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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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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.

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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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