Louis Agassiz


Louis Agassiz : biography

May 28, 1807 – December 14, 1873

In 2005 the EGU Division on Cryospheric Sciences established the Louis Agassiz Medal, awarded to individuals in recognition of their outstanding scientific contribution to the study of the cryosphere on Earth or elsewhere in the solar system. He took part in a monthly gathering called the Saturday Club at the Omni Parker House, a meeting of Boston writers and intellectuals. He was therefore mentioned in a stanza of the Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. poem, "At the Saturday Club," where the author dreams he sees some of his friends who are no longer:

There, at the table’s further end I see In his old place our Poet’s vis-à-vis, The great PROFESSOR, strong, broad-shouldered, square, In life’s rich noontide, joyous, debonair. His social hour no leaden care alloys, His laugh rings loud and mirthful as a boy’s,– That lusty laugh the Puritan forgot,– What ear has heard it and remembers not? How often, halting at some wide crevasse Amid the windings of his Alpine pass, High up the cliffs, the climbing mountaineer, Listening the far-off avalanche to hear, Silent, and leaning on his steel-shod staff, Has heard that cheery voice, that ringing laugh, From the rude cabin whose nomadic walls Creep with the moving glacier as it crawls!

How does vast Nature lead her living train In ordered sequence through that spacious brain, As in the primal hour when Adam named The new-born tribes that young creation claimed!– How will her realm be darkened, losing thee, Her darling, whom we call our AGASSIZ!


After Agassiz came to the United States he became a prolific writer in what has been later termed the genre of scientific racism. Agassiz was specifically a believer and advocate in polygenism, that races came from separate origins (specifically separate creations), were endowed with unequal attributes, and could be classified into specific climatic zones, in the same way he felt other animals and plants could be classified.Edward Lurie, "Louis Agassiz and the Races of Man," Isis 45, no. 3 (1954): 227–242.

In recent years, critics have cited Agassiz’s racial theories, arguing that these now-unpopular views tarnish his scientific record. This has occasionally prompted the renaming of landmarks, schoolhouses, and other institutions which bear the name of Agassiz (which abound in Massachusetts). Opinions on these events are often torn, given his extensive scientific legacy in other areas.See, i.e., one story about the attempt to rename a schoolhouse: "Political Correctness Run Amok: School Students Dishonor a Genius of Science", Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 32 (Summer 2001): 74–75. On September 9, 2007 the Swiss government acknowledged the "racist thinking" of Agassiz but declined to rename the Agassizhorn summit.

Agassiz was never a supporter of slavery, and claimed his views had nothing to do with politics.John P. Jackson, Nadine M. Weidman Race, Racism, and science: social impact and interaction, Rutgers University Press, 2005, p. 51 Agassiz was influenced by philosophical idealism and the scientific work of Georges Cuvier. According to Agassiz, genera and species were ideas in the mind of God; their existence in God’s mind prior to their physical creation meant that God could create humans as one species yet in several distinct and geographically separate acts of creation. According to Agassiz, there is one species of humans but many different creations of races.

Agassiz was a creationist who believed nature had order because God has created it directly, and Agassiz viewed his career in science as a search for ideas in the mind of the creator expressed in creation. Agassiz denied that migration and adaptation could account for the geographical age or any of the past. Adaptation takes time; in an example, Agassiz questioned how plants or animals could migrate through regions they were not equipped to handle.Scott Mandelbrote, Nature and Scripture in the Abrahamic Religions: 1700–Present, Volume 2, 2009, pp. 159–164 According to Agassiz the conditions in which particular creatures live “are the conditions necessary to their maintenance, and what among organized beings is essential to their temporal existence must be at least one of the conditions under which they were created”.