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Louis Agassiz

Louis AgassizAKA Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz

Born: 28-May-1807
Birthplace: Môtier-en-Vuly, Switzerland
Died: 14-Dec-1873
Location of death: Cambridge, MA
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

Gender: Male
Religion: Protestant
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Paleontologist, Geologist, Zoologist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Ichthyologist at Harvard

American, Swiss-born naturalist and geologist, was the son of the Protestant pastor of the parish of Motier, on the north-eastern shore of the Lake of Morat (Murten See), and not far from the eastern extremity of the Lake of Neuchâtel. Agassiz was born at this retired place on the 28th of May 1807. Educated first at home, then spending four years at the gymnasium of Bienne, he completed his elementary studies at the academy of Lausanne. Having adopted medicine as his profession, he studied successively at the universities of Zürich, Heidelberg and Munich; and he availed himself of the advantages afforded by these universities for extending his knowledge of natural history, especially of botany. After completing his academical course, he took in 1829 his degree of doctor of philosophy at Erlangen, and in 1830 that of doctor of medicine at Munich.

Up to this time he had paid no special attention to the study of ichthyology, which soon afterwards became the great occupation of his life. Agassiz always declared that he was led into ichthyological pursuits through the following circumstances: In 1819-20, J. B. Spix and C. F. P. von Martius were engaged in their celebrated Brazilian tour, and on their return to Europe, amongst other collections of natural objects they brought home an important set of the freshwater fishes 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 fishes; and Agassiz, though little more than a youth just liberated from his academic studies, was selected by Martius for this purpose. He at once threw himself into the work with that earnestness of spirit which characterized him to the end of his busy life, and the task of describing and figuring the Brazilian fishes was completed and published in 1829. This was followed by an elaborate research into the history of the fishes found in the Lake of Neuchâtel. Enlarging his plans, he issued in 1830 a prospectus of a History of the Freshwater Fishes 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. Having become a professed ichthyologist, it was impossible that the fossil fishes should fail to attract his attention. The rich stores furnished by the slates of Glarus and the limestones of Monte Bolca were already well known; but very little had been accomplished in the way of scientific study of them. Agassiz, as early as 1829, with his wonted enthusiasm, 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 appeared at intervals from 1833 to 1843. They were magnificently illustrated, chiefly through the labors of Joseph Dinkel, an artist of remarkable power in delineating natural objects. In gathering materials for this great work Agassiz visited the principal museums in Europe, and meeting Georges Cuvier in Paris, he received much encouragement and assistance from him.

Agassiz found that his palaeontological labors rendered necessary a new basis of ichthyological classification. The fossils rarely exhibited any traces of the soft tissues of fishes. They consisted chiefly of the teeth, scales and fins, even the bones being perfectly preserved in comparatively few instances. He therefore adopted his well-known classification, which divided fishes into four groups -- viz. 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, his classification has not been found to meet the requirements of modern research: As remarked by Dr. A. Smith. Woodward, he sought to interpret the past structures by too rigorous a comparison with those of living forms.

As the important descriptive work of Agassiz proceeded; it became obvious that it would overtax his resources, unless assistance could be afforded. The British Association came to his aid, and the Earl of Ellesmere -- then Lord Francis Egerton -- gave him yet more efficient help. The original drawings made for the work, chiefly by Dinkel, amounted to 1290 in number. These were purchased by the Earl, and presented by him to the Geological Society of London. In 1836 the Wollaston medal was awarded by the council of that society to Agassiz for his work on fossil ichthyology; and in 1838 he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society. Meanwhile the 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 Études critiques sur les mollusques fossiles.

Subsequently to his first visit to England in 1834, the labors of Hugh Miller and other geologists brought to light the remarkable fishes 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 naturally 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 Grès Rouge, ou Système Dévonien (Old Red Sandstone) des Iles Britanniques et de Russie.

The year 1836 witnessed the inauguration of a new investigation, which proved to be of the utmost importance to geological science. Previously to this date de Saussure, Venetz, Charpentier and others had made the glaciers of the Alps the subjects of special study, and Charpentier 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 conveyed there by glaciers. The question having attracted the attention of Agassiz, he not only made successive journeys to the alpine regions in company with Charpentier, but he had a hut constructed upon one of the Aar glaciers, which for a time he made his home, in order to investigate thoroughly the structure and movements of the ice. These labors resulted in the publication of his grand work in two volumes entitled Études sur les glaciers, 1840. Therein he discussed the movements of the glaciers, their moraines, their influence in grooving and rounding the rocks over which they traveled, and in producing the striations and roches moutonnées with which we are now so familiar. He not only accepted Charpentier's idea that some of the alpine glaciers had extended across the wide plains and valleys drained by the Aar and the Rhone, and thus landed parts of their remains upon the uplands of the Jura, but he went still farther. He concluded that, at a period geologically recent, 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 attendant on the movements of recent glaciers, Agassiz was prepared for a discovery which he made in 1840, in conjunction with William Buckland. These two savants visited the mountains of Scotland together, and found in different localities clear evidence of ancient glacial action. The discovery was announced to the Geological Society of London in successive communications from the two distinguished observers. The mountainous districts of England and Wales and Ireland were also considered to constitute centers 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."

