Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe

views updated May 23 2018

Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe

(b. Motieren-Vuly, Switzerland, 28 May 1807; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 14 December 1873)

ichthyology, geology, paleontology.

Louis Agassiz, the son of Rodolphe and Rose Mayor Agassiz, grew to manhood enjoying the prosperity and status of his family and the natural beauty of the Swiss cantons of Fribourg, Vaud, and Neuchâtel. He never identified with a sectarian religious persuasion. He did embrace the Protestant pietism of his minister father, but was more fundamentally devoted to an idealistic romanticism that saw the power of the Creator exemplified in all flora and fauna. The Agassiz and Mayor families were anxious to see Louis succeed in the world of commerce or medicine, but he triumphed over their opposition and entered the larger world of European scholarship and cosmopolitanism by attending the universities of Zurich, Heidelberg, and Munich. In 1829 he earned his doctorate in philosophy at the universities of Munich and Erlangen and published a monograph on the fishes of Brazil that brought him to the attention of Baron Georges Cuvier. In 1830 he earned the doctor of medicine degree at Munich. After studying under Cuvier’s tutelage in Paris, Agassiz accepted a professorship at the newly established College of Neuchâtel in 1832. In the same year he married Cécile Braun, the sister of his Heidelberg classmate Alexander Braun. In 1846 he accepted an invitation to lecture at the Lowell Institute in Boston. On the death of his wife in 1847, he accepted a professorship at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University, where he continued to teach until his death. Agassiz’s decision to make the United States his permanent home-despite attractive offers to return to Europewas influenced by his love for and marriage to Elizabeth Cabot Cary. From 1850 until 1873 she raised Agassiz’s three children by his first wife and acted as a constant companion in the writing, exploration, and interpretation of natural history.

Agassiz’s career had two distinct geographic and intellectual aspects. As a European, he published monographs on ichthyology, paleontology, and geology whose promise earned him the admiration of such established savants as Cuvier, Alexander von Humboldt, and Sir Charles Lyell. As an American, Agassiz made nature study popular and appealing, explored the American environment with great enthusiasm, and established lasting institutions of research and education. His robust attitude toward life and nature study was a perpetual passion that tolerated no opposition to plans he deemed vital. Agassiz demanded unquestioning loyalty, and repaid such dedication by deep love and devotion. His dedication to science and culture won him the admiration of statesman and commoner alike, although his reputation among fellow scientists diminished with the passing of time. His exceptionally strong constitution sustained him on journeys of exploration through central Europe, the Swiss Alps, the eastern United States and the trans-Mississippi West, and South America. In 1873, shortly after an expedition through the Strait of Magellan, Agassiz died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Among his numerous awards and honors were the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London and the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London.

Agassiz thought of himself primarily as a naturalist, generalizing about the entire range of organic creation. Nevertheless, it is the modern sciences of \ichthyology, geology, and paleontology that bear the stamp of his contributions. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, when the natural sciences were in transition from classical to evolutionary biology, Agassiz’s work and career were typical. He had an insatiable desire to record data; he described and analyzed material significant for the study of marine biology, freshwater fishes. embryology, and fossil fishes. In this last realm, his Poinssons fossiles, written directly in the tradition of his mentor Cuvier, contained precise descriptions of more than 1,700 ancient species, together with illustrated reconstructions based on principles of comparative anatomy. This pioneer effort was a model of exactitude, providing future students with primary data relating zoology to geology and paleontology.

Agassiz never viewed his work in paleoichthyology as providing a framework for conceptions of natural history related to the development of lower forms into higher ones. He insisted that ancient and modern species were permanent representations of a divine idea, and bore no genetic relationship to each other. While employing techniques of close empirical study learned from such teachers as Cuvier and Ignaz Døllinger, Agassiz affirmed a view of the world above and beyond experience. In this sense, he reflected the teaching of Lorenz Oken and Friedrich Schelling. These diverse influences in Agassiz’s intellectual history make it impossible to separate his contributions to exact science from his philosophy of nature. He worked in two divergent traditions, and his efforts reflected the virtues and deficiencies of each. This is why evolutionists found Agassiz so mystifying an opponent and why the Swiss naturalist found their views to be mere restatements of ideas absorbed and partly rejected in his youth.

These divergent qualities were reflected in Agassiz’s geological investigations. From 1835 to 1845, while still serving as a professor at Neuchâtel, Agassiz studied the glacial formations of Switzerland and compared them with the geology of England and central Europe. The resulting concept of the “Ice Age” was remarkable for its breadth of generalization and for the exacting field study represented. Agassiz held that in the immediately recent past there had been an era during which large land masses over much of northern Europe were covered with ice. With the onset of warming periods, the recession of the ice was responsible for upheaval and subsidence. The marks of glaciers could be discerned in the scratched and polished rocks as well as in the configurations of the earth in glaciated regions. Glacial movement was responsible for modern geological configurations, and could be traced in such areas as Switzerland. Agassiz was not the first to observe the phenomena of glaciation, but he was innovative in the wide-ranging character of his research, his measurement of ice formations, and his elaboration of local geology into a theory explaining Continental natural history. Such events, now known to have been of greater cyclical duration than Agassiz asserted, were still sufficient to convince such naturalists as Darwin and Lyell that Pleistocene glaciation was a primary mechanism in causing the geographical distribution and consequent genetic relationship of flora and fauna otherwise inexplicably separated by land and water masses. But Agassiz could never accept such a conclusion. He interpreted glaciation in metaphysical terms. To him, the Deity had been responsible for the Ice Age, a catastrophe that provided a permanent physical barrier separating the species of the past from those of the present era. There were as many as twenty seperate creations in the history of the earth, each distinguished by animal and plant forms bearing no relationship to present types. At best, paleontology could only provide a glimpse of those “prophetic types” that suggested the course of future development, while those forms that remained unchanged over time were evidence of the wisdom of the Creator in inspiring perfect creatures from the beginning. Agassiz extended his conception of natural history to include mankind, asserting that men, like other animals, were of distinct types or species and were marked by different physical and intellectual traits. In the United States of the pre-Civil War years, such ideas provided convenient rationalizations for defenders of the slave system.

