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Charismatic and controversial, Louis Agassiz is our least known revolutionary—some fifty years after American independence, he became a founding father of American science.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, a Swiss immigrant took America by storm, launching American science as we know it. The irrepressible Louis Agassiz, legendary at a young age for his work on mountain glaciers, focused his prodigious energies on the fauna of the New World. Invited to deliver a series of ...
Charismatic and controversial, Louis Agassiz is our least known revolutionary—some fifty years after American independence, he became a founding father of American science.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, a Swiss immigrant took America by storm, launching American science as we know it. The irrepressible Louis Agassiz, legendary at a young age for his work on mountain glaciers, focused his prodigious energies on the fauna of the New World. Invited to deliver a series of lectures in Boston, he never left, becoming the most famous scientist of his time. A pioneer in field research and an obsessive collector, Agassiz enlisted the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural specimens, dead or alive, for his ingeniously conceived museum of comparative zoology. As an educator of enduring impact, he trained a generation of American scientists and science teachers, men and women alike. Irmscher sheds new light on Agassiz’s fascinating partnership with his brilliant wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, a science writer in her own right who would go on to become the first president of Radcliffe College.
But there’s a dark side to the story. Irmscher adds unflinching evidence of Agassiz’s racist impulses and shows how avidly Americans looked to men of science to mediate race policy. The book’s potent, original scenes include the pitched battle between Agassiz and his student Henry James Clark as well as the merciless, often amusing exchanges between Darwin and Harvard botanist Asa Gray over Agassiz’s stubborn resistance to evolution.
A fascinating life story, both inspiring and cautionary, for anyone interested in the history of American ideas.
"Evocative new biography….Irmscher is a richly descriptive writer with an eye for detail, the compexities and contradictions of character, and the workings of institutional and familial power structures….This book is not just about a man of science but also about a scientific culture in the making—warts and all."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Compelling biography...A masterful portrait illuminating the tangled human dynamics of science."
"In Irmscher’s hands, Agassiz’s life and passions are embedded in the major intellectual ideas of his time…. The relationship between Agassiz and his second wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the first president of Radcliffe College, is also fascinating."
"Christoph Irmscher's elegant, beautifully written account does the essential task of setting the mysterious Agassiz in his full social and historical context, where we can both appreciate his gifts and see his flaws clearly. His portrayal of Elizabeth Agassiz and her contributions is brilliant, and his exploration of Agassiz's stagnation, as the world turned without him, is both rigorous and poignant. Through the prism of Agassiz's life, much of 19th-century culture gleams freshly."
—Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal
"A biography as exuberant as its brilliant but wrong-headed subject, the unforgettable forgotten celebrity scientist Louis Agassiz. Christoph Irmscher is in his element detailing the exploits of this larger-than-life anti-hero of the Age of Darwin, whose feats of discovery took him from the Swiss Alps to the Amazon jungle and made him Harvard’s reigning eminence for decades."
—Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters and Margaret Fuller
"Christoph Irmscher has brought to life an essential figure in the history of American science and culture. Irmscher's expertise and talent for vivid prose open a fascinating window onto the origins of American science as we know it."
—Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club
"A thoroughly satisfying biography…Irmscher makes a convincing case that this egotistical, often wrongheaded figure deserves his reputation as a founder and first great popularizer of American science."
"Reading this book is a pleasure - the writing is engaging and witty, while always intellectually rewarding …. Irmscher's account of Agassiz's life reminds us always to examine our own preconceptions concerning the nature of reality and man's place in the universe."
—Tom Cronin, Professor of Biology, University of Maryland
In September 1866, the American consul to Mauritius, fresh off the boat, paid a visit to the Boston publisher James T. Fields. He carried precious cargo with him, though it was not intended for Fields, but rather for the man known as America’s greatest naturalist, the man everyone wanted to see when they came to Cambridge: Louis Agassiz. In the consul’s luggage were two complete skeletons of the extinct flightless bird known as the dodo. Fields made sure that Agassiz received the bones forthwith. They were not perfect skeletons, Agassiz decided, but it was good to have them anyway. When Fields, making conversation, asked if “the Dodo were good enough to eat,” Agassiz’s face lit up. “Yes, indeed! What a peety we could not have the Dodo at our club. A good dinner is humanity’s greatest blessing!” Unfortunately, the Dutch had beaten them on that score and killed all the dodos. But at least there were the bones. Agassiz put them in his museum.
