820, Johann Baptist von Spix and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius were engaged in an expedition to Brazil, and on their return to Europe, amongst other collections of natural objects they brought home an important set of the fresh water fish of Brazil, and especially of the Amazon River. Spix, who died in 1826, did not live long enough to work out the history of these fish, and Agassiz (though fresh out of school) was selected by Martius for this purpose. He at once threw himself into the work with an enthusiasm which characterized him to the end of his busy life. The task of describing the Brazilian fish was completed and published in 1829. This was followed by research into the history of the fish found in Lake Neuchâtel. Enlarging his plans, in 1830 he issued a prospectus of a History of the Freshwater Fish of Central Europe. It was only in 1839, however, that the first part of this publication appeared, and it was completed in 1842. In 1832 he was appointed professor of natural history in the University of Neuchâtel. The fossil fish there soon attracted his attention. The fossil-rich stones furnished by the slates of Glarus and the limestones of Monte Bolca were known at the time, but very little had been accomplished in the way of scientific study of them. Agassiz, as early as 1829, planned the publication of the 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") appeared at intervals 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.
Agassiz found that his palaeontological labours made necessary a new basis of ichthyological classification. The fossils rarely exhibited any traces of the soft tissues of fish. They consisted chiefly of the teeth, scales and fins, even the bones being perfectly preserved in comparatively few instances. He therefore adopted a classification which divided fish into four groups: Ganoids, Placoids, Cycloids and Ctenoids, based on the nature of the scales and other dermal appendages. While Agassiz did much to place the subject on a scientific basis, this classification has been superseded by later work.
As Agassiz's descriptive work proceeded, it became obvious that it would over-tax his resources unless financial assistance could be found. The British Association came to his aid, and the Earl of Ellesmere — then Lord Francis Egerton — gave him yet more efficient 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 Etudes critiques sur les mollusques fossiles ("Critical Studies on Fossil Mollusks").
Before his first visit to England in 1834, the labours of Hugh Miller and other geologists brought to light the remarkable fish of the Old Red Sandstone of the northeast of Scotland. The strange forms of the Pterichthys, the 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 special monograph by him published in 1844–45: Monographie des poissons fossiles du Vieux Gres Rouge, ou Systeme Devonien (Old Red Sandstone) des Iles 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.
Proposal of an ice age
In 1837 Agassiz was the first to scientifically propose that the Earth had been subject to a past 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, Venetz, Jean de Charpentier, Karl Friedrich Schimper and others had made the glaciers of the Alps the subjects of special study, and Goethe, Charpentier as well as Schimper had even arrived at the conclusion that the erratic blocks of alpine rocks scattered over the slopes and summits of the Jura Mountains had been moved there by glaciers. The question having attracted the attention of Agassiz, he not only discussed it with Charpentier and Schimper and made successive journeys to the alpine regions in company with them, but he had a hut constructed upon one of the Aar Glaciers, which for a time he made his home, in order to investigate the structure and movements of the ice. These labours resulted, in 1840, in the publication of his work in two volumes entitled Etudes sur les glaciers ("Study on Glaciers"). In it he discussed the movements of the glaciers, their moraines, their influence in grooving and rounding the rocks over which they travelled, and in producing the striations and roches moutonnees seen in Alpine-style landscapes. He not only accepted Charpentier's and Schimper's idea that some of the alpine glaciers had extended across the wide plains and valleys drained by the Aar and the Rhône, but he went still farther. He concluded that, in the relatively recent past, Switzerland had been another Greenland; that instead of a few glaciers stretching across the areas referred to, one vast sheet of ice, originating in the higher Alps, had extended over the entire valley of northwestern Switzerland until it reached the southern slopes of the Jura, which, though they checked and deflected its further extension, did not prevent the ice from reaching in many places the summit of the range. The publication of this work gave a fresh impetus to the study of glacial phenomena in all parts of the world.
Thus familiarized with the phenomena associated with the movements of recent glaciers, Agassiz was prepared for a discovery which he made in 1840, in conjunction with William Buckland. The two visited the mountains of Scotland together, and found in different locations clear evidence of ancient glacial action. The discovery was announced to the Geological Society of London in successive communications. The mountainous districts of England, Wales, and Ireland were also considered to constitute centres for the dispersion of glacial debris; and 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."
Relocation to the United States
In 1842-1846 he issued his Nomenclator Zoologicus, a classified list, with references, of all names employed in zoology for genera and groups — a work of great labour and research. With the aid of a grant of money from the King of Prussia, Agassiz crossed the Atlantic in the autumn of 1846 with the twin purposes of investigating the natural history and geology of North America and delivering a course of twelve 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 and scientific advantages presented to him in the United States induced him to settle there, where he remained to the end of his life.
His engagement for the Lowell Institute lectures precipitated the establishment of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University in 1847 with him 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, he was, among many other things, an early student of the effect of the last Ice Age on North America.
