Agassiz, Elizabeth Cary (1822–1907)

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Agassiz, Elizabeth Cary (1822–1907)

American naturalist who was co-founder and first president of Radcliffe College. Name variations: Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz. Born Elizabeth Cabot Cary in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 5, 1822; died in Arlington Heights, Massachusetts, following a stroke, on June 27, 1907, at age 84; buried beside her husband in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge; educated at home; daughter of Thomas Graves Cary (a lawyer and businessman) and Mary Ann Cushing Perkins (a homemaker); married Jean Louis Agassiz, in 1850; stepchildren: Alexander Agassiz (an eminent marine zoologist), Pauline Agassiz Shaw (1841–1917); Ida Agassiz , who married historian Francis Parkman. Louis Agassiz's first wife was Cécile Braun.

Operated a select school for girls out of her home (1856–64); published A First Lesson in Natural History (1859); published Seaside Studies in Natural History, co-written with her stepson Alexander Agassiz (1865); member of a scientific expedition to Brazil (1865); published A Journey in Brazil, co-written with her husband Louis Agassiz (1867); embarked on a deep-sea dredging expedition through the straits of Magellan and the Galapagos (1871); co-founded and operated the Anderson School of Natural History (1872); published the two-volume biography, Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence (1885); helped found the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, known as the "Harvard Annex" (1879); elected president of the Society (1882); continued inher capacity as president of the newly incorporated Radcliffe College (1894); resigned from active duty and became honorary president of Radcliffe College (1899); a student's hall, the Elizabeth Cary Agassiz House, established at Radcliffe College (1902); resigned as honorary president (1903).

A self-taught naturalist and educator, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz remains an important figure in the history of women's higher education in America. She began her noteworthy career as an amateur naturalist, wife and intellectual companion to the brilliant Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz and ended it as one of the founders and the first president of Radcliffe College. Intelligent and tenacious, she was responsible for guiding the women's college from its uncertain inception as an independent foundation with no financial endowment and no degree-granting power to an established, well-funded institute of higher learning officially affiliated with Harvard University.

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz was born on December 5, 1822, at the Boston home of her wealthy maternal grandfather, Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins, founder of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. She was the second of seven children born to Thomas Cary and Mary Ann Perkins , each descended from prominent and established New England families.

Agassiz spent the earliest years of her childhood on the move. At the time of her birth, her parents were splitting their time between her grandfather's home in Boston and Brattleboro, Vermont, where her father practiced law. Shortly after, her father abandoned his unsuccessful legal career and moved the family to New York City where he joined his brothers in business. In 1832, Thomas Cary moved his family back to Boston and entered his father-in-law's mercantile company. After the company's dissolution six years later, Cary became treasurer of the Hamilton & Appleton Mills in Lowell, a position he held until his death in 1859.

Elizabeth Agassiz's maternal grandfather built a house for the family next door to his own. His two other daughters and their families lived on the same street, and Elizabeth and her siblings grew up as part of a large circle of relatives linked by marriages to other prominent Boston families. Though her youth was happy and relatively carefree, she suffered from delicate health; thus, she received no formal schooling. As her siblings entered school upon adolescence, she remained at home and was tutored in languages, drawing, and music.

"Lizzie," as she was known to her family and friends, was popular in upper-class Boston society. Her sister Mary 's 1846 marriage to Harvard professor Cornelius C. Felton gained her entree into a circle of Cambridge intellectuals. It was in her sister's home that Elizabeth met the Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz, who had recently arrived at Harvard University as the new chair of the Lawrence Scientific School. On April 25, 1850, the two married. Her new husband was 15 years her senior and a widower with three adolescent children. Moving into his house on Oxford Street in Cambridge, Elizabeth Agassiz took up her new role as wife to a famous scientist with a dedication and single-minded devotedness that remained constant throughout the 23 years of their marriage. She was a domestic and professional partner to her husband, supervising the household affairs and working closely with him on his work, accompanying him on expeditions and transcribing his field notes. She even helped manage his elaborate menagerie of animals—turtles, rabbits, eagles, a tame bear, a few snakes, and an alligator—which he kept for observation and breeding experiments. In addition, she assumed with equal vigor the role of mother to her three new stepchildren, forging relationships with them that were, by all accounts, uncommonly close and loving. Her stepson, the scientist Alexander Agassiz, later recalled his stepmother as "my mother, my sister, my companion, my friend, all in one." Adorned by Elizabeth Agassiz's hospitable nature and easy-going temperament, the Oxford Street house soon became one of the intellectual and social centers of Cambridge.

Her long experience as a teacher of girls, her almost unerring practical wisdom, and the unfailing common sense which she always brought to the difficult problems … have done more … to make Radcliffe College what it is now, than all other causes combined.