Agassiz’s visit to the United States in 1846 was a notable success, for the brilliant young naturalist described his adventures and communicated his love of nature to lecture hall audiences in Boston and other eastern cities. He had also come to compare the natural history of the Old World with that of America, but this temporary purpose soon vanished in the adulation he received from all classes of Americans. Agassiz found the natural environment fascinating, and after accepting the Harvard professorship, he determined to explore it and interpret it to his new countrymen. In 1855 he announced a grand plan for the publication of a monumental ten-volume study, Contributions to the Natural History of the United States. that would depict the full scope of the American natural environment. Only four volumes appeared; and these, although magnificently illustrated, were valuable only for their descriptions of North American turtles. The work was at once too complicated for the general public and too descriptive for those naturalists increasingly interested in new theoretical conceptions identifiable with the work of Charles Darwin.

Agassiz was philosophically and scientifically unprepared to meet the challenge of the theory of evolution as it was propounded in 1859. During his early years in the United States he extended his glacial theory to North America, he explored large portions of the country, and conducted some potentially valuable research in marine biology. More than all these efforts, it was the collection of the raw data of nature that drove Agassiz ever onward, so that Harvard University became a center for natural history instruction and research. The capstone of such efforts was the establishment at Harvard College in 1859 of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, an institution made possible by private gifts and funds supplied by the state of Massachusetts. The museum always bore the impress of Agassiz’s conception of the relationship between graduate instruction, research, fieldwork, and publication, centered in an institution of higher learning and supported by private philanthropy and public funds.

It was inevitable that Agassiz became the leading American opponent of Darwin, but regrettable that his public activity left little time for reflection on the data he had collected or on alternate interpretations of its significance. Agassiz had become a public man in the fullest sense, but even had he devoted more time to intellectual labor, it is doubtful that he could have accepted an interpretation of nature that seemed to deny permanence and immaterialism. Some of his critiques of evolution were trenchant ones, but in the main his attacks were inconclusive efforts that failed to convince his scientific colleagues. Many of these appeared in popular journals, reflecting Agassiz’s conviction that this “error” had to be opposed with the full power of his public position. While Agassiz’s opposition to evolution was inconsequential, the years from 1859 to his death were nevertheless a period of notable public accomplishment. He was able to obtain more than $600,000 in public and private support for the Harvard museum, and to convince fellow scientists to establish the National Academy of Sciences in 1863. This achievement, coupled with his earlier efforts to advise the federal government on the operations of the U.S. Coast Survey and the Smithsonian Institution, revealed Agassiz in the prime of his American influence and international prestige.

By 1873, despite Darwin, Agassiz’s name was synonymous with the study of natural history. It was fitting that in that last year of his life he established the Anderson School of Natural History on Penikese Island, off the Massachusetts coast, as a combined summer school and marine biological station. In testimony to Agassiz’s American influence, the faculty of the school was entirely composed of his former students. The Poissans fossiles and Etudes sur les glaciers were high points of Agassiz’s career in Europe; in America, the life and work of such students as William James, David Starr Jordan, Alexander Agassiz, Frederick Ward Putnam, and Nathaniel Southgate Shaler exemplify his role and cultural significance.


I. Original Works. Bibliographies of Agassiz’s writings are in his Bibliographia zoologiae et geologiae, 4 vols. (London, 1848–1854), 1, 98–103; Jules Marcou, Life, Letters, and Works of Louis Agassiz (see below), II, 258–303: and Max Meisel, A Bibliography of American Natural History, 3 vols. (New York, 1924–1929), passim. Among his significant works are Selecia genera et species piscium guns in itinere per Brasiliam 1817–1830... (Munich, 1829); Recherches cur les poissons fossiles, 5 vols.(Neuchatel, 1833–1844); Monographies d’ichinodermes rivans et /ossi/es.. 4 vols. (Neuchatel, 1838–1842): Etudes cur les glaciers (Neuchatel, 1840): Twelve Lectures on Comparative Embryology (Boston, 1849): Lake Superior(Boston, 1850); Contributions to the Natural History of the United States, 4 vols. (Boston, 1857–1862); Essay on Classification (London, 1859), also ed., with intro.. by Edward Lurie (Cambridge, Mass., 1962); Geological Sketches(Boston. 1866): “Evolution and Permanence of Type,” in Atlantic Monthhc, 33 (Jan. 1874), 94–101; and Geological Sketches. Second Series (Boston, 1876). Lake Superior (Boston, 1850); Contributions to the Natural History of the United States, 4 vols. (Boston, 1857–1862); Essay on Classification (London, 1859), also ed., with intro., by Edward Lurie (Cambridge, Mass., 1962); Geological Sketches (Boston, 1866); “Evolution and Permanence of Type,” in Atlantic Monthly. 33 (Jan. 1874), 94–101; and Geological Sketches, Second Series (Boston, 1876).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Agassiz are Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, ed., Louis Agassiz, His Life and Correspondence, 2 vols. (Boston, 1885); Lane Cooper, Louis Agassiz as a Teacher, rev. ed. (Ithaca, N.Y., 1945); Edward Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (Chicago, 1960); Jules Marcou, Life, Letters, and Works of Louis Agassiz. 2 vols. (New York, 1896); and Ernst Mayr, “Agassiz, Darwin and Evolution,” in Harvard Library Bulletin. 13 (Spring 1959), 165–194.

