Louis Agassiz


Louis Agassiz : biography

May 28, 1807 – December 14, 1873

United States

In 1842–1846 he issued his Nomenclator Zoologicus, a classified list, with references, of all names employed in zoology for genera and groups — a work of great labour and research. With the aid of a grant of money from the King of Prussia, Agassiz crossed the Atlantic in the autumn of 1846 with the twin purposes of investigating the natural history and geology of North America and delivering a course of 12 lectures on “The Plan of Creation as shown in the Animal Kingdom,”Smith, p. 52. by invitation from J. A. Lowell, at the Lowell Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. The financial and scientific advantages presented to him in the United States induced him to settle there, where he remained to the end of his life. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1846.

His engagement for the Lowell Institute lectures precipitated the establishment of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University in 1847 with him as its head.Smith (1898), pp. 39–41. Harvard appointed him professor of zoology and geology, and he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology there in 1859 serving as the museum’s first director until his death in 1873. During his tenure at Harvard, he was, among many other things, an early student of the effect of the last Ice Age on North America.

He continued his lectures for the Lowell Institute. In succeeding years, he gave series of lectures on “Ichthyology” (1847–48 season), “Comparative Embryology” (1848–49), “Functions of Life in Lower Animals” (1850–51), “Natural History” (1853–54), “Methods of Study in Natural History” (1861–62), “Glaciers and the Ice Period” (1864–65), “Brazil” (1866–67) and “Deep Sea Dredging” (1869–70).Smith (1898), pp. 52–66. In 1850 he married an American college teacher, Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, who later wrote introductory books about natural history and, after his death, a lengthy biography of her husband.

Agassiz served as a non-resident lecturer at Cornell while also being on faculty at Harvard.A History of Cornell by Morris Bishop (1962), p. 83. In 1852 he accepted a medical professorship of comparative anatomy at Charlestown, Massachusetts, but he resigned in two years. From this time his scientific studies dropped off, but he was a profound influence on the American branches of his two fields, teaching decades worth of future prominent scientists, including Alpheus Hyatt, David Starr Jordan, Joel Asaph Allen, Joseph Le Conte, Ernest Ingersoll, William James, Nathaniel Shaler, Samuel Hubbard Scudder, Alpheus Packard, and his son Alexander Agassiz, among others. He had a profound impact on the paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. In return his name appears attached to several species, as well as here and there throughout the American landscape, notably Lake Agassiz, the Pleistocene precursor to Lake Winnipeg and the Red River.

During this time he grew in fame even in the public consciousness, becoming one of the best-known scientists in the world. By 1857 he was so well-loved that his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote "The fiftieth birthday of Agassiz" in his honor. His own writing continued with four (of a planned ten) volumes of Natural History of the United States which were published from 1857 to 1862. During this time he also published a catalog of papers in his field, Bibliographia Zoologiae et Geologiae, in four volumes between 1848 and 1854.

Stricken by ill health in the 1860s, he resolved to return to the field for relaxation and to resume his studies of Brazilian fish. In April 1865 he led a party to Brazil. Returning home in August 1866, an account of this expedition, entitled A Journey in Brazