The Biographical Dictionary of America/Agassiz, Jean Louis Rudolphe

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AGASSIZ, Jean Louis Rudolphe, naturalist, was born in the village of Motier-en-Vuly, in the Canton Fribourg, Switzerland, May 28, 1807, son of Louis Rudolphe and Rose (Mayor) Agassiz. His father was a Protestant clergyman, as had been his progenitors for six generations. His mother, the daughter of a physician, a woman of intellect and refinement, assisted her husband in the education of her boys. Louis early developed a passionate fondness for birds and animals of all sorts, and he observed their habits and characteristics with great accuracy and intelligence. In the parsonage garden stood a large stone basin full of spring water, and in this the embryo ichthyologist had quite a collection of fishes before he was five years of age. In 1817 he was sent to a gymnasium at Bienne, where he became proficient in ancient and modern languages. In 1822 he entered the college at Lausanne, where he had access to a fine biological collection owned by Professor Chavannes, the director of the cantonal museum. It had been intended by his parents that Louis should follow commercial pursuits, but his singular aptitude for scientific study led them to change their plans and allow him to fit himself for the study of medicine; he, therefore, in 1824 began his medical studies at Zurich, where he benefited greatly by the kindness of Professor Schinz, who held the chair of natural history and physiology, and who allowed the youthful scientist free access to his private library and to his valuable collection of birds. In 1826 he passed to the University of Heidelberg, where he made the acquaintance of Alexander Braun, like himself an enthusiastic naturalist. Their friendship was of mutual benefit. An interesting item in connection with his studies at Heidelberg is the fact that the magnificent collection of fossils owned by Professor Bronn, the palæontologist, and used by him in giving Agassiz his first important palæontological instruction, was bought in 1859 by the museum of comparative zoölogy in Cambridge, Mass., and was there used by Agassiz in instructing his American pupils. Agassiz in 1827 entered the university of Munich, and the lodging-rooms of himself and Braun, who was again his fellow-student, were the headquarters for the "Little Academy," an organization started by Agassiz, and over which he presided. There the most earnest and energetic young spirits of the university met to discuss scientific problems and to disclose to each other the results of their investigations in the various fields in which they were interested. Many of the professors attended these student lectures, and some of Professor Dollinger's most important physiological discoveries were there made known for the first time. In the summer of 1828, Von Martins proposed to Agassiz that he should write a description of a collection of some 116 specimens of fishes brought from Brazil by his lately deceased friend and colleague, J. B. De Spix. To this highly flattering proposition Agassiz assented with reluctance, fearing the work might too greatly interrupt his studies. He arranged and classified the collection in a most original manner, and the work, written in Latin and illustrated by twenty-nine handsome plates, made its appearance in 1829. Agassiz was barely twenty-two years of age, and had just received the degree of Ph.D. from the university of Erlangen, when this his first published work brought him into prominence and won for him the recognition and commendation of the chief naturalists of the old world. He received his degree of M.D. from the university of Munich, April, 1830, the dean in conferring it remarking: "The faculty have been very much pleased with your answers; they congratulate themselves on being able to give the diploma to a young man who has already acquired so honorable a reputation." The subject of his graduating thesis was, "The Superiority of Woman over Man." He had already begun his "Fresh Water Fishes," and in December, 1829, he commenced collecting material for a work on fossil fishes, for which purpose he visited the collections in the imperial museum in Vienna, reaching his father's house at Concise on the 30th of December, 1830. Here he passed nearly a year, with his artist, M. Dinkel, preparing plates and letterpress for "Fossil Fishes." At the close of the year 1831, he was enabled through the generosity of friends and relatives to go to Paris. Here he met Cuvier, to whom he dedicated his "Brazilian Fishes." The great naturalist, after questioning him as to the scope of his projected work on fossil fishes, and seeing the collection of accurate and artistic drawings which Agassiz had prepared, not only permitted him to use his private laboratory, but relinquished his own intention of publishing a volume on the same subject, and placed at Agassiz's disposal his collected material, notes, and drawings. Agassiz held this as the happiest moment of his life, and he set to work with renewed vigor to show the master, who had thus honored him, that his confidence had not been misplaced. Two or three weeks later Cuvier's sudden death added to the sacredness of this trust which had been committed to the youthful scientist. In March, 1832, his funds being exhausted, he was urged by his parents to leave Paris, and all his bright prospects might have suffered a total eclipse, had not Von Humboldt, hearing accidentally of his predicament, insisted in the most delicate manner on loaning him a thousand francs to tide him over the crisis.

