Louis Agassiz


Louis Agassiz : biography

May 28, 1807 – December 14, 1873

Early life

Louis Agassiz was born in Môtier (now part of Haut-Vully) in the canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. Educated first at home, then spending four years of secondary school in Bienne, he completed his elementary studies in Lausanne. Having adopted medicine as his profession, he studied successively at the universities of Zürich, Heidelberg and Munich; while there he extended his knowledge of natural history, especially of botany. In 1829 he received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Erlangen, and in 1830 that of doctor of medicine at Munich. Moving to Paris he fell under the tutelage of Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier, who launched him on his careers of geology and zoology respectively. Previously he had not paid special attention to the study of ichthyology, but it soon became the great focus of his life’s work.

Ice age

In 1837 Agassiz was the first to scientifically propose that the Earth had been subject to a past ice age.E.P. Evans: "", North American review Volume 145, Issue 368, July 1887. Accessed on February 25, 2008. In the same year, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Prior to this proposal, Goethe, de Saussure, Venetz, Jean de Charpentier, Karl Friedrich Schimper and others had made the glaciers of the Alps the subjects of special study, and Goethe, Charpentier as well as Schimper had even arrived at the conclusion that the erratic blocks of alpine rocks scattered over the slopes and summits of the Jura Mountains had been moved there by glaciers. The question having attracted the attention of Agassiz, he not only discussed it with Charpentier and Schimper and made successive journeys to the alpine regions in company with them, but he had a hut constructed upon one of the Aar Glaciers, which for a time he made his home, in order to investigate the structure and movements of the ice.

These labours resulted, in 1840, in the publication of his work in two volumes entitled Etudes sur les glaciers ("Study on Glaciers").. Accessed on February 25, 2008. In it he discussed the movements of the glaciers, their moraines, their influence in grooving and rounding the rocks over which they travelled, and in producing the striations and roches moutonnees seen in Alpine-style landscapes. He not only accepted Charpentier’s and Schimper’s idea that some of the alpine glaciers had extended across the wide plains and valleys drained by the Aar and the Rhône, but he went still farther. He concluded that, in the relatively recent past, Switzerland had been another Greenland; that instead of a few glaciers stretching across the areas referred to, one vast sheet of ice, originating in the higher Alps, had extended over the entire valley of northwestern Switzerland until it reached the southern slopes of the Jura, which, though they checked and deflected its further extension, did not prevent the ice from reaching in many places the summit of the range. The publication of this work gave a fresh impetus to the study of glacial phenomena in all parts of the world.

Thus familiarized with the phenomena associated with the movements of recent glaciers, Agassiz was prepared for a discovery which he made in 1840, in conjunction with William Buckland. The two visited the mountains of Scotland together, and found in different locations clear evidence of ancient glacial action. The discovery was announced to the Geological Society of London in successive communications. The mountainous districts of England, Wales, and Ireland were also considered to constitute centres for the dispersion of glacial debris; and Agassiz remarked "that great sheets of ice, resembling those now existing in Greenland, once covered all the countries in which unstratified gravel (boulder drift) is found; that this gravel was in general produced by the trituration of the sheets of ice upon the subjacent surface, etc."


In 1819–1820, Johann Baptist von Spix and Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius were engaged in an expedition to Brazil, and on their return to Europe, amongst other collections of natural objects they brought home an important set of the fresh water fish of Brazil, and especially of the Amazon River. Spix, who died in 1826, did not live long enough to work out the history of these fish, and Agassiz (though fresh out of school) was selected by Martius for this purpose. He at once threw himself into the work with an enthusiasm which characterized him to the end of his busy life. The task of describing the Brazilian fish was completed and published in 1829. This was followed by research into the history of the fish found in Lake Neuchâtel. Enlarging his plans, in 1830 he issued a prospectus of a History of the Freshwater Fish of Central Europe. It was only in 1839, however, that the first part of this publication appeared, and it was completed in 1842.