—William Watson Goodwin

In 1854, the family moved to a larger house on Quincy Street built for them by the college, where Elizabeth Agassiz resided for the rest of her life. During this time, the family was burdened by financial problems, and Agassiz, with the help of her two older stepchildren, decided to bring in extra income by operating a school for girls out of the Quincy house. The school proposed to offer the daughters of Cambridge families the opportunity for advanced study with the brilliant and talented instructors at Harvard—an opportunity denied them by the university itself. The school opened in 1855 with her husband lending his support by teaching geography, natural history, and botany. Louis Agassiz was a brilliant speaker and his Quincy house lectures became enormously popular. Many students attended, as well as friends and neighbors, including Clover Adams . Soon other Harvard professors agreed to participate in this experiment in women's higher education. The Quincy Street school was the forerunner of the "Harvard Annex," which would later become Radcliffe College. Over the next eight years, while Elizabeth Agassiz operated the school, her husband's career flourished. In 1858, the Museum of Comparative Zoology (known as the "Agassiz Museum") opened; by 1863, the family's finances had improved sufficiently that Agassiz closed her school. She spent the next decade working as a naturalist, joining her husband on scientific expeditions, and authoring several natural history books and articles.

Her first book, A First Lesson in Natural History, published in 1859, was an attempt to make the science of natural history accessible to novice scientists and younger readers. Written in the form of letters to her niece and nephew, Agassiz focused on the marine life of the Nahant shore, north of Boston, where she had spent her summers since girlhood and where she had collected marine specimens to study in her aquarium at home. In clear, poetic language, she explored the undersea world of sea-anemones, corals, jellyfish, starfish, and sea urchins, and expressed the joys of scientific discovery. Though her husband's career eclipsed her own, the book revealed her to be an intelligent, thoughtful naturalist in her own right.

When Louis Agassiz's deteriorating health precipitated a change in climate, Elizabeth accompanied her husband on a 14-month research trip to study the flora and fauna of Brazil. The couple and a retinue of assistants and volunteers set sail for Rio de Janeiro on April 1, 1865. The trip, which included extended visits to Rio and the Amazon and excursions into the coastal mountains, was not an easy one; the transportation and lodgings were often primitive. Agassiz kept a daily journal of their work, took detailed notes of her husband's natural history lectures, and transcribed his voluminous observational notes. She later edited the scientific material and added her own personal experiences and notes culled from her diary, which she and her husband published in 1867 as A Journey to Brazil. The book was well received, and though Agassiz characteristically underplayed her own role and described the goal of the book as depicting "the comprehensiveness of [Louis'] aims and the way in which he carried them out," much of the book's appeal arose from her intelligent prose and innovative narrative structure. She received many admiring notes, including one from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a colleague and friend of her husband. His read: "The idea of mingling the two diaries is most felicitous. It is like the intermingling of masculine and feminine rhymes in a French poem. In fact the whole expedition is highly poetical and honorable to all concerned."

In 1869, Agassiz accompanied her husband on a dredging trip off the coasts of Cuba and Florida. Her account, "A Dredging Excursion in the Gulf Stream," appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in October and November 1869. During this and the following year, she spent much of her time caring for her husband, who had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was temporarily incapacitated. Though he recovered, his health remained fragile.

Despite this personal setback, in December 1871 Elizabeth Agassiz accompanied her husband, two other naturalists, and Dr. Thomas Hill (a former Harvard president) on a nine-month, deep-sea dredging expedition aboard the vessel Hassler that took them from the West Indies to Rio de Janeiro and the Gulf of Mathias, through the straits of Magellan and up the Chilean coast to the Galapagos Islands. Again Agassiz kept a diary of the voyage and although the account was never published in book form, it did appear as three separate articles in The Atlantic Monthly: "The Hassler Glacier," "In the Straits of Magellan," and "A Cruise Through the Galapagos."

In 1872, after a wealthy New Yorker, John Anderson, bequeathed her husband an endowment of $50,000 and Penikese Island in Buzzard's Bay off the coast of Massachusetts, Elizabeth Agassiz co-founded a summer school devoted to the study of natural history. In April 1873, the coeducational Anderson School of Natural History was created. The school opened on July 8 with Louis Agassiz and two other naturalists instructing students and Elizabeth Agassiz handling many of the administrative duties. The couple returned to Cambridge in October after which Louis' already fragile health quickly deteriorated. He died on December 14, 1873.

Elizabeth Agassiz's devotion to her husband remained unabated even after his death. She began preparing his biography, which she labored over intermittently during the next ten years. The book Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence (1885) was published in two volumes to great acclaim. Despite her continued efforts to perpetuate her husband's memory, however, Louis' death marked a watershed in Elizabeth's life and work. World travel and scientific expeditions no longer absorbed her time. And although she undertook new domestic duties (eight days after her husband's death, her daughter-in-law died and her stepson Alexander moved into her home accompanied by his three young children), she soon became deeply involved in a new passion that would consume her energies over the next 20 years.

