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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    Louis Agassiz – Creator of American Science, by Christoph Irmscher
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
    434 pp.
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In the introduction to his wonderful new biography Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science, Christoph Irmscher carefully lists some of the more “undelightful” aspects of the life and work of the eminent Swiss zoologist, glaciologist, and paleontologist: “his shabby treatment of his first wife, whom he left when he traveled to the new world; his relentless resistance to Darwinism; and perhaps most of all his reprehensible belief that America belonged to whites only.” And it doesn’t get much better from there.

Agassiz (born Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz), a world-renowned and celebrated Swiss-born scientist whose name, more than 100 years later, would grace street signs, schools, and even a mountain range in Switzerland, recently had his reputation almost single-handedly felled by a Cambridge, Mass., eighth-grader. The student, who attended the Agassiz School there, discovered Agassiz’s abhorrent racial views in an edition of biologist Stephen A. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man." The horrified student, Irmscher writes, “suggested that the school change its name, which it did.”

Irmscher, a professor of English at Indiana University, asks some very difficult questions about Agassiz’s legacy at the onset of this biography. Despite the book’s rather generous subtitle, Irmscher ultimately cannot reconcile Agassiz’s numerous and significant scientific achievements with his abhorrent views on evolution and race.

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For example, Agassiz was an early and vociferous proponent of such biological quackery as polygenism (the idea that races of humans stemmed from distinct and different ancestors and thus were of separate origin) as well as miscegenation, or racial admixture within a society. Agassiz could also be called a prototypical 19th-century “racial philosopher” because of his curious obsession with comparative brain size and cranial capacity, and their relationship to intelligence among races of humans.

Agassiz, always the charismatic showman, compounded the damage to his own reputation by regaling attendees at a Charleston, S.C., conference with his racial sophistry, which unfortunately encouraged and enabled much of America’s pro-slavery faction. His patrons included the notorious Alabama physician Josiah C. Nott, who, as the owner of nine slaves, sought out Agassiz’s counsel to validate his own theories about the subjugation of blacks through slavery. Nott infamously stated that those indentured achieved their greatest perfection, physical and moral (as well as longevity), in a state of slavery. Agassiz and other scientists who espoused polygenism also emboldened colonialists, who believed that the inherent superiority of the white race gave credence to Kipling’s “white man’s burden" – the obligation and duty of whites to rule over other, presumably inferior, races.

Agassiz’s youth in Switzerland had a powerful influence on his own attitudes toward his family, students, and colleagues. His autocratic father was a merchant with both a manipulative personality and a provincial worldview. He sought to control his son’s career path by repeatedly suggesting that studying to become a zoologist (with two doctoral degrees, no less) was a waste of  time and money. Agassiz’s mother was also aggressive, perhaps even abusive. The pressure she exerted on Agassiz’s beautiful and artistically talented wife Cécilie (Silli) Braun to subject herself to her husband’s ambitions left Silli feeling helpless and abandoned.

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.

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.”

Over his academic career, Agassiz earned another unfortunate reputation: that of a stingy, domineering, and credit-stealing professor who both alienated and smothered the ambitions of legions of students and research assistants. Here, Irmscher has exhaustively examined numerous letters and journals (the book contains 44 pages of endnotes) of former protégés such as Charles Girard and Édouard Desor, who worked and studied with Agassiz at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, and Henry James Clark and Addison Emery Verrill, who were both assistants to Agassiz at Harvard. Agassiz’s rancorous yet fascinating episodes with these young men were marked by common themes of professional jealousy, theft of what would now be called “intellectual property,” and bitter personal attacks.

Particularly revealing (as well as heartbreaking) is the case of Clark, who toiled in penury within Agassiz’s shadow for years as an “Adjunct” professor helping to organize Agassiz’s career-long ambition, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Clark, shortchanged both in credit and in remuneration, was eventually pushed out of his position by the Harvard Corporation after a very public quarrel with Agassiz. And in the case of Girard – who came to regret following his “flawed master” Agassiz from Switzerland to America and eventually defected to Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian, headed by Spencer Fullerton Baird – Agassiz could not help but badmouth his former student to Baird, saying that Girard had “no judgment,” was “obstinate as a mule,” and needed to be led with “a high hand and kept in an entirely subordinate position.”

When it comes to his books, Agassiz’s "Études sur les Glaciers" (1840), is outstanding, not only for its scholarship, but also for its exceptionally beautiful, lithographed atlas volume. But for all its beauty and scientific importance, the name of Agassiz’s friend and fellow glaciologist, Karl Friedrich Schimper, is absent from its pages. Even the initial use of the term “ice age” (eitzeit), Agassiz cribbed from Schimper. As Irmscher asserts, this was “the first prominent instance of the cavalier, unattributed use of other people’s ideas that, in the eyes of Agassiz’ critics, would become a hallmark of his career.”

And in a supreme act of hypocrisy added to what Irmscher terms “a similar mix of ruthlessness and ... naiveté,” Agassiz, who thought that another, contemporary author, Jean de Charpentier, had pre-empted his "Études," wrote of his “disappointment” that Charpentier “hadn’t used his [Agassiz’s] observations in order to establish ‘synonymy’ between ‘your theory and mine.’” Embarrassment was obviously not in Agassiz’s lexicon.

There is no question that Agassiz’s shadow looms large in numerous scientific disciplines. But Irmscher’s devastating new appraisal pushes Agassiz out of that shadow and into the klieg lights – leaving all the hagiographic and illusive imagery behind. In the book's epilogue, Irmscher writes, “The history of science is unforgiving; it remembers those who were right and commits to the dustbin those who were wrong. And Agassiz certainly was, dead wrong, about evolution and about race.” What this groundbreaking book distills is ugly and very disturbing; but ultimately, it is the necessary and timely exposure of a great man who in truth really wasn’t.

Chris Hartman is a Monitor contributor.

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