Surely Agassiz was joking in that response to Fields. The image of the illustrious members of the Saturday Club—among them the poet and publisher Fields, the poet and doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, the poet and professor James Russell Lowell, and the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson—feasting on dodo at the dinner table at Boston’s Parker Hotel is absurd enough, and Annie Fields likely had some fun including this passage in her postmortem biography of James Fields. And yet the anecdote says much about the appeal Agassiz had for his fellow Americans: an expert on all manner of things living and dead, he kept his mind firmly trained on the enjoyment of life. In Agassiz, Americans had found the “lusty laugh that the Puritan forgot,” Oliver Wendell Holmes once said. Agassiz was a bon vivant. He worked hard, harder than anyone these New England literati had ever known, but he also knew how to live life to the fullest. And a well-stocked dinner table defined Agassiz’s world in more than one way. In a later conversation, Fields asked Agassiz if he thought man would ever figure out the mystery of life and death. Agassiz pointed at the food they were about to eat: “I am sure he will,” he replied. “The time will come when these things will be made as clear as the table spread out before us.” We are still waiting for that time, it seems. Ironically, in a sense the dodo has outlived Agassiz, its would-be consumer: its skeleton (or at least the skeleton of some dodo) even today greets the visitor to Agassiz’s museum, now known as the Museum of Comparative Zoology.
The story of the consul from Mauritius, with his dodo skeletons destined for Agassiz’s museum, illustrates well the worldwide fame Louis Agassiz enjoyed. The details of his fabulous life had become the stuff of legend. Popularizer of the ice age, climber of mountain peaks, dredger of the deep seas, describer of fossil fish and jellyfish, taxonomist of turtles—Agassiz had done it all. He had given America its greatest science museum at the time, and he founded, on Penikese Island off the coast of Massachusetts, the first serious summer school in natural history, actively welcoming women as participants. At Harvard, he assembled around him the best and brightest young men of his time, thus creating, arguably, the first American graduate school. Born in full view of the stately snow-clad mountains of Switzerland, on the shores of lac de Neuchâtel, where he had first taught science to schoolchildren, Agassiz was mentored by the great naturalists Georges Cuvier and Alexander von Humboldt. When he came to the United States in 1846, not even forty years old, it seemed as if the New World had always been waiting for him.
Agassiz took to America like a fish to water. His unorthodox religious views resonated with New England Unitarianism, but he brought to them a scientific rigor and an uncompromising seriousness that his new friends, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell, could only dream about. Agassiz’s God, James Russell Lowell once said, in a poem dripping with admiration, was “very God.” Agassiz was never an orthodox believer or churchgoer, but his science was infused with the presence of the divine, which he found wherever he went: in Swiss glaciers, American lakes, and the Amazonian rain forest.
Industrious he certainly was: Agassiz published over four hundred scientific books and papers in his lifetime, most of which “could be consulted productively today by workers in the field,” according David C. Smith and Harold W. Borns of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. A few years ago, a massive volume containing interviews with over fifty scientists gave tribute to what the book’s very title identified as Agassiz’s Legacy. Many of those interviews had taken place at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, not far from Penikese Island, where Agassiz had founded his Anderson School of Natural History, seen by many as the direct ancestor of Woods Hole. Agassiz had taught his students to find, observe, and ask questions about creatures in their own environments, and this is precisely what, according to the interviews, biology professors are still doing today, at Woods Hole as well as at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, which was the creation of Agassiz’s former student David Starr Jordan. The photograph on the cover of Agassiz’s Legacy shows a scene Agassiz would have enjoyed. The biologist Don Abbott and a young female student (Gabrielle Nevitt, who would later teach at the University of California–Davis) are gathering sponges in an intertidal zone off Hopkins Marine Station. Abbott, white-haired and distinguished-looking, is up to his knees in an intertidal pool, gazing at an open jar in his hand, while his student, kneeling on the slippery rocks, is about to close hers. This kind of intimacy—with nature, students, other scientists—was what Agassiz craved more than anything else. Fieldwork, for Agassiz, was an affair of the senses. It meant delighting in the present moment: the things we see, the sounds we hear, the air we feel, and the surfaces we touch. It meant passing on such delight to others, his students.
