American Medical Biographies/Agassiz, Jean Louis Rudolph

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Agassiz, Jean Louis Rudolph (1807–1873)

Born in Motier, Switzerland, May 28, 1807, Louis Agassiz, naturalist, was the son of a clergyman; his mother was Rose Mayer, a physician's daughter, and Louis was the fifth of eight children, the first four of whom died in infancy. Agassiz developed a love of natural history when still a small boy, and at an early age made a collection of fishes and all sorts of pets, birds, field mice, hares, guinea-pigs, etc., which he reared with great care. He also showed considerable skill with tools, and is said to have owed much of his dexterity in manipulation to the training of the eye and hand, gained in making shoes and toys for his sister's dolls. He was a bright, active child and a general favorite. The love of teaching he showed in later life may in part at least be traced back to his father from whom he had his earliest lessons.

At the age of ten he went to the College for Boys at Binne and later he spent two years at that of Lausanne. A brilliant student, he showed much greater capacity for languages and natural history than for mathematics, physics, and chemistry. He became proficient in Latin and Greek as well as in German and Italian. He was a splendid swimmer but did not care for riding horses. He took no interest in shooting. Later, during his university life, he was a proficient fencer.

While at Lausanne, Agassiz came much under the influence of Dr. Mathias Mayer, a physician with a large practice and under him studied anatomy. He likewise met several scientists, who aroused an ambition in him to become a naturalist. Accordingly he persuaded his parents to let him give up going into business after finishing school, as planned, and to send him to Zurich University to study medicine. To become a country doctor seemed Louis' desire in order that he might have opportunity to study natural history.

Two years followed at Zurich University, a year at Heidelberg, and finally three at Munich University. While at Zurich, Agassiz gave a good deal of attention to the study of natural history and his subsequent university career was guided a good deal more by his devotion to zoology than by his medical studies. He took the degree of doctor of philosophy when he was twenty-two, a year before he became a doctor of medicine. It was chiefly owing to the pleadings of his parents that he spent enough time on medical studies to take his degree. As a university student, he was a leader both in intellectual pursuits and in convivial recreation.

When twenty-two, he had already done important scientific work, and was mastered by an ambition to become a foremost student of natural science. During his student days, while engaged in scientific work, he kept one and sometimes two artists in his employ,—not easy, he says with an allowance of $250 per per year; but they were poorer than he, and so managed to get along together.

His first important work, undertaken at the request of Martius, was a description of Brazilian fishes collected by Spix, and a little later he began his great independent work on fossil fishes.

In 1832, when twenty-five, after a period of study under the influence of Cuvier in Paris, Agassiz entered upon a professorship of natural history at Neuchatel. He retained this professorship until his removal to America. While occupying this position, he extended his studies on fossil fishes, did valuable work on echinoderms, and made important contributions on the action of glaciers. To him is due primarily the knowledge of a general glacial epoch.

Agassiz had a wonderful power of attracting people and making them devoted to his interests. In his student days he not only got other students to join in with him in forming clubs for scientific study, but induced artists to work for him for almost nothing. He went about things as if he were very rich instead of poor and then managed to get relatives and friends to help him out of his financial troubles. At Neuchatel, where his salary at first was but $400, he had a large staff of scientific assistants and artists and got into very serious financial difficulties. His reckless daring in expenditures, however, enabled him to do a prodigious amount of scientific work, which otherwise would have been impossible. At the age of thirty he had achieved a worldwide reputation as a naturalist and had done the most important work on which his reputation as a scientist rests. After this period his scientific contributions, though considerable in amount and valuable, were hampered on the one hand by a too complex, unorganized, and not always harmonious staff of assistants, and on the other hand by the need to raise money to pay debts in which his undertakings involved him.

In 1846 his financial difficulties had reached such an acute stage that his home was broken up, while his wife, the sister of Alexander Braun, the botanist, a student and life-long friend of Agassiz, went with her three children to live with her brother. Agassiz departed for America on a grant obtained in his behalf from the King of Prussia by Alexander von Humboldt. On Agassiz's first visit to Paris in 1831–2 he had met and much attracted Von Humboldt, who was then at the zenith of his power. After this period, Von Humboldt showed his friendship for Agassiz in many ways, not the least of which was the obtaining of this grant.

Agassiz came to America at the age of thirty-nine. His primary object was to study the natural history of the country. He prepared himself, however, to make his visit as profitable as possible and diligently studied English on his long ocean trip. After arriving in America, he visited some of the chief cities of the country and met most of those who at that time were prominent students of natural history in America. He was especially attracted by the work of Dana of Yale and Samuel G. Morton of Philadelphia.