Edward Lurie

Agassiz, Louis

views updated May 21 2018

Louis Agassiz

Born May 28, 1807

Motier-en-Vuly, Switzerland

Died December 14, 1873

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Naturalist and teacher

"The book of Nature is always open…. Strive to interpret what really exists."

L ouis Agassiz (pronounced AG-uh-see) was the leading naturalist of the nineteenth century, advancing the study of nature through scientific observation. Born in Switzerland, he emigrated to the United States in middle age after his reputation was already well established. Agassiz was famed for his studies of glaciers, the moving rivers of ice that led Agassiz to formulate the notion of an "Ice Age" in the distant past. As a professor at Harvard University, Agassiz taught generations of students engaged in the scientific study of nature, which he regarded as evidence of God. On that basis, he led opposition to the new theory of evolution brought forth by English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882).

Youth in Switzerland

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born into a comfortably well-off family in Switzerland. His father was a minister, and the family was deeply religious. Young Agassiz developed a reverence for the natural world as God's creation that he retained all his life. Agassiz's parents thought he should study medicine and become a doctor, and he was willing to follow this course. He did not dislike medicine, but he had always been drawn to the natural world and everything in it. Slowly but surely that interest would grow into a life's passion.

In 1824, Agassiz went to the University of Zurich, and two years later he moved to Heidelberg, Germany, to further his medical studies. What really increased with the move was his desire to be a naturalist. He decided to go to the University of Munich to take advantage of its fame in natural history.

Agassiz produced and published his first scholarly work while at Munich when he was just twenty-one years old, a volume titled The Fishes of Brazil. Two eminent scientists connected with the university, J. B. von Spix (1781–1826) and K. F. von Martius (1794–1868), returned in 1821 from an extended tour through the country of Brazil, in South America, with a vast collection of data about the fish they had found there. Von Spix died in 1826, and von Martius turned the fish collection over to Agassiz. The young Agassiz transformed the raw data into an important, respected collection with color illustrations, the most comprehensive book of its kind at the time.

The time spent at Munich was key for Agassiz in several ways. He completed his medical degree, but at the same time The Fishes of Brazil gave him a reputation as a naturalist. On a personal level, this period marked the beginning of a life-long friendship and collaboration with Joseph Dinkel, who produced the illustrations for much of Agassiz's work. (In the era before photography, detailed, life-like drawings were a key part of books published by naturalists.)

In 1831, Agassiz was once again ready to make a move, this time to Paris, the leading center for study of the natural sciences at the time. There he was befriended by Baron Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), a brilliant and eminent scientist who had long been working on a massive project for identifying fossil fishes. (A fossil is a remnant, impression, or trace of an organism of past geologic ages that has been preserved in the earth's crust, as in a rock.) Cuvier turned over his research to Agassiz, who threw himself whole-heartedly into the project. He spent a portion of each day at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, and eventually visited all the natural history collections in Europe. In 1839, the result of all this research began appearing as Researches on Fossil Fishes, a massive work that was published in five large volumes. Previously, only eight fossil fish types had been identified. Agassiz's work identified 340 types, and his book included 1,290 illustrations.

Different types of animals

Cuvier was working on a master plan for a system of classifying animals. In Cuvier's plan, which Agassiz adopted and later enhanced, different classes of animals (such as birds, fish, and mammals) existed because God intended them to be exactly what they were and had created them that way. The system rejected the new theory of evolution, which concluded that differences in animal life were a result of changes over time in response to a creature's environment. For instance, Cuvier believed that a fish was a fish because God intended it to be a fish, and a reptile was a reptile because God intended it to be a reptile; the evolutionists thought reptiles had developed, or "evolved," from a fish and grown legs to adapt to living on land. In Cuvier's view—and later in Agassiz's view as well—God populated the seas with fish and the land with reptiles and mammals, and there was no link between them. Agassiz, with his firm religious beliefs, further believed that similarities between different classes of animals were the result of what God had in mind when making that kind of animal. Further, he theorized that, when a similar type of creature was to be found in widely separate parts of the world, this was an indication of a separate creation at that location, rather than evidence that animals migrated from one place to another.

These thoughts put Agassiz in direct conflict with evolutionists such as Charles Darwin, who pointed to similarities in animals as evidence of a direct link between different types of animals. In Darwin's view, different creatures had had a common ancestor but changed over a long period of

Evolution versus Creation

The 1800s were a sort of "golden age" of natural history. In Europe and America, curiosity about the natural world and the desire to catalog every last bit of life on Earth was highly popular. Hunting for fossils—those traces of ancient skeletons found engraved in stones—was a popular hobby, along with rock-hunting and insect collecting. Serious, established scientists like Charles Darwin were able to thrive in this general atmosphere.