He continued his lectures for the Lowell Institute. In succeeding years, he gave series of 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).
Agassiz served as a non-resident lecturer at Cornell while also being on faculty at Harvard. In 1852 he accepted a medical professorship of comparative anatomy at Charlestown, Massachusetts, but he resigned in two years. From this time his scientific studies dropped off, but he was a profound influence on the American branches of his two fields, teaching decades worth of future prominent scientists, including David Starr Jordan, Joel Asaph Allen, Joseph Le Conte, Ernest Ingersoll, Nathaniel Shaler, Samuel Hubbard Scudder, Alpheus Packard, and his son Alexander Agassiz, among others. He had a profound impact on the paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. In return his name appears attached to several species, as well as here and there throughout the American landscape, notably Lake Agassiz, the Pleistocene precursor to Lake Winnipeg and the Red River.
During this time he grew in fame even in the public consciousness, becoming one of the best-known scientists in the world. By 1857 he was so well-loved that his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote "The fiftieth birthday of Agassiz" in his honor. His own writing continued with four (of a planned ten) volumes of Natural History of the United States which were published from 1857 to 1862. During this time 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, he 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. Returning home 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, which drew the praise of Charles Darwin.
Elizabeth Aggasiz 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.'
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. Quincy Adams Shaw and his brother-in-law Henry Higginson became major investors in the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, and Shaw was the first president of the company and retained that position until 1871, when Agassiz's son Alexander Agassiz took over.
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, but is considered a precursor of the Marine Biological Laboratory, which is nearby.
Agassiz is remembered today for his theories on ice ages, and for his resistance to Charles Darwin's theories on evolution, which he kept up his entire life. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1873 and was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, joined later by his wife. His monument is a boulder selected from the moraine of the glacier of the Aar near the site of the old Hotel des Neuchatelois, not far from the spot where his hut once stood; and the pine-trees that shelter his grave were sent 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, in honor of the African-American principal of the school who served from 1889 until 1922. The neighborhood, however, continues to be known as Agassiz.
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, and Agassiz Peak in Arizona. Agassiz Glacier and Agassiz Creek in Glacier National Park also bear his name. A crater on Mars and a promontorium on the Moon are also named in his honour. In addition, several animal species are so named, including Apistogramma agassizi 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 agassizi Loew, 1869 (a bee fly); and the most well-known, Gopherus agassizii Cooper, 1863 (the desert tortoise).
In 2005 the EGU 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.
He took part in a monthly gathering called the Saturday Club at the Omni 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," where the author dreams he sees some of his friends who are no longer:
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.
His social hour no leaden care alloys,
His laugh rings loud and mirthful as a boy's,--
That lusty laugh the Puritan forgot,--
What ear has heard it and remembers not?
How often, halting at some wide crevasse
Amid the windings of his Alpine pass,
High up the cliffs, the climbing mountaineer,
Listening the far-off avalanche to hear,
Silent, and leaning on his steel-shod staff,
Has heard that cheery voice, that ringing laugh,
From the rude cabin whose nomadic walls
Creep with the moving glacier as it crawls!
How does vast Nature lead her living train
In ordered sequence through that spacious brain,
As in the primal hour when Adam named
The new-born tribes that young creation claimed!--
How will her realm be darkened, losing thee,
Her darling, whom we call our AGASSIZ!
Racial classification scheme and racism
After Agassiz came to the United States he became a prolific writer in what has been later termed the genre of scientific racism. Agassiz was specifically a believer and advocate in polygenism, that races came from separate origins (specifically separate creations), were endowed with unequal attributes, and could be classified into specific climatic zones, in the same way he felt other animals and plants could be classified.
These included Western American Temperate (the indigenous peoples west of the Rockies); Eastern American Temperate (east of the Rockies); Tropical Asiatic (south of the Himalayas); Temperate Asiatic (east of the Urals and north of the Himalayas); South American Temperate (South America); New Holland (Australia); Arctic (Alaska and Arctic Canada); Cape of Good Hope (South Africa); and American Tropical (Central America and the West Indies).
Agassiz denied that species originated in single pairs, whether at a single location or at many. He argued instead that multiple individuals in each species were created at the same time and then distributed throughout the continents where God meant for them to dwell. His lectures on polygenism were popular among the slaveholders in the South; for many this opinion legitimized the belief in a lower standard of the Negro. Interestingly, his stance in this case was considered to be quite radical in its time, because it went against the more orthodox and standard reading of the Bible in his time which implied all human stock descended from a single couple (Adam and Eve), and in his defense Agassiz often used what now sounds like a very "modern" argument about the need for independence between science and religion; though Agassiz, unlike many polygeneticists, maintained his religious beliefs and was not anti-Biblical in general.
Stephen Jay Gould has argued that Agassiz's theories sprang from an initial revulsion in his encounters with African-Americans upon moving to the United States. Agassiz's racism was by no means unique for his time or context, though his reading of it into a formalized and scientific context gave it a sense of legitimacy, and allowed it to be easily exported to other contexts.
