Agassiz (1807–1873), a defining force in American science in the 19th century, was a complex man, as Irmscher demonstrates in this new biography: he was a brilliant scientist who rejected evolution, a man who valued friendship but abandoned his first wife. In Irmscher’s hands, Agassiz’s life and passions are embedded in the major intellectual ideas of his time, not only evolution but also the fight over abolition (he was an “incorrigible racist”). But Agassiz, from his position at Harvard, helped move the scientific enterprise toward reliance upon data and empirical observation. The methods he espoused remain important today even though his theories were outdated in his own time. Irmscher, an English professor at Indiana University (Longfellow Redux), sees Agassiz’s life as a cautionary tale: Agassiz lost objectivity as he permitted his own opinions to overshadow the data he loved so much. His attacks on Darwin and on racial equality often ran counter to basic scientific observations and led to his increasing marginalization later in life. The relationship between Agassiz and his second wife, Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, the first president of Radcliffe College, is also fascinating and illuminates the strength of one woman and the expanding opportunities for women in general in American society. Illus. (Feb.)
"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
Irmscher (English, Indiana Univ.; Longfellow Redux) takes on another popular 19th-century American—Swiss-born scientist Louis Agassiz. During his stay at Harvard, Agassiz dominated American natural history and founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology. However, there were tragedies along his road to success. His first wife, Cecilie, left him with their children. (She would die a few years later.) Then there were conflicts with students, such as his favorite, Henry James Clark, who attempted to move out from under Agassiz's dominance. And for public scrutiny, there were the well-documented ideological differences with Darwin over natural selection that would define Agassiz's legacy. Fittingly, the book ends with the trip Agassiz and his second wife, Elizabeth, took to the Galápagos Islands, where the scientist remained adamantly opposed to natural selection. VERDICT Irmscher's portrait of Agassiz shows many facets of a man of science: curiosity, ego, discovery, failure, ideology, and obsession. Of particular interest is his partnership with Elizabeth and the importance of her support of Agassiz's science and writings. Recommended to readers interested in biography and natural history.—Scott Vieira, Sam Houston State Univ., Huntsville, TX
A thoroughly satisfying biography of the almost but not quite forgotten Swiss-born Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), who moved to the United States in 1846 to become a combination of educator, media star and beloved science guru. Though Agassiz's genuine scientific contributions, such as the classification of extinct fish, had little popular appeal, his contemporaries thrilled at his assertion that great ice sheets had once covered the continents. Others had the idea earlier; the fiercely ambitious Agassiz took credit, but Irmscher (English/Indiana Univ.; Longfellow Redux, 2006) adds that his energetic research, writing and lectures won over the scientific community. Nowadays, Agassiz is mostly known for stubbornly opposing Darwinian evolution, preferring his version of a glorious nature filled with unchanging, divinely created species. This had no effect on his immense popularity but marginalized him among scientists. Sympathetic to his subject, Irmscher recounts the surprising amount of ridicule he received from evolutionists, including the usually benign Darwin. While admitting that Agassiz missed the boat, the author maintains that, for all his posturing and self-promotion and the offensive, pseudo-scientific racism fashionable at the time, he was an inspirational, insightful and unwearying scientific observer. His voluminous collection and publications remain impressive achievements. Irmscher makes a convincing case that this egotistical, often wrongheaded figure deserves his reputation as a founder and first great popularizer of American science.