In November, 1832, Agassiz accepted an appointment as professor of natural history in the college at Neuchâtel, at a salary of about $400, declining brilliant offers in Paris because of the leisure for private study that this position afforded him. His reputation attracted to the college a large number of students, and Neuchâtel became the cynosure of all scientific eyes. The presence of Agassiz was at once stimulating to the intellectual life of the little town. With the two Louis de Coulon, father and son, he founded the societé des sciences naturelles, of which he was the first secretary, and in conjunction with the Coulons also arranged a provisional museum of natural history in the orphan's home. He was hardly established in his chair at Neuchâtel, when he was offered that of zoölogy at Heidelberg as successor to Leuckart; this appointment, although the emoluments were more than double the amount accruing from the Neuchâtel position, he declined. A serious calamity at this time threatened Agassiz; his eyesight became seriously impaired, and he was obliged to live in a darkened room and to desist from writing for several months, which precautions effected a cure. In 1833 he married Cecile Braun, sister of his friend Alexander Braun, and established his household at Neuchâtel. Trained to scientific drawing by her brothers, his wife was of the greatest assistance to Agassiz, some of the most beautiful plates in "Fossil" and "Fresh-Water Fishes" being drawn by her. In 1833 appeared the first number of his "Récherches sur les Poissons Fossiles," a work comprising five quarto volumes, which took ten years for its completion. The first number was received with enthusiasm by the scientists, whose regard had long been attracted to Agassiz. He received Feb. 4, 1834, at the hands of Mr. Charles Lyell, the Wollaston prize of the geological society of London, a sum of £31. 10s, which was awarded as a recognition of the value of his lately-issued volume. Buckland, Murchison, Lyell, and other English scientists were pressing in their invitations to Agassiz to visit England, which he did in August, 1834, was received with cordial enthusiasm, and made some fruitful palæontological investigations during his short stay. He was awarded the sum of one hundred guineas, voted by the British association for the advancement of science for the "facilitating of the researches upon the fossil fishes of England," a gift which, at the instance of Lockhart, Sedgwick and Murchison, was repeated in the following year, when he attended the meeting of the association in Dublin. Guided by Professor Buckland he visited every public and private collection in the country, being treated with the greatest generosity by the English naturalists, who loaned to him two thousand specimens of fossil fishes selected from sixty collections, which he was allowed to take to London and classify and arrange in a room at Somerset House placed at his disposal by the geological society. Two friends he made at this time, whose valuable assistance and co-operation were at his command during the rest of his life — Sir Philip Egerton and the Earl of Enniskillen, who placed at his disposal the most precious specimens of their noted collections of fossil fishes (now owned by the British museum). He made a second visit to England in 1835, and in 1836 was awarded the Wollaston medal of the geological society. The vacation of 1836 was spent by Agassiz and his wife in the little village of Bex, where he met De Charpentier and Venetz, whose recently announced glacial theories had startled the scientific world, and Agassiz returned to Neuchâtel an enthusiastic convert. His conclusion that the earth had passed through an ice-age he announced at a meeting of the Helvetic society of natural sciences in 1837, and despite the incredulity and derision with which it was at first received, the address was afterwards published, and led to profitable investigation on the part of geologists. In 1836 were published his "Prodromus of the Class of Echinodermata," a paper on the Echini of the Nescomien group of the Neuchâtel Jura; a description of fossil Echini peculiar to Switzerland; and the first number of "Monographie d'Echinodermes." His work on fossil fishes steadily progressed, and he was greatly helped at this time by the sale of his original drawings, which were purchased by Lord Francis Egerton, and presented by him to the British museum. In 1837 he was offered a professorship at Geneva, and a few months later one at Lausanne, both of which he declined, preferring to remain at Neuchâtel. The Neuchâtelois presented him with the sum of six thousand francs and a letter of thanks on his decision being made known. In 1838 he opened a lithographic establishment at Neuchâtel, where his delicate plates were printed under his own supervision. It has been said of this period of the life of Agassiz that "he displayed during these years an incredible energy, of which the history of science offers, perhaps, no other example." In addition to his duties as professor he was issuing his "Fossil Fishes" and "Fresh-Water Fishes" and pursuing his investigations on fossil echinoderms and mollusks, the latter study leading to important results embodied in his volume, "Étude