In the context of ethnology and anthropology of the mid-19th century, Agassiz's polygenetic views became explicitly seen as opposing Darwin's views on race, which sought to show the common origin of all human races and the superficiality of racial differences. Darwin's second book on evolution, The Descent of Man, features extensive argumentation addressing the single origin of the races, at times explicitly opposing Agassiz's theories.
In recent years, critics have cited Agassiz's racial theories, arguing that these now-unpopular views tarnish his scientific record; this has occasionally prompted the renaming of landmarks, schoolhouses, and other institutions which bear the name of Agassiz (which abound in Massachusetts). Opinions on these events are often torn, given his extensive scientific legacy in other areas. On September 9, 2007 the Swiss government acknowledged the "racist thinking" of Agassiz but declined to rename the Agassizhorn summit.
- Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (1833–1843)
- History of the Freshwater Fishes of Central Europe (1839–1842)
- Etudes sur les glaciers (1840)
- Etudes 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 AA 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, 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)
- E.P. Evans: "The Authorship of the Glacial Theory", North American review Volume 145, Issue 368, July 1887. Accessed on February 25, 2008.
- Louis Agassiz: Études sur les glaciers, Neuchâtel 1840. Digital book on Wikisource. Accessed on February 25, 2008.
- Smith, Harriet Knight, The history of the Lowell Institute, Boston: Lamson, Wolffe and Co., 1898, p. 52.
- Smith (1898), pp. 39–41.
- Smith (1898), pp. 52-66.
- A History of Cornell by Morris Bishop (1962), pg. 83.
- Museum of Fine Arts (1918), Quincy Adams Shaw Collection, Boston, Massachusetts: Museum of Fine Arts, p. 2, http://www.archive.org/details/quincyadamsshawc00muse, retrieved 2010-03-08
- Sammarco, Anthony M. (December 9, 2009). "Quincy Adams Shaw". Forest Hills Educational Trust. http://foresthillstrust.blogspot.com/2009/12/quincy-adams-shaw-1825-1908-was-major.html. Retrieved 2010-06-27.
- Edward Lurie, "Louis Agassiz and the Races of Man," Isis 45, no. 3 (1954): 227–242.
- John S. Haller, Jr., "The Species Problem: Nineteenth-Century Concepts of Racial Inferiority in the Origin of Man Controversy", American Anthropologist 72, no. 6 (1970): 1319–1329.
- For example, Louis Agassiz, "Diversity of Origin of the Human Races", Christian Examiner 49 (July 1850), 110–145.
- Stephen Jay Gould, "Flaws in a Victorian Veil," Chapter 16 in The Panda's Thumb.
- See esp. the chapter "Races of Man."
- See, i.e., one story about the attempt to rename a schoolhouse: "Political Correctness Run Amok: School Students Dishonor a Genius of Science", Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 32 (Summer 2001): 74–75.
- "Louis Agassiz vom Sockel holen und dem Sklaven Renty die Würde zurückgeben". Die Bundesversammlung - Das Schweizer Parlament. 2007-09-14. http://www.parlament.ch/d/cv-geschaefte?gesch_id=20073486.
|This article needs additional citations for verification.|
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- Dexter, R W (1979), "The impact of evolutionary theories on the Salem group of Agassiz zoologists (Morse, Hyatt, Packard, Putnam).", Essex Institute historical collections 115 (3): 144–71, PMID 11616944
- Lurie, E (1954), "Louis Agassiz and the races of Man.", Isis; an international review devoted to the history of science and its cultural influences 45 (141): 227–42, 1954 Sep, PMID 13232804
- Mackie, G O (1989), "Louis Agassiz and the discovery of the coelenterate nervous system.", History and philosophy of the life sciences 11 (1): 71–81, PMID 2573108
- Numbers, Ronald L., The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, 2nd ed., 2006.
- Winsor, M P (1979), "Louis Agassiz and the species question.", Studies in history of biology 3: 89–138, PMID 11610990
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- Pictures and texts of Excursions et séjours dans les glaciers et les hautes régions des Alpes and of Nouvelles études et expériences sur les glaciers actuels by Louis Agassiz can be found in the database VIATIMAGES.
- "Geographical Distribution of Animals", by Louis Agassiz (1850)
- Runner of the Mountain Tops: The Life of Louis Agassiz, by Mabel Louise Robinson (1930) - free download at manybooks.net
- Thayer Expedition to Brazil, 1865-1866 (Agassiz went to Brazil to find glacial boulders and to refute Darwin. Dom Pedro II gave his support for Agassiz's expedition on the Amazon River.)
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- Louis Agassiz Correspondence, Harvard
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- digital version of Volume 3 "RECHERCHES SUR LES POISSONS FOSSILES"
- Illustrations from 'Monographies d'échinodermes vivans et fossiles'
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