Agassiz, Elizabeth Cabot Cary

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AGASSIZ, Elizabeth Cabot Cary

Born 5 December 1822, Boston, Massachusetts; died 27 June 1907, Arlington, Massachusetts

Wrote under: Actinea, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, Mrs. Louis Agassiz Daughter of Thomas Graves and Mary Ann Cushing PerkinsCary; married Louis Agassiz, 1850

Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz grew up in Boston, close to her Perkins, Cabot, and Gardiner relatives. She moved in Cambridge society, and, after marriage, assumed the care of her husband's three children from a previous marriage. Eight days after Louis' death in 1873, one of Agassiz's daughters-in-law died, and Agassiz again became foster mother to three boys, the youngest just three years old.

To guarantee a regular income, Agassiz opened the Agassiz School in 1855, thus providing the opportunity for teenage girls to acquire a high school education comparable to that of their brothers. In 1878-79 Agassiz was one of seven women approached by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Gilman about a program of higher education for women. When the Harvard Annex became the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women in 1882, Agassiz became its president. She also played a key role in convincing a committee of the Massachusetts legislature to charter the new college. Subsequently, she was the first president of Radcliffe (1893-99), and its honorary president from 1899 to 1903.

Agassiz joined her husband on scientific expeditions, becoming their scribe. She never claimed to be a natural scientist, but she developed a remarkable ability to present "second-hand knowledge accurately and with…animation and authority." A First Lesson in Natural History (1859), published under the pseudonym of "Actinea," went through nine printings by 1899. Agassiz's achievement is more remarkable because she succeeds in making the structure and beauty of such creatures as sea anemones, corals, and starfish clear and vivid without the color photographs that would aid a modern teacher.

Agassiz joined her husband on the Thayer Expedition to Brazil (April 1865-August 1866) and kept a journal of the trip. Parts of it appeared in Atlantic Monthly and then in A Journey in Brazil (1867, written with her husband). William James, who had accompanied the expedition was "agreeably disappointed" in the work. According to L. H. Tharp, "[James] had feared there would be too many descriptions of sunsets, but read the whole of it with interest" and found Agassiz had "varied the contents very skillfully…to entertain and interest the reader."

For almost 10 years after her husband's death, Agassiz worked on Louis Agassiz, His Life and Correspondence (1885). A modern biographer of Agassiz considers it "much more than the usual Victorian 'Life and Letters' written by a devoted relative. She brought to this study of her husband the perception and insight she evidenced in the years of their marriage." In Agassiz's preface she expresses the hope that "the story of an intellectual life, which was marked by such rare coherence and unity of aim, might have a wider interest and usefulness," and it does. William James felt it gave "a beautiful picture of an energetic nature impassioned in one pursuit." To this day, the book remains interesting and readable.

Other Works:

Seaside Studies in Natural History (with Alexander Agassiz, 1865).


Agassiz G. R., ed., Letters and Recollections of Alexander Agassiz (1913). Lurie, E., Louis Agassiz: A Life inScience (1960). Paton, L. A., Elizabeth Cary Agassiz: A Biography (1919). Reed, E. W., American Women in Science Before the Civil War (1992). Tharp, L. H., Adventurous Alliance: The Story of the Agassiz Family of Boston (1959).

Other reference:

Notable American Women, 1607-1950, E. T. James et al., eds. (article by H. Hawkins, 1971).