After many years of field research and expeditions, Darwin published a book titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859. In it, he argued that changes to creatures (evolution) occurred very gradually over millions of years through a process he called natural selection. This meant that when some accidental variation occurred in a species that was favorable for its survival, that variation would be passed on within the species. Life forms that failed to adapt to changes became extinct, or died out; life forms that did evolve survived. Furthermore, and most radical for his time, Darwin asserted that the many different species of life evolved from one single life form. The most controversial example was the evolution of human beings from a much earlier form of ape.

Many people at the time (and continuing into the twenty-first century), including many scientists like Agassiz, opposed the idea of evolution because it conflicted with the creation story in the Bible. They insisted that natural-history observations should be interpreted within the framework of religious faith. In their view, all the forms of life existed because God created them that way, according to his divine plan.

Darwin tried to ignore the religious debate surrounding his work, and insisted that it be judged on its scientific merit only, but the debate between evolutionists and creationists still remains controversial in the twenty-first century.

time, adjusting to their environment and evolving into something else through "natural selection." Natural selection was Darwin's theory that the strongest, best adapted specimens were better able to withstand challenges posed by the environment or predators, and that their traits, such as size or shape, were passed on to their offspring, resulting in the gradual change, or evolution, of an entire species. Agassiz argued that studying animals and plants was really about trying to understand God's divine plan for all life.

In Paris, Agassiz married Cecile Braun, the sister of his close friend Alexander Braun (1805–1877), a botanist (scientist who specializes in the study of plants). Cecile was an accomplished natural-history artist and contributed illustrations for Agassiz's fish studies. The newlyweds moved to Neuchâtel, Switzerland. There, Agassiz became a professor of natural history and would embark on his most distinguished scientific work.

Claim to fame

With Agassiz's reputation and enthusiasm as a lure, Neuchâtel soon became an important center for students interested in studying natural history. Agassiz was a talented and dedicated teacher and attracted brilliant students to his side. He took great pleasure in being a mentor, or guide, to young and ambitious scientists. He also shared his knowledge in the wider community, offering informal lectures and leading nature walks for the children of the city. Agassiz was an early proponent of "hands-on" learning, believing that outdoors was the best possible classroom for the study of nature. This approach is common practice in the twenty-first century, but it was new and revolutionary at Agassiz's time.

Since Agassiz was in Switzerland, the land of the Alps (the highest mountain chain in Europe), it was natural that his thinking would turn to glaciers. The modern concept of a glacier is a sheet of ice slowly moving or spreading out over land—a slow-moving river of ice. But the movement of glaciers is not obvious at first glance, and in Agassiz's time, the study of glaciers was new.

Agassiz was introduced to glacial theory by a scientist friend, Jean de Charpentier (1786–1855). Agassiz soon made a

giant leap forward by concluding that glaciers not only moved, but that a large portion of Europe, from the North Pole stretching and spreading over the continent, had at one time been covered by glaciers. He referred to this period of glaciers and extreme cold as the "glacial epoch" and sometimes borrowed a friendlier term used by a fellow scientist: the "Ice Age." True to his hands-on philosophy, he set out on a series of field expeditions to test his theory by direct observation.

To prove his theory that glaciers moved, Agassiz devised a simple experiment. At the Aar glacier in Switzerland, he drove a straight line of stakes across the ice sheet. Over months, the stakes advanced from their original placements, and the straight line of stakes became a U shaped formation, showing not only glacial movement but that the middle of a glacier moves more quickly than the edges. Over the next few years, the notion that Earth had undergone at least one Ice Age, an extended period of extreme cold and glacial activity, became more widely accepted. Geologists began to understand how much of Earth's landscape had been carved and polished by glaciers.

For Darwin and other evolutionists, the new information on glaciers helped explain how plants and animals that were undeniably similar showed up in widely separated areas. They concluded that glaciers sometimes cut in between areas, and when the glaciers retreated or melted, half of the former habitat might be on the other side of a large lake or a mountain from the other side. Agassiz clung to his strict belief in the "divine plan."


In the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States was a lure for many Europeans for a variety of reasons. For Agassiz, North America seemed like a huge new area to explore for new forms of fish and other plant life. Agassiz arrived in Boston in 1846 to great acclaim. He traveled throughout the East Coast giving lectures and became convinced that America offered unlimited and exciting work for a naturalist. An offer of a professorship at Harvard University helped him make a quick decision to make America his permanent home.

Agassiz brought energy to his new post. He led major exploration trips that included studies of the Great Lakes, the Rocky Mountains, and Florida. He also introduced new methods of education; Agassiz is sometimes called America's first "university builder" because of the fresh teaching methods he introduced. Students reacted enthusiastically to Agassiz's new approach. The combination of his great knowledge and his ability to attract eager young minds to his work soon helped put the United States into the forefront of natural-history research.

Agassiz helped found Harvard University's museum of natural history and the National Academy of Sciences. His last major achievement, just a few months before his death, was establishing a teacher-training institute that emphasized teaching natural history by the "direct-experience" method.

Agassiz died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 14, 1873.

—James L. Outman

For More Information


Bolles, Edmund B. The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1999.

