Louis Agassiz Biography
Agassiz, Louis (1807-73). An American naturalist, born at Motier, in the Canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. His father was a clergyman and his mother a woman of education and taste. Following a decided bent toward zo÷logy, developed from childhood and fostered by his school preparation at Lausanne, he studied medicine and natural history at Zurich and Heidelberg, where he formed a lifelong and influential friendship with the botanist Alexander Braun. He studied also at Erlangen and at Munich, where he became acquainted with Martins and Spix, and when Spix died (1826), Agassiz prepared a description of his Brazilian fishes which attracted Cuvier's notice. After graduating in medicine and taking a degree in philosophy (1830), Agassiz studied in Paris under Cuvier, whose ardent disciple he henceforth was. From 1832 to 1846 Agassiz was professor of natural history at NeuchÔtel and there completed his first great work, Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (5 vols., 311 plates, 1833-42). Several visits to England, beginning in 1834, enlarged his acquaintance and reputation and gave material for his Fossil, Fishes of the Old Red Sandstone of the British Isles. Next he turned to echinoderms, which he studied in both living and fossil forms. Another product of his labors at this period was the. Nonmenclatoris Zo÷logici Index (Solothurn, 1842-46), of which a practical revision, bringing the lists of genera up to 1582, was made by Scudder and published as Bulletin No. 19, United States National Museum (Washington, 1852). From 1836 to 1845 Agassiz spent his summers in examining the glaciers of the Alps, often in company with A. Guyot, and illuminated and confirmed previous generalizations in respect to a former glacial epoch. In 1846 Agassiz was invited to the United States to give a series of lectures in the Lowell Institute course at Boston. These at once established his reputation as a lecturer and led to his appointment, in 1848, as professor of natural history in the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University, which chair he held, except a brief interval at Charleston, S. C., until his death, although he relinquished teaching long before that event. Agassiz came to America untrammeled and undertook the mission of teaching and advancing the cause of science in the United States with the utmost enthusiasm. His wife had died, but he presently remarried (see AGASSIZ, E. C.) , and Mrs. Agassiz established in their house in Cambridge a school for girls, with which Professor Agassiz was identified. He traveled widely and lectured in various cities and in 1848 visited the Lake Superior region with a class of scientific students. This exploration was described in a narrative by Cabot, to which Agassiz contributed chapters on fishes. Similarly, he undertook, in 1850-51, a study of the Florida coral reefs, the results of which were set forth in lectures and in articles contributed to the Atlantic Monthly and subsequently gathered into two popular books, Methods of Study in Natural History and Geological Sketches. He was everywhere and foremost a teacher, interpreting his facts and theories with such enthusiastic force and persuasive eloquence that he was in constant demand. A series of lectures which he delivered in Brooklyn in 1862 were epoch-making in this direction. They were republished in book form as The Structure of Animal Life (New York, 1874). Many of his views were in advance of popular knowledge and opinion and contravened some established religious tenets; yet he rarely excited serious opposition, and no educational. influence of his time was so great as that exerted by him. He may be said to have realized at this period the ambition which he expressed in a letter to his father in 1829: "I wish it may be said of Louis Agassiz that he was the first naturalist of his time, a good citizen and . . . beloved of those who knew him."
In 1858 the plans were laid for the great Museum of Comparative Zo÷logy at Cambridge, Mass., now one of the most extensive and scientifically useful in the world; and for many years his main efforts were directed to building it up. He secured public appropriations and private gifts for it by his personal influence and kept himself poor by his unselfish labors and liberality toward it. He gathered about him there and trained a body of men who have made for America a creditable record in biology-Alexander Agassiz, his son; J A. Allen H. J. Clark, S. Garman, Alpheus Hyatt, D. S. Jordan, E. S. Morse, A. S. Packard, F. W. Putnam, N. S. Shaler, A. E. Verrill, and others.
In 1865 he visited Brazil with his wife and a body of assistants. The results of his researches there he published in his book, A Journey in Brazil (Boston, 1868). In 1872 he made a trip to California. In the summer of 1873 he held the first session of a summer school at the island of Penikese in Buzzard's Bay. This set an example that has led to the many summer schools and seaside laboratories since established in all parts of the country. During all these years he was prosecuting a continuous work on a great scale, entitled Contributions to the Natural History of the United States, of which four magnificent quarto volumes were published, the first, An Essay on Classification, in 1857, the others (monographs of American turtles and acalephs) soon after. The doctrine taught in these was a liberal advance upon the "special creation" views previously in vogue; yet when the Darwinian school of evolutionists arose they found in Agassiz a most earnest opponent, and it was a great grief to him to see that his scientific disciples were almost, without exception, becoming adherents to the new ideas. To stem this tide of scientific heresy, Professor Agassiz prepared and delivered in Cambridge, in the spring of 1873, a course of six lectures, which attracted very wide attention. This was his final public work, for late in 1873 he was attacked by brain disease and died on December 14. He was buried with extraordinary honors in Mount Auburn Cemetery. His monument is a boulder brought from the glacier of the Aar, where he had made his most enlightening studies of glacial phenomena.
The New International EncyclopŠdia, Vol. I (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 287-288.