There were, to be sure, distinctly undelightful sides to Louis Agassiz: his shabby treatment of his first wife, whom he left behind when he traveled to America; his relentless resistance to Darwinism; and, perhaps most of all, his reprehensible belief that America belonged to the whites only. In fact, people who are not working scientists tend to think of Agassiz as a misguided, opportunistic bigot. Even in his own Cambridge he has become a liability. A few years ago, an eighth-grader at the Agassiz School, a stone’s throw from Agassiz’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, came across a summary of Agassiz’s racial views in the biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man. Horrified, he suggested that the school change its name. Which it did. In 2004, an official ceremony celebrated the renaming of the Agassiz School to honor its first African American principal, Maria Baldwin. And there’s more to rename. In a recent broadcast of Living on Earth, the producer Bruce Gellerman, interviewing the Darwin biographer James Moore, referred to Agassiz with evident disgust, adding, “We’re not far from Harvard University right here from our studios and many things are named after him.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the pothole-riddled Cambridge street that bears Agassiz’s name was someday given a new identity too. And what about Mount Agassiz in New Hampshire or, for that matter, in California, one of the tallest peaks in the Sierras?
Modern historians generally agree that the cosmopolitan Harvard professor Agassiz lost his battle against the reclusive British country squire Darwin, and rather dramatically so: “His science wasn’t theoretical and his theory wasn’t scientific,” writes Louis Menand. “Darwin’s ideas are devices for generating data. Darwin’s theory opens possibilities for inquiry; Agassiz’s closes them.”9 His God might have been “very God,” as Lowell insisted, but Agassiz’s attempt to yoke science and religion seems at best quaint or, more likely, dangerous today. Darwin, Agassiz’s great nemesis, got his science right, or mostly right, and as part of the bargain, he seems much easier to write about too, as the flurry of publications associated with the bicentennial of his birth proved once again. Biographers have given much attention to Darwin’s personal struggles, his sheer courage, and his determination to carry on with his work, even as his constantly ailing body, subjected to a variety of medical treatments ranging from amyl nitrite and arsenic to tartar emetic ointments, was refusing to come along for the ride. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, in their much-discussed book Darwin’s Sacred Cause, pointed to one of the catalysts for Darwin’s lifelong suffering: the suffering of others. They argued that when Darwin, “a caring, compassionate man,” resolved to come up with ways of proving the common origin of all living things, he was in fact hoping to refute, on the basis of science, all those who were still defending a certain type of human difference and thus slavery. Desmond and Moore recount a powerfully uplifting version of Darwin’s story, and they tell it well. We are inclined to believe them when they attribute much of the impetus behind Darwin’s emerging theory to the cries of a tortured Brazilian slave he overheard as a young man. In fact, we find it easy to imagine that the man for whom we care so much would have cared much for others too. Darwin gives us a story ready for the telling. If it is true that Darwin loves us, to modify the title of a recent book by George Levine, it is equally true that we love—or at least should try to love—Darwin.
But can we love Agassiz? I would be the first to admit that the story of Agassiz the incorrigible racist commissioning photographs of Southern slaves while he was also working to give us the first modern description of a jellyfish’s nervous system is a challenging one to tell. The last person to try his hand at it was the historian Edward Lurie, who over fifty years ago published a biography focused mostly on the details of Agassiz’s tangled scientific involvements. But Agassiz’s story far exceeds the boundaries of his scientific investments. It is a story riven with the contradictions of a man who wanted to come across as both rigorously professional and unrelentingly popular, a man who believed that science practiced with due diligence could clear up not only the little problems that confound the specialists but also the whole cosmic puzzle itself. Agassiz was one of the first to establish science as a collective enterprise. Yet he insisted on putting his own personal stamp on anything that came out of the museum he had founded and forbade his assistants to claim credit for any part of their own research done on company time. He was an ardent advocate of abolition, yet he also believed in the racial inferiority of blacks. How on earth can we reconcile Agassiz the humble observer, reverently holding a moon snail in his hand, wondering at the beauty of God’s world and eager to share it with others, with the authoritarian Professor Agassiz, who saw himself at the top of the chain of subordinates (students, other scientists, the public) and tolerated no disagreements? Brilliant scientist and craven racist, cutting-edge practitioner of fieldwork and industrious simplifier of scientific truths, caring mentor and callous despot—one is never done with Louis Agassiz. To be sure, we cannot today replicate the enthusiasm nineteenth-century Americans felt for him. But as any student of the period can attest, Louis Agassiz won’t go away quietly either, won’t let himself be replaced so easily with more unambiguously benign figures.