Lurie, Edward. Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Peare, Catherine Owens. A Scientist of Two Worlds: Louis Agassiz. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1958.

Robinson, Mabel Louise. Runner of the Mountain Tops; The Life of Louis Agassiz. New York: Random House, 1939. Reprint, Detroit: Grand River Books, 1971.


"Creationists: Of Two Minds About Science." Discover (March 1987): p.6.

Lee, Jeffrey A. "Louis Agassiz." Focus (Winter 2002): p. 30.

Web Sites

Agassiz, Elizabeth Cabot Cary. "Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence." Electronic book via Project Gutenberg. (accessed on March 4, 2004).

"Louis Agassiz (1807–1873)." University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Paleontology. (accessed on March 4, 2004).

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz

views updated Jun 11 2018

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873), a Swiss-American naturalist, was an outstanding comparative anatomist. He promulgated the glacial theory and opposed Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

Paleontology was just beginning to emerge as a science during Agassiz's time; speculations about the distribution of species and their relationships to each other were becoming a major preoccupation of naturalists, and science was taking on an increasingly important place in the curricula of educational institutions. Agassiz played an important role in all these developments, both in Europe and in America.

Louis Agassiz was born at Môtier-en-Vuly in French Switzerland on May 28, 1807. His father, the last of a line of seven Protestant clergymen, instilled in Louis the religious qualities that marked his life, and his mother, Rose Mayor Agassiz, encouraged the precocious taste for science that led him to neglect his books in order to collect a huge assortment of pets.

Early Education

Destined for a career in medicine, Agassiz was sent to school at Bienne at the age of 10, and at 15 to the College of Lausanne. In 1824 he began medical training at the University of Zurich, and in 1826 he matriculated at Heidelberg, where his interest in natural history increased under the influence of the distinguished staff, which included Friedrich Tiedemann and Heinrich Bronn. In the following year at the University of Munich, he came under the lasting influence of Ignaz von Döllinger, a pioneer embryologist.

While at Munich, Agassiz, then only 21 years old, published the work that launched him on his long and distinguished scientific career, The Fishes of Brazil (1829), prepared from the collections of two eminent naturalists, J.B. von Spix and Karl von Martius. This was the most important account of a local fish fauna published to that time. During the following winter he began work on his Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (1833-1844).

Influence of Cuvier

Agassiz moved to Paris in the fall of 1831. Still pursuing medical studies, he nevertheless spent a part of each day with the fossil fish collection in the Museum of Natural History of the Jardin des Plantes. Georges Cuvier, the brilliant comparative anatomist (who at this time was developing a new system of animal classification), immediately became interested in the young naturalist, gave him a corner in one of his own laboratories, and offered him the material he himself had been collecting for years for his own work on fishes. Agassiz worked under Cuvier and adopted his views of the plan of creation, which put Agassiz bitterly at odds with all "developmental" or evolutionary theories.

Cuvier had noted the succession of types in geological history but saw no genetic connection between any of the four great classes he recognized—Vertebrates, Articulates, Mollusks, and Radiates. Working with Cuvier's delineation of types, Agassiz regarded his own investigations as glimpses into the divine plan, of which the structures of the types were the expression. Divine ideas, he held, were especially embodied in animal life, each species being the "thought unit." Agassiz viewed the marvel of structural affinity in creatures of widely diverse habits and outward appearance as a result of the association of ideas in the divine mind— not, as Charles Darwin thought, as proof of common descent. Agassiz further developed the notion that species were created in the localities where they were destined to pass their lives, that is, common forms found in widely separated areas were proof not of migration but of separate creation. Throughout his life he used these ideas to combat every form of evolutionism.

Work on Glaciers

While teaching at Neuchâtel in 1836, Agassiz became interested in glacial action. He concluded that it had probably been a major agency in shaping the topography from the North Pole to the Mediterranean and Caspian seas. He studied ongoing glacial action and other parts of Europe, and in 1840 he published his first comprehensive discussion in études sur les glaciers (2 vols.). This was followed by other works in 1846 and 1847, in which he established his expanding theory of general glacial action wherever the earth's surface bears drift material and polished or striated erratic boulders.

Move to America

Agassiz left for America in September 1846. On his arrival in Boston, the following month, he was hailed as an internationally famous scientist and was lionized by the scientific community. He gave lectures at Lowell Institute and embarked on an extremely successful lecture tour, which included most of the major eastern cities. Charmed by the enthusiastic receptions he received, convinced that America offered unprecedented opportunities for a naturalist, and disturbed by political problems in Europe, Agassiz decided to make America his permanent home. In 1848 he accepted the chair of zoology and geology that had been created especially for him by Abbott Lawrence at Harvard University. His first wife had died in Switzerland, and in 1850 he married Elizabeth Cabot Cary of Boston. His son, Alexander, and two daughters joined their father in America.

Although Agassiz remained America's most popular naturalist until his death and gained a reputation as a great teacher, he produced no more works of the caliber of those published in Europe. His Contributions to the Natural History of the United States (1857-1862), a projected 10-volume work of which only 4 were published, was his most ambitious undertaking. Its most important portion, the "Essay on Classification," was a statement of the idealistic point of view about to become outmoded because of the Darwinian revolution. Agassiz had no sooner published his first volume than he embarked on a bitter debate with Asa Gray, a fellow Harvard professor and enemy of several years' standing, over the theory of evolution.

Institutional Accomplishments

Agassiz was a fund-raiser without parallel in 19th-century American science. He was instrumental in securing legislative grants and private gifts to establish Harvard's museum of comparative anatomy, where an enormous working collection for the specialist and a series of displays for general instruction were assembled. He became the museum director in 1859. The museum's profound influence during the next few decades as a center of scientific research and study can hardly be exaggerated. With other members of the elite group of American scientists (led by Alexander Dallas Bache) with whom he had become associated, Agassiz helped found the National Academy of Sciences during the Civil War. Only a few months before his death, Agassiz secured an endowment to establish a summer school of science on Penikese Island, which became the first American teacher-training institute. Here teachers learned to see nature and to teach others how to see it by the method of direct experience that Agassiz had used successfully at Harvard.

Agassiz was ill at frequent intervals for several years. He died in Cambridge on Dec. 14, 1873. His last work, another argument against the theory of evolution, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly shortly afterward.

Further Reading

The outstanding work on Agassiz is Edward Lurie, Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (1960). Other works are valuable for his correspondence and for assessment by contemporaries: Arnold Guyot, Memoir of Louis Agassiz, 1807-1873 (1883); Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, ed., Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence (2 vols., 1885), especially important for the many letters to and from eminent European and American scientists; Jules Marcou, Life, Letters, and Works of Louis Agassiz (2 vols., 1896), which includes a complete bibliography; and Lane Cooper, Louis Agassiz as a Teacher (1917; rev. ed. 1945), which offers testimony of students about Agassiz's methods. For general background on Agassiz's mode of thought, John T. Merz, A History of European Thought in the Nineteenth Century (4 vols., 1904-1912), is still without a rival. A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government (1957), gives the institutional background for Agassiz's work in America. □

Agassiz, Louis

views updated May 21 2018


AGASSIZ, LOUIS (1807–1873), American geologist, zoologist, and institution-builder.

Born a Swiss Protestant on 28 May 1807, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz studied at the universities of Zurich, Heidelberg, and Munich, earning an MD and two PhDs. His career began in 1829 with his description of the fish collected in Brazil by Johann Baptiste von Spix (1781–1826). After examining fossil fish in several museums across Europe, in December 1831 he went to Paris, where Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) became mentors. Cuvier's death in May 1832 cut short their relationship, but Agassiz always considered himself a pupil of the great Cuvier.

In September 1832 Agassiz moved to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where he created a "scientific factory": working under his direction were clerks, colleagues, apprentice scientists, and artists. In 1837 he announced a new geological theory he called the Ice Age. The idea that alpine glaciers were formerly much larger was not original to Agassiz, but his observations, especially on the Unteraar Glacier where he set up a summer camp, taught geologists to recognize the effects of glaciers: moraines, erratic boulders, and polished, grooved bedrock. His Ice Age idea was much more radical: that most of Europe had been covered by a vast, thick mass of ice. Geologists resisted but eventually he was proven right. His own printing press turned out ten volumes on glaciers, fossil fish, and echinoderms between 1833 and 1844, but in 1845 Agassiz's wife left him and he was near bankruptcy. The solution was a year abroad.

Arriving in Boston in 1846, he charmed everyone with his enthusiasm, and he found evidence of glacial action in North America. Wealthy admirers funded a professorship for him at Harvard in 1847 and a new institution, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which opened in 1859. After the death of his wife, he brought his children to Cambridge and married Elizabeth Cabot Cary (1822–1907). She eased his entry into Boston society. His son Alexander helped run the museum and later rescued the museum's finances when mining made Alexander a millionaire.

Agassiz's lectures and writings advocated a fact-based science, in contrast to the speculative, poetic Naturphilosophie popular in his student days. Yet he also insisted that both geology and zoology point to divine causation, which endeared him to general audiences. His Ice Age had killed off all life, disproving the notion advanced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) that modern species were the changed descendants of fossil ones. He saw evidence of a thinking planner in the patterns of deep similarity between adult anatomy, embryological development, and fossil history: the so-called "threefold parallelism." Agassiz envisioned a comparative zoology that would be more scientific than simple description, and he hoped to add a fourth dimension, geographical distribution. The sumptuous Contributions to the Natural History of the United States, with its illustrations of microscopic study of the embryology of turtles and jellyfish, displayed his contradictory ambitions, for he needed the support of nonscientists, but his aim was to make zoology more professional. Its first volume, published in 1857, contained an "Essay on Classification," in which Agassiz proposed that when biologists grouped species into genera, families, orders, and classes, these categories were real; the reason they are perceived by the human intellect was that they had first been conceived in the mind of the Creator. This was not the old "argument from design" based on the fit of form to function, but a new sort of natural theology reminiscent of neoplatonism. The twentieth-century biologist Ernst Mayr (1904–2005) argued that Agassiz's "typological thinking" or essentialism made evolution logically impossible, and Mayr was right to expand the understanding of this issue beyond religion. Agassiz's stubborn opposition to evolution probably had more to do with his psychology than with philosophy. Agassiz dug in his heels when Charles Darwin (1809–1892) published another theory of evolution in 1859. In debates in the scientific societies of Boston, botanist Asa Gray (1810–1888) and geologist William Barton Rogers (1804–1882) exposed the weakness of Agassiz's position, after which, Agassiz, without altering his views, focused his attention on the growth of his museum. It is misleading to take Agassiz as typical of his day, for his novel interpretation did not impress his scientific peers, and before long his own students accepted evolution.

