Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 71.djvu/24

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
18
POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

an exception. For me that summer was a scientific idyl. That the pleasures of my memory of it are less than perfect is due to my later realization of how inadequately I appreciated my privileges and opportunities. Three specifications in the general charge of my unworthiness will serve to set his own tact and delicacy in a clearer light.

A fisherman brought a hammer-head shark. Although familiar with pictures of its rather strange form, I had never seen a specimen, and expressed my interest somewhat exuberantly. The man named a certain price, and Agassiz paid it. When he had gone, Agassiz said to me seriously, but with no shade of rebuke: "This shark is not so very rare, but your outspoken surprise led the man to ask about twice what it was really worth." After that I would have held my peace in the presence of the "sea-serpent."

Agassiz was paying me one dollar per hour, an arrangement convenient for both, especially in the summer. I wished to learn stenography, and studied that early in the day, going to him about nine o'clock. One hot July morning I found him grieving over the rapid deterioration of some specimens that had been brought in at daybreak. I explained the cause of my delay, and added that, but for the necessity of earning my living, I would gladly work for him all the time and for nothing, in return for what I learned from him. "Ah," he said, "I hoped you felt so, but I was not sure. Now we are like lovers after the important word has been spoken." Not for all the short-hand systems ever devised would I lose the memory of those words and of the look that accompanied them.

In those days (it was forty years ago) it might fairly be said that about the brain, zoologists knew little and cared less. No one of my teachers had made a special study of either its structure or its functions.[1] That summer, however, Agassiz studied the brains of sharks and rays, exposing them by "whittling" the cartilaginous skulls with a jack-knife given him by Longfellow (who, by the way, made a visit to the laboratory). He compared the various forms with the only published plate we had (that of Dumeril), and would sit poring over them by the hour. Occasionally he would show them to me, and ask if I would not like to work at them. (Remember that he was paying me out of his own pocket and was entitled to assign all the subjects.) No, I had started upon some other parts of the anatomy, and was indifferent. That is too mild a term; I must have been a compound of a mole and a mule. He sighed and gave it up. That I then made the mistake of my life I did not perceive until years afterward, too late to repair the loss. Now, by way of atonement, I in-

  1. In 1844 and 1845 Agassiz published two short papers upon the brains of fishes; in "A Journey in Brazil," p. 244, note, he deplores the loss, in a storm, of a lot of brain preparations in a cask that had been left on deck. In the last but one of the twenty lectures given at Cornell University, he said, "The brain is the organ that determines the rank of animals."