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Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

A new biography sheds light on some of the 'undelightful' aspects of the life and work of eminent Swiss zoologist, glaciologist, and paleontologist Louis Agassiz.

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Eventually – in an act Irmscher likens to that of a “modern woman” – Silli took their children and left Agassiz. In September, 1846, Agassiz, whose writings and traveling lectures on glaciers, Brazilian fishes, and other exotic and arcane topics had brought him worldwide acclaim, would leave Europe for good to accept a professorship at Harvard University. And Silli, who once illustrated her husband’s published works and shared his professional enthusiasms, would die in loneliness and despair two years later.

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Agassiz’s second wife, Elizabeth Cabot Cary, fared considerably better. Born into “blue-blood” Boston in 1822, “Lizzie” Cary had a powerful intellect rivaling that of Agassiz. She employed her intelligence to her future husband’s advantage – as well as her own – by editing his books and other writings. But hidden underneath the scholarly veneer and the "strenuously rational language" of their correspondence, Elizabeth had a “true, lasting affection” for Agassiz. Following their marriage in 1850, she sought to realize her keen interest in education by starting a private school for young girls in the attic of their Quincy Street home. Twenty-two years after Agassiz’s death, she became the first president of Radcliffe College. In between, she accompanied Agassiz on his Charleston lectures and assisted him in gathering specimens on the Galapagos Islands. And in her attempt to solidify her late husband’s legacy, she also authored a comprehensive and well-regarded biography of Agassiz.

Alexander von Humboldt, the pre-eminent zoologist during Agassiz’s youth, also had a profoundly important influence on Agassiz’s career. Mentor, patron, and cheerleader to Agassiz, von Humboldt had royal patrons, which gave him wealth and added to his prestige. He would write fawning letters to Agassiz, and his “scion” would respond with equally fawning, almost obsequious, replies. But if anyone could conjure insecurities in Agassiz, it was von Humboldt, whom Irmscher likens to Agassiz’s “surrogate father” – the one who really saw Agassiz’s scholarly potential and unselfishly nurtured and financed it.

Agassiz’s anxiety about von Humboldt’s towering legacy was never more in evidence than when Agassiz was asked to prepare a series of lectures at Harvard on the occasion of what would have been von Humboldt’s 100th birthday in 1869. Agassiz fretted about every detail, and was adamant that it be carried off perfectly – in other words, to his own satisfaction.

Agassiz’s career-long competition with English naturalist Charles Darwin was focused on a few distinct areas of contention, including Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection, in which Darwin emphasized an evolutionary process for the adaptation of species dependent on their mobility. Agassiz, although particularly religious, believed that though man was mobile, species of animals were not, and that they developed where God placed them.

Darwin, “a sharp observer of other people’s foibles,” saw Agassiz’s work as “contemptible rubbish” and also compared him to one of the jellyfish Agassiz obsessively researched and chronicled: “weird, infinitely interesting, capable of inflicting a certain amount of harm, but destined ultimately to fade into insubstantiality.” Regarding Agassiz’s Charleston folly, Darwin sarcastically wrote to his cousin William Darwin Fox, “Agassiz lectures in the US in which he has been maintaining the doctrine of several species – much, I daresay, to the comfort of the slave-holding Southerns.”

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