Before Agassiz came to America, his friend Charles Lyell had arranged that he might give a course of lectures before the Lowell Institute in Boston, thus giving him opportunity to supplement his income and at the same time to gain a public introduction. He was enthusiastically greeted.

Agassiz delivered courses of lectures similar to those given at the Lowell Institute in Boston, in Albany, New York, and in Charleston, South Carolina, and with similar success. At the request of the faculty of the College of Physicians in New York, Agassiz gave a series of twelve lectures during the fall of 1847, and from this time on he was constantly in demand by the lecture-loving American public.

In 1847 he was appointed to the chair of Zoology and Geology at the scientific school just established by Abbott Lawrence in connection with Harvard College. The salary attached to the chair, $1,500, was guaranteed by Mr. Lawrence "until such time as the fees of the students should be worth $3,000 to their professor," a time which never came. Agassiz's lectures, with the exception of the more technical lectures addressed to small classes, were always fully attended, but special students were naturally very few in a department of pure science. This was, however, counterbalanced in some degree by the clause in his contract which allowed him entire freedom for lectures elsewhere.

After his appointment, Agassiz removed to Cambridge, where he opened his first course in 1848.

Much of his time was devoted to obtaining funds for the Museum of Comparative Zoology and its organization. So great were his persuasive powers that he obtained generous grants from the state Legislature during war times. In all he raised by public and private subscription about $700,000 for the museum, an amount since greatly increased by gifts from his son, Alexander. Agassiz took part in several scientific expeditions, among them one to Florida, one to Brazil, and one by sea from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast, fully utilizing opportunities thus afforded for obtaining material for his pet museum.

Not long after Agassiz came to America his first wife died and in 1850 he married Elizabeth C. Cary, sister-in-law of President Felton of Harvard University. Mrs. E. C. Agassiz was of the greatest help to her husband. To increase his resources she established a private school for girls in which Agassiz himself was one of the teachers. This proved a success and Agassiz was a great favorite with the pupils.

Agassiz was great as an investigator, as a director of research, and as the founder of a magnificent museum. He was preeminent as a teacher.

Of Agassiz's scientific contributions while in this country, the most important are:

"Lake Superior; its Physical Character, Vegetation and Animals, compared with Those of Other and Similar Regions," March, 1850; "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States." First two volumes issued in 1857, the third in 1860 and the fourth in 1862. There were to be ten volumes, but only four were issued. Agassiz intended the work to be written in a non-technical style and yet to be a scientific contribution. With the exception of the introductory essay on Classification, the articles contained in the four volumes are, however, highly technical in nature. The essay on Classification is valuable in that the subject is taken up from a view opposed to that of Darwin and the evolutionists. The technical papers are on the North American Testudinata, the Embryology of the Turtle, the Acalephs in general, Ctenophoræ, the Discophoræ, and the Hydroidæ. The four volumes owe much to the drawing and engraving of Sonrel, who wore out his eyes in the work, and of Burkhardt and Clark.

In addition to these works, Agassiz published a large number of articles of greater length, a list of which may be found in his Life by Marcou. The topics treated are scattered broadly in the fields of zoology and geology. Some papers are mere sketchy reviews, others are of great importance to science. Among the latter may be mentioned papers on corals and coral reefs, on the embryology of some of the invertebrates, and on the homologies of the radiates.

In the summer of 1851 he became professor of anatomy at the Medical College at Charleston, South Carolina. He had been giving popular lectures on biology for the income which it brought him, and was glad to substitute for these popular lectures in various parts of the country a regular course of instructions for students. While lecturing at the Medical College he established a laboratory on Sullivan's Island and there devoted the greater part of his time to a study of the coast fauna. Three times a week he went to town to deliver lectures on human anatomy. In the following year his professorship at the college continued, but owing to illness he could give little attention to the work. He did not teach again in a medical college. His death took place at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 14, 1873.

While Agassiz's influence on natural history in this country was so powerful, he exerted little or no influence on the course of medical education, except in the indirect way of inspiring teachers who could train students in biology as a basis for technical medical study.

Louis Agassiz, his life and correspondence, edited by his wife. Boston, 1885.
Louis Agassiz, life, letters and works, by Jules Marcou. New York, 1896. This contains a list of the biographical sketches concerning Agassiz, and of Agassiz's scientific work.
A paper by Prof Burt G. Wilder in the Popular Science Monthly for July, 1907, gives an interesting account of "What we owe to Agassiz" and refers to some papers which appeared after Marcou's Life of Agassiz was published. Two other interesting biographical sketches by Prof. Wilder are: Louis Agassiz, Teacher (Harvard Graduates' Magazine, June, 1907) and What Agassiz did for Cornell University (Cornell Era, vol. xxxix, June, 1907). Harvard Graduates' Magazine, May, 1907.