Alexander Agassiz

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Agassiz, Alexander

(b. Neuchâtel, Switzerland, 17 December 1835; d. mid-Atlantic, 27 March 1910)

zoology, oceanography, engineering.

Alexander Agassiz was the son of Louis Agassiz and Cecile Braun Agassiz, the sister of the botanist Alexander Braun. From 1847, after his father departed for America, until 1849, when he went to Cambridge Massachusetts, following the death of his mother, he lived at Freiburg im Breisgau, where he came under the influence of his uncle. In America he soon formed a lasting bond with his stepmother, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, and moved naturally into a scientific career. Agassiz graduated from Harvard College in 1855, from the Lawrence Scientific school with a degree in engineering in 1857, and again from the Lawrence Scientific school with a degree in zoology in 1862. After a short career in the U.S. Coast Survey in 1859, he became his father’s assistant at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which he continued to serve for the rest of his life, chiefly as its director.

In 1866 Agassiz undertook, on behalf of himself and a brother-in-law, the management of the Calumet and Hecla copper mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. By 1869, although he had impaired his health, he had laid the basis for a fortune that he plowed into scientific research, both by gifts to Harvard and the museum and by freeing himself from a conventional career in either teaching or business. After 1873 (when his wife, Anna Russell, whom he had married in 1860, died within a few days of his father) his life consisted of a regular round of research in the tropics in the winter, summers at his laboratory near Newport, Rhode Island, and stays in Cambridge and Michigan each fall and spring. Although his fortune and his benefactions place him first among those late nineteenth-century captains of industry who supported science in the United States, he was distinguished as both a zoologist and an oceanographer. He died while crossing the Atlantic from England to America.

Although usually reticent about large theoretical schemes, in 1860 Agassiz spoke in private letters in terms that were closer to the theories of his father about the geographical distribution of animals than to the ideas of Charles Darwin which were sweeping through the American scientific community (including among their adherents most of Louis Agassiz’s own students). By 1872, when Agassiz visited the British exploring ship Challenger at Halifax, Nova Scotia, he impressed its naturalists, including Sir John Murray, as holding views quite different from his father’s. His work from 1860 to the late 1870’s was largely concerned with the study of zoology, beginning with the animals of the New England shore, especially the echinoderms, and culminating in his Revision of the Echini (1872–1874). Using the embryological and paleontological approach of his father, he produced a masterly work that belonged to the era of Darwin writing that it “is astonishing that so little use has been made of the positive data furnished by embryology in support of the evolution hypothesis.” He also worked up the echinoderms from the Challenger expedition.

In 1877 Agassiz’s interest began to shift to deep-sea dredging for abyssal fauna. Using his engineering background to good advantage and his wealth to support both operations and publications, he began with three cruises of the Coast Survey steamer Blake in the Caribbean. In 1891 he explored the deep water of the Pacific from the Galápagos Islands to the Gulf of California in the Fish Commission steamer Albatross. His aim in this perido was to make a comparative study of marine fauna on both sides of the Isthmus of Panama. His interest from 1892 onward shifted strongly to the problem of the formation of coral atolls. Questioning the universality of Darwin’s theory of atoll formation by subsidence, he used his knowledge of the Caribbean and Hawaiian islands as a basis of comparison. In 1893 and 1894 he explored the Bahama and Bermuda islands, in 1896 the Great Barrier Reef, in 1897 the Fijis, in 1898–1900 the central Pacific, and in 1900–1902 the Maldives. The publications of his later years were usually reports of the various voyages; a general work on coral reefs was never finished. Agassiz’s later work is as close to modern oceanography and marine zoology as his earlier work was to that of his father.


A list of Alexander Agassiz’s published writings appears in George Lincoln Goodale, “Biographical Memoir of Alexander Agassiz 1835–1910,” in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, VII (Washington, D. C., 1912), 291–305. Manuscripts, letter books, incoming letters, and many photographs are preserved at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University.

The preeminent biographical source is George R. Agassiz, ed., Letters and Recollections of Alexander Agassiz With a Sketch of His Life and Work (Boston-New York, 1913).

A. Hunter Dupree

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Agassiz, Alexander (1835–1910) US marine zoologist, b. Switzerland. Agassiz was influential in the development of modern systematic zoology, and made important studies of the seafloor. In 1874, he succeeded his father, Louis, as curator of the Harvard Museum of Natural History.