Critique sur les Molluscs Fossiles," which contained one hundred plates. In 1838 he made excursions to the valley of Hassli and to the glaciers of Mont Blanc, and later attended a session of the geological society of France at Porrentruy, where he reported his discoveries and conclusions, as he did later at the meeting of the association of German naturalists at Freiburg-im-Breisgau in the Grand Duchy of Baden. In this year Agassiz was elected "Bourgeois de Neuchâtel," a position which was remunerative as well as honorable. March 17, 1838, the King of Prussia gave 10,000 louis for the founding of an academy at Neuchâtel, and Agassiz was confirmed as professor of natural history. In 1839 he visited the Matterhorn and the chain of Monte Rosa, on both occasions being accompanied by artists and fellow scientists. During the winter of 1840, he recorded the results of his explorations in "Études sur les Glaciers." In this work he says: "The surface of Europe, adorned before by a tropical vegetation and inhabited by troops of large elephants, enormous hippopotami, and gigantic carnivora, was suddenly buried under a vast mantle of ice, covering alike plains, lakes, seas, and plateaus. Upon the life and movement of a powerful creation fell the silence of death. Springs paused, rivers ceased to flow, the rays of the sun, rising upon this frozen shore (if indeed it was reached by them), were met only by the breath of the winter from the north, and the thunders of the crevasses as they opened across the surface of this icy sea." In the summer of 1840, he established a station on the Aar Glacier, 8,000 feet above the sea, which became noted as the "Hotel du Neuchâtelois." Here the summer was spent in confirming previous observations and in studying the phenomena of glaciers. Immediately on his return from the Alps, Agassiz visited England, and with Buckland, the only English naturalist who shared his ideas, made a tour of the British Isles in search of glacial phenomena, and became satisfied that his theory of an ice-age was correct. He gave a summary of his discoveries before the British association in 1840. In 1843 the "Récherches sur les Poissons Fossiles" was completed, and in 1844 the "Devonian system of Great Britain and Russia" appeared. In 1845 he received the Monthyon Prize of Physiology from the Academy at Paris for his "Poissons Fossiles." During the years 1841-'45 Agassiz made constantly recurring visits of observation to the Alps, and in 1846 published "Système Glaciaire." In 1846 he accepted a commission from the King of Prussia to visit the United States to continue his explorations. His fame had preceded him, and before he left Switzerland he was invited to deliver a course of lectures at the Lowell Institute, Boston. His subject was "The Plan of the Creation, especially in the Animal Kingdom," and his lectures met with enthusiastic applause, notwithstanding his broken English. He delivered in French, by special request, a second course on "Les Glaciers et l'Époque Glaciaire." The Lowell course was repeated in Albany, N. Y., Charleston, S.C., and New York city, and other lectures were delivered in different parts of the country, where he journeyed seeking material for his Prussian report. In 1847, through the courtesy of Supt. A.D. Bache, of the U.S. coast survey, the steamer "Bibb" was placed at his disposal and greatly facilitated his researches. This generosity was one of the incidents which determined Agassiz to remain in America. In 1848 the Lawrence scientific school was established at Cambridge by Mr. Abbott Lawrence, and Agassiz, having honorably cancelled his engagement with the King of Prussia, accepted the chair of natural history proffered him by the founder. Agassiz burst like a full-orbed sun upon the little coterie of American scientists, who at the time needed a leader, not only dazzling them, but holding their attention and winning their hearts. His example of originating and putting into execution new projects soon revolutionized, not only the college with which he was connected, but other institutions of learning in America, and his vivifying influence awakened a universal interest in science. Harvard college was without either laboratory or collection to assist him in his class-room work, and an old bath-house was the very humble beginning whence sprang the Cambridge museum of comparative zoölogy, an enduring monument to the memory of him who was the moving spirit in its establishment. During 1848 he prepared, in conjunction with Dr. A.A. Gould, "Principles of Zoölogy," for the use of schools and colleges; in 1850 he published "Lake Superior; its Physical Characteristics"; from 1851 to 1854, he held the chair of comparative anatomy and zoölogy in the medical college at Charleston, S.C.; and in 1851, at the request of Supt. Bache, made a survey of the Florida reefs and keys. In the spring of 1852 the Prix Cuvier was awarded to him for "Poissons Fossiles." The year 1854 saw the completion of a work begun in conjunction with H.E. Strickland, the "Bibliographia Zoölogiae et Geologiae." In 1857 the first volume of "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States" was published. The fifth and last volume being left by him incomplete, was edited by his son.