While Charles Darwin remained holed up in his country estate in Kent, preferring to receive letters rather than people at Down House and watching the unfolding controversy about his science from the sidelines, the relentlessly extroverted Agassiz constantly surrounded himself with other people: assistants, students, illustrators. Their voices, opinions, and ideas were frequently inseparable from his. This remained true even when they finally tried to detach themselves from Agassiz, as many of them did, more or less, sooner or later. If Agassiz’s contemporaries kept diaries or composed their autobiographies—a typical activity of Victorians everywhere—Agassiz wrote letters, countless ones, in which he cajoled, cautioned, or condemned, but never confessed. For a biographer hoping to find clues as to how Agassiz “really felt” about an issue, how his private thoughts might have differed from his public pronouncements, or from what other people had claimed he felt, the search often proves futile. Although there are many pages of sparkling prose—unforgettable descriptions of jellyfish drifting in the sunset or glittering glaciers extending farther than the human eye can see—there is no such thing as a “great” Agassiz letter, a letter that makes all the elusive details of his personal life and scientific ambitions fall into place. By contrast, I can think of several letters by Charles Darwin, to his wife Emma or to his American friend Asa Gray, that would warrant such a description.
Thus, while Darwin often revealed his innermost thoughts, especially during his daughter Annie’s final illness, Agassiz left many of the major events in his personal life—the death of his father, the dramatic separation from his wife Cecilie, the climactic confrontation with his adversary Gray on a train from New Haven—uncommented upon, as if they hadn’t actually happened. Over and over again, his public voice drowns out his private one. Finally, even his public voice dwindled. Although Agassiz’s name was attached to many books and hundreds of papers and although he continued to give lectures until the end of his life, he became increasingly content to let others do the talking and, in the case of his wife Elizabeth, the writing for him. Thus, even though as a scientist he descended into near silence, he in fact never stopped talking, if increasingly through the words of others: the people who loved or loathed him. There is no evidence that this would have bothered him or that he thought he was lacking anything. Even his last words, as chapter 1 shows, were most likely invented by others.
One thing is clear: Agassiz will not sit still for his portrait. Unlike the skeleton of the dodo at the Agassiz museum, he resists labeling even today. The story that is told in the following pages will take us to three continents and through at least three different languages, and it will often require us to see Louis Agassiz through the eyes of others, since, completely preoccupied with that beautiful moon snail in his hand or that promise of money for his museum from a new donor, he so rarely stopped to look at himself.
My book begins with Agassiz’s very public death (chapter 1), which was in fact an astonishing kind of apotheosis. Fittingly for someone who so much believed in the power of science, this apotheosis took the form of an autopsy, the results of which were announced publicly. The great Agassiz’s death left a whole country bereft, and the ensuing chapters will re-create the journey that brought this son of a Swiss country minister to such fame that news about his health regularly appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Chapter 2 takes us back to where it all began, the glaciers of Switzerland (which Agassiz’s science caused to move again, if only before the geologist’s inner eye) and his failed marriage to the beautiful, remarkably gifted Cecilie. Agassiz’s intense relationship with the world’s most famous scientist, Alexander von Humboldt, set the stage for his subsequent attempt to cast himself as Humboldt’s American heir, the subject of chapter 3. The next chapter re-creates the ongoing battle waged, during the 1860s, between Agassiz and two estimable opponents—his Harvard colleague Asa Gray and his British competitor Charles Darwin—during which Agassiz played, or was forced to play, jellyfish to Darwin’s barnacle. Agassiz’s tortured dealings with his favorite student, Henry James Clark, as seen through Clark’s eyes (chapter 5), and his unfortunate attempt to elevate himself as an expert on racial matters in the United States (chapter 6) prepare the reader for chapter 7, in which we see his wife, the gifted writer Elizabeth Cary, insert herself into Agassiz’s career in science to lend his ideas the popular appeal and relevance he craved. Finally, chapter 8 takes us to the place where Darwin’s science began and Agassiz’s ingloriously ended, the Galápagos Islands.