In 1842-46 he issued his Nomenclator Zoologicus, a classified List, with references, of all names employed in zoology for genera and groups -- a work of great labor and research. With the aid of a grant of money from the King of Prussia, Agassiz, in the autumn of 1846, crossed the Atlantic, with the twofold design of investigating the natural history and geology of the United States and delivering a course of lectures on zoology, by invitation from J. A. Lowell, at the Lowell Institute at Boston; the tempting advantages, pecuniary and scientific, presented to him in the New World induced him to settle in the United States, where he remained to the end of his life. He was appointed professor of zoology and geology in Harvard University in 1847. In 1852 he accepted a medical professorship of comparative anatomy at Charlestown, but this he resigned in two years.

The transfer to a new field and the association with fresh objects of interest gave his energies an increased stimulus. Volume after volume now proceeded from his pen: some of his writings were popular, but most of them dealt with the higher departments of scientific research. His work on Lake Superior, and his four volumes of Contributions to the Natural History of the United States, 1857-62, were of this latter character. We must hot overlook the valuable service he rendered to science by the formation, for his own use, of a catalogue of scientific memoirs -- an extraordinary work for a man whose hands were already so full. This catalogue, edited and materially enlarged by the late Hugh E. Strickland, was published by the Ray Society under the title of Bibliographia Zoologiae et Geologiae, in 4 vols., 1848-54. Nor must we forget that he was building up another magnificent monument of his industry in the Museum of Natural History, which rose under his fostering care, at Harvard. But at length the great strain on his physical powers began to tell. His early labors among the fishes of Brazil had often caused him to cast a longing glance towards that country, and he now resolved to combine the pursuit of health with the gratification of his long-cherished desires. In April 1865 he started for Brazil, with his wife and class of qualified assistants. An interesting account of this expedition, entitled A Journey in Brazil (1868), was published by Mrs. Agassiz and himself after they returned home in August 1866.

In 1871 he made a second excursion, visiting the southern shores of the North American continent, both on its Atlantic and its Pacific seaboards. He had for many years yearned after the establishment of a permanent school where zoological science could be pursued amidst the haunts of the living subjects of study. The last, and possibly the most influential, of the labors of his life was the establishment of such an institution, which he was enabled to effect through the liberality of Mr. John Anderson, a citizen of New York. That gentleman, in 1873, not only handed over to Agassiz the island of Penikese, in Buzzard's Bay, on the east coast, but also presented him with $50,000 in which permanently to endow it as a practical school of natural science, especially devoted to the study of marine zoology. Unfortunately he did not long survive the establishment of this institution. The disease with which he had struggled for some years proved fatal on the 14th of December 1873. He was buried at Mount Auburn. His monument is a boulder selected (at great expense) from the moraine of the glacier of the Aar near the site of the old Hôtel des Neuchâtelois, not far from the spot where his hut once stood; and the pine trees which shelter his grave were sent from his old home in Switzerland. His extensive knowledge of natural history makes it somewhat remarkable to find that from first to last he steadily rejected the doctrine of evolution, and affirmed his belief in independent creations. When studying the superficial deposits of the Brazilian plains in 1865, his vivid imagination covered even that wide tropical area, as it had covered Switzerland before, with one vast glacier, extending from the Andes to the sea. This view, however, has not been generally accepted. His daring conceptions were only equalled by the unwearied industry and genuine enthusiasm with which he worked them out; and if in details his labors were somewhat defective, it was only because he had ventured to attempt what was too much for any one man to accomplish.

It may be interesting to mention that the charming verses written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on "The fiftieth birthday of Agassiz" were read by the author at a dinner given to Agassiz by the Saturday Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1857.

Louis Agassiz was twice married, and by his first wife he had an only son, Alexander Agassiz, born in 1835; in 1850, after her death, he married his second wife, Elizabeth Cabot Cary of Boston, afterwards well known as a writer and as an active promoter of educational work in connection with Radcliffe College.

Wife: (d. 27-Jul-1848)
Son: Alexander Agassiz (b. 1835)
Wife: Elizabeth C. Cary (m. 1850)

    University: University of Zürich (attended 1824)
    University: University of Heidelberg (attended 1826)
    University: University of Munich (1827-30)
    University: PhD, University of Erlangen (1829)
    Medical School: MD, University of Munich (1830)
    Professor: Professor of Natural History, Lyceum of Neuchâtel, Switzerland (1832-45)
    Professor: Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard University (1849-73)

    Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology Founder and Director (1859-73)
    American Philosophical Society 1843
    Boston Saturday Club
    Royal Society 1838
    Royal Society of Edinburgh 1835
    Wollaston Medal 1836
    Copley Medal 1861
    White Supremacists

Is the subject of books:
Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science, 1960, BY: Edward Lurie

Author of books:
The Fishes of Brazil (1829)
Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (1833-43, 6 vols.)
Etudes sur les Glaciers (1840)
Nomenclator Zoologicus (1842)
Contributions to the Natual History of the United States (1856-62, 4 vols.)
A Journey in Brazil (1868)


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