In August, 1857, Agassiz was offered the chair of palæontology in the museum of natural history in Paris, which he refused. Later he was decorated with the cross of the legion of honor. In 1859 the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy at Cambridge was founded, and he was given the post of permanent curator. He urged the foundation of a national academy of science, and was actively instrumental in 1863 in its organization and incorporation. His sympathies during the civil war were with his adopted country, which he attested by being naturalized when the disruption of the union seemed imminent. In 1861 he was awarded the Copley medal, the highest honor at the disposal of the royal society. In 1863 he made his most extensive lecturing tour, fearing that the growth of the museum might be stunted by lack of funds. In 1865 he visited Brazil primarily for the benefit of his health, but the generosity of Nathaniel Thayer made it possible for him to take a staff of assistants to pursue his scientific researches. His return enriched the museum with large collections, and Literature with "A Journey in Brazil." In 1868 he was appointed non-resident professor of natural history at Cornell university. In 1871 he participated in a trip of observation in the coast survey ship Hassler around Cape Horn, and then along the Pacific coast, and returned with valuable collections of mollusks, reptiles, and fishes, and new evidence of the truth of the glacial theory. In 1873 he spoke eloquently to the legislature, on its annual visit to the museum of comparative zoölogy, of the needs of a summer school, and within a week John Anderson of New York, who had read the speech in a newspaper, presented to him, as a site for the school, the Island of Penikese in Buzzard's Bay, with the buildings thereon, and an endowment of $50,000 dollars for the equipment of the school, which was named by Agassiz "The Anderson school of Natural History." Professor Agassiz, who was growing enfeebled, remained the whole of the last summer of his life at Penikese. He had been elected a member of nearly all the scientific societies of the world, was given the degree of LL.D. by Edinburg and Dublin universities, before he had attained his 30th year, and in 1836 was made a fellow of the royal society of London, and a member of the French academy of science. Though he himself materially aided Darwin in arriving at evolutionism, he obstinately refused to accept the admirably marshalled facts on which the "Origin of Species" was based. To Agassiz the organic world presented stages of dominant types created according to a definite, preconceived plan, and so distinct from each other that, however close the gradations of forms constituting the types might be, no evolutionary progress from one to the other could ever be possible. Of this series of types he regarded man, by reason of his cosmopolitanism, as the final term. Among his publications are: "Natural History of the Fresh-Water Fishes of Europe" (1839-'40); "Études sur les Glaciers" (1840); "Fossil Fishes of the Devonian System" (1844); "Fishes of the London Clay" (1845); "Nomenclator Zoölogicus" (1842-'46); "Principals of Zoölogy" (with Dr. A.A. Gould, 1848); "Lake Superior: Its Physical Characteristics" (1850); "Bibliographia Zoölogiæ et Geologiæ" (with H.E. Strickland, 4 vols., 1848-54); "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States" (5 vols.); "The Structure of Animal Life" (1852); "Methods of Study in Natural History" (1863), and "Geological Studies" (2d series, 1866-'76). His second wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, daughter of Thomas G. Cary, of Boston, who was president of Radcliffe college in 1898, desired to share his studies, and aided her distinguished husband in preparing his "A Journey in Brazil," and in connection with his son, Alexander Agassiz, wrote "Seaside Studies in Natural History," and "Marine Animals of Massachusetts." She also edited "Louis Agassiz; His Life and Correspondence" (1886). He was buried in Mount Auburn, Cambridge, Mass., where Swiss pines shade his grave, and a boulder from the glacier of Aar marks its locality. He died Dec. 14, 1873.