On February 11, 1879, Agassiz accepted an invitation from Arthur Gilman, a well-known Cambridge literary figure, to attend an informal meeting to consider the possibility of creating a college for women that would offer a course of instruction similar to the one provided at Harvard. Agassiz did not favor coeducation, but she was greatly interested in augmenting educational opportunities for women. Following the meeting, the group requested permission from Harvard University president Charles William Eliot to employ Harvard professors as private instructors to qualified young women. Eliot agreed, though he stressed that his cooperation did not betoken any official connection with Harvard nor an endorsement of coeducation. Having secured the support of Eliot and the Harvard faculty in general, an official committee on women's education, which included Agassiz and six other Cambridge women, was formed. On February 22, 1879, the committee issued a circular, "Private Collegiate Instruction for Women," which outlined the admission standards, costs, and goals of the new school. The plan was to create a four-year course of study, modeled on Harvard. Although the school would not be empowered to hand out diplomas, it would offer instead certificates signed by instructors upon completion of final examinations.

On September 24, 1879, the first entrance exams were held and 27 young women were admitted to the school. Rooms for classes were rented out in various homes, and lodgings for the students were secured throughout Cambridge. More than two years later, on May 22, 1882, the school committee incorporated itself under its now official name, the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women (though it was better known by its nickname, the "Harvard Annex"). Its stated purpose was the advanced education of women with the assistance of the instructors of Harvard University.

On July 6, 1882, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz was elected president of the Society. Though enrollment of the school continued to grow and the support of the Harvard faculty remained constant, the Harvard Annex remained woefully underfunded and the threat of closure always loomed. In personal letters that date back to this time, Agassiz expressed her desire to ensure the future of the school by raising an endowment. To this end, she directed most of her efforts over the next several years. It was also around this time that Agassiz began to contemplate the creation of a more formal relationship with Harvard University in order to solve her school's chronic financial problems and ensure its future.

Agassiz began to preside over parlor meetings in Boston in which she appealed to her society friends and associates to contribute money for an endowment fund. She turned out to be a first-rate fundraiser; by June 1884, she had raised some $70,000—not enough to secure the future of the Annex, but enough to keep it going.

By 1889, after ten years of operation under Elizabeth Agassiz's stewardship, the Harvard Annex had become one of the nation's preeminent educational institutions for women. More than 150 women a year were now entering the school, and the number continued to grow. Yet problems remained. Though the students received first-rate instruction, they were still denied official academic degrees and the endowment remained inadequate. Accordingly, the Society began to lobby Harvard for an official connection with the university. Though Agassiz remained opposed to coeducation, she hoped that the university would formally recognize the Annex as a separate department of Harvard College. Her commitment to the Annex and her concern over its future was apparent in her 1892 commencement address:

Whatever be its attitude in the future,—whatever its relation to the University,—whatever name it may bear,—I hope it will always be respected for the genuineness of its work, for the quiet dignity of its bearing, for its adherence to the noblest end of scholarship.

On March 24, 1893, Agassiz sent a letter to President Eliot that contained the proposal that the Annex would turn over its endowment and real estate (estimated worth about $150,000) to the university if the Annex could become a department of Harvard College and thus eligible to grant degrees. On May 29, 1893, Eliot replied by letter that the president and fellows at Harvard were willing to consider a more official relationship. Further negotiations between Agassiz and the president and fellows continued through the year until it was finally agreed that the Annex would officially change its name to Radcliffe College (in honor of Lady Anne Radcliffe , Harvard's first woman benefactor); that the Harvard Corporation, acting as "Visitors," would approve all faculty appointments; and that Radcliffe diplomas would bear the Harvard seal. All organization and business matters would be left to the college to handle. The governor signed the act for the incorporation of Radcliffe on March 23, 1894.

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz continued in her capacity as president of Radcliffe College for the next five years. In 1899, she resigned from her official position as president, though she retained the title of honorary president until 1903. During that time, a scholarship (1895) and a student hall (1902) were endowed in her honor.

In addition to her work on behalf of Radcliffe, Agassiz remained a devoted naturalist, assisting her stepson Alexander in his research. A lifelong philanthropist, she was a member of the Ladies' Visiting Committee for the Kindergarten for the Blind (established under the direction of the Perkins Institute for the Blind) and served as treasurer of the Cambridge branch of the committee from 1887–1904. In her later years, she remained close to family and friends, read voraciously, and continued to spend summers at Nahant.

In the summer of 1904, Elizabeth Agassiz suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Three years of invalidism followed, which culminated in a stroke. She died on June 27, 1907, at the age of 84 and was buried beside her husband in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.


Agassiz, Elizabeth Cabot. A First Lesson in Natural History. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1859.

——. A Journey in Brazil. Boston, MA: Ticknor and Fields, 1868.

Agassiz, G.R., ed. Letters and Recollections of Alexander Agassiz. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.

Norwood, Vera. Made from this Earth: American Women and Nature. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Paton, Lucy Allen. Elizabeth Cary Agassiz: A Biography. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1919.


Personal papers of Elizabeth Cary Agassiz are located in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.

Suzanne Smith , freelance writer, Decatur, Georgia