"The divisions of animals according to branch, class, order, family, genus, and species, by which we express the results of our investigations into the relations of the animal kingdom, and which constitute the primary question respecting any system of Zoology seem to me to deserve the consideration of all thoughtful minds. Are these divisions artificial or natural? Are they the devices of the human mind to classify and arrange our knowledge in such a manner as to bring it more readily within our grasp and facilitate further investigations, or have they been instituted by the Divine Intelligence as the categories of his mode of thinking?"

Source: Louis Agassiz, Essay on Classification, London, 1859. Reprint edited by Edward Lurie, p. 8. Cambridge, Mass., 1952.

Startled by the slaves he encountered in the American South, Agassiz decided they could not belong to his own biological species, a view that pleased some slaveowners and now disgraces his reputation. In 1863 he helped found the National Academy of Sciences. In 1864 and 1865 he led a group of students up the Amazon, collecting evidence for his three beleaguered ideas: the Ice Age, the fixity of species, and the several species of humans. His style of teaching became legendary, for he sometimes left a student for a week with a single fish, to teach the value of close observation. His message "Study nature, not books!" was the motto of the schoolteachers who attended his summer school on Penikese Island off Cape Cod in 1873, a forerunner of later marine laboratories. He died in December 1873.

See alsoCuvier, Georges; Darwin, Charles; Evolution; Humboldt, Alexander and Wilhelm von; Science and Technology.


Lurie, Edward. Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science. Chicago, 1960. Thorough biography.

Mayr, Ernst. "Agassiz, Darwin, and Evolution." In Evolution and the Diversity of Life, 251–276. Cambridge, Mass., 1976. Introduces idea of Agassiz's "typological thinking" or essentialism.

Winsor, Mary P. "Louis Agassiz and the Species Question." Studies in History of Biology 4 (1979): 89–117. Contests Mayr's claim that philosophy made Agassiz blind to variation.

——. Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum. Chicago, 1991. Agassiz's science and his teaching.

——. "Agassiz's Notions of a Museum: the Vision and the Myth." In Cultures and Institutions of Natural History, edited by Michael T. Ghiselin and Alan E. Leviton, 249–271. Los Angeles, 2000. Contests idea that Agassiz invented the separation within museums of exhibits and research collections.

Mary Pickard Winsor

Agassiz, Louis (1807-1873)

views updated May 23 2018

Agassiz, Louis (1807-1873)

Swiss-born American naturalist

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in Motieren-Vuly, Switzerland, and grew up appreciating the beauty of the Swiss Alps. Agassiz's childhood was supervised by his minister father, who believed that supernatural powers created all natural wonders. Agassiz followed his family's wishes and pursued a degree in medicine. After attending the universities in Munich and Heidelberg, Germany, and Zurich, Switzerland, he eventually earned his Ph.D. in 1829.

Upon his graduation from the University of Munich, Agassiz published a monograph on the fish of Brazil that sparked the attention of the noted French anatomist Georges Cuvier . Although he possessed a strong interest in zoology, Agassiz went on to earn a medical degree. In 1832, he went to Paris to serve as an apprentice to Cuvier during that renowned scientist's last years.

Agassiz then accepted his first professional position as a professor of natural history at Neuchatel in Switzerland. For his first project, he published a five-volume work on fossil fish. This work helped establish his reputation as a naturalist and earned him the Wollaston Prize.

Agassiz then shifted his attention to the study of glaciers . Among many others, Agassiz was fascinated with the extreme heights of the Alps and the occasional sight of huge boulders that were thought to have been created by glacial movement. He spent his vacations in 1836 and 1837 exploring the glacial formations of Switzerland and compared them with the geology of England and central Europe .

The question of whether or not glaciers moved intrigued Agassiz, who discovered the answer in 1839 at a cabin that had been built on a glacier approximately 10 years earlier. In one decade it had moved nearly 1 mi (1.6 km) down the glacier from its original site. In a unique experiment, Agassiz drove a straight line of stakes deeply into the ice across the glacierhill and then observed their movement. After moving, the stakes formed a U shape as middle stakes had moved more quickly than the side ones. Agassiz concluded that the center stakes moved faster since the glacier was held back at the edges by friction with the mountain wall.

This experiment demonstrated not only that glacier moved, but that many thousands of years before massive ice blocks had probably moved across a great deal of the European land masses that now lacked the massive ice formations. The resulting conclusions led to the term Ice Age, which purported that glacial movement is responsible for modern geological configurations. One of the most significant developments that came out of his observations resulted when his discovery helped provide answers to studies pursued by such naturalists as Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell . These two men concluded that glaciation was a primary mechanism in causing the geographical distribution and apparent similarities of flora and fauna that were otherwise inexplicably separated by land and water masses. Despite the evidence with which he was presented, Agassiz's background prevented him from agreeing with such conclusions, and he continued to believe that supernatural forces were responsible for the similarities.

See also Glacial landforms; Ice ages

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz

views updated May 21 2018

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz


Swiss-American Naturalist, Paleontologist and Glaciologist

Jean Louis Agassiz was one of the foremost natural scientists of his time. He was particularly well-known for his work with fossil fishes and for his advocacy of the idea of global ice ages. Although he accepted the idea that species could become extinct, he resisted the theory of evolution, believing instead in the divine creation of species.

Louis Agassiz, the son of a Swiss minister, was born in French Switzerland in 1807. Like many of his contemporaries, he attended university in both Switzerland and Germany, graduating with a degree in medicine in 1830. After graduation he traveled to Paris to study comparative anatomy under Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a versatile French scientist. Cuvier was impressed with Agassiz's work on fossil fish, and this approval helped to set the course of much of Agassiz's future work. Although Couvier died only six months after their first meeting, Agassiz always considered himself Couvier's intellectual heir and took it upon himself to defend Couvier's work for the rest of his life. Agassiz published his masterwork on fossil fishes by basing it, in part, on notes given to him by Couvier.

As a junior professor at the Lyceum of Neuchâtel, Agassiz became interested in signs that glaciers had once moved far below any existing glaciers. Traveling with his friend, Johann von Charpentier (1786-1855), Agassiz became convinced of the accuracy of Charpentier's hypothesis that deep ice had transported many materials from a great distance. Expanding on this theory, Agassiz realized that many of the surface features in England, Scotland, and much of Europe were consistent with the existence of continental glaciation, leading to a theory of ice ages that he propounded with great enthusiasm. Later, on a trip to North America, he expanded this theory to the New World, suggesting the existence of a global ice age in the recent geologic past. Although this theory met with a great degree of skepticism at first, it was later found to be accurate.

Agassiz moved to the United States in 1846, becoming a professor at Harvard University and starting the Museum of Comparative Zoology. In the United States, he was a great proponent of advancement of the sciences, urging the formation of what is now the National Academy of Sciences (of which he was a founding member). He also devoted a great deal of energy to raising funds for scientific research in the United States, attempting to raise the profile of the sciences in his adopted country.

In spite of his research in the evolution of fossil fishes, Agassiz remained a staunch opponent of evolution until his death. He firmly believed in the divine creation of life, although he admitted that species did become extinct from time to time. Towards the end of his life it was a disappointment to him that even his son, Alexander, was a proponent of evolution, but his own views remained unwavering. Given this, it is ironic that Agassiz's own work ended up supporting evolutionary theory. In fact, he is wellknown for his work showing that, to some extent, the development of an animal fetus within the womb shows some of the evolutionary steps that the animal's ancestors passed through during their evolution. For example, developing human fetuses have, at various times in their development, tails, gills, and webbed fingers. Agassiz himself felt that this observation was his single greatest contribution to science, and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and others used this information to help buttress the (then) new theory of evolutionary change. Agassiz died in 1873 at the age of 66.


Agassiz, Louis

views updated May 14 2018

Agassiz, Louis

Swiss-American Zoologist and Geologist

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz has been called the "Father of Glaciology" and the "First Naturalist." One of the greatest contributors to the science of water, he discovered evidence of a time when the frozen state of water changed Earth's landscape: the Ice Age.

Born in Switzerland, Agassiz developed his love of nature from exploring the wilderness as a child. Receiving doctorate degrees in medicine and natural history at the University of Munich in Germany, he first distinguished himself by his work with fossil fish. While teaching and continuing his research at a college in Neuchatel, Switzerland, however, he acquired a new passion: glaciers .

Fellow scientist Jean de Charpentier introduced Agassiz to the concept of glaciation on a larger scale. In that time, scientists thought that either the biblical flood or icebergs caused geological features such as misplaced boulders and grooved, polished rock. However, through the careful observational methods for which he was known, Agassiz discovered that they were indeed products of glacial movement. Because these features were found throughout Europe in areas where there were no present glaciers, Agassiz deduced that at one time global climatic changes produced giant sheets of ice that covered the Northern Hemisphere on a continental scale.

In 1840, Agassiz published his findings as "Etudes sur les Glaciers." Although many scholars at first opposed his ideas, the Ice Age theory was soon accepted around the world. Agassiz continued his teaching and research in the United States, where he became a professor of natural history at Harvard University and founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which is still part of the university today. Agassiz also helped create both the National Academy of Sciences and Cornell University, dedicating the rest of his life to expanding knowledge of, and promoting enthusiasm for, natural history.

see also Glaciers and Ice Sheets; Glaciers, Ice Sheets, And climate Change; Ice Ages.

Amy B. Parmenter


Gordon, John E. "Early Development of the Glacial Theory: Louis Agassiz and theScottish Connection." Geology Today 11, no. 2 (1995):6468.

Lurie, Edward. Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science. Chicago, IL: The University of ChicagoPress, 1960.

Agassiz, JeanLouisRodolphe

views updated May 11 2018

Agassiz, JeanLouisRodolphe (1807–73)A Swiss geologist who worked initially on fossil fish, Agassiz is better known for his glacial theory (1837). He met the geologist William Buckland (1784–1856) in 1840, and persuaded him that drift deposits in Britain were evidence of a glacial epoch. In 1846 he moved to the USA to become professor of zoology and geology at Harvard, where he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology (1859).

Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe

views updated May 08 2018

Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe (1807–73) A Swiss geologist who worked initially on fossil fish, Agassiz is better known for his glacial theory (1837). He met Buckland in 1840, and persuaded him that drift deposits in Britain were evidence of a glacial epoch. In 1846 he moved to the USA to become professor of zoology and geology at Harvard, where he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology (1859).

About this article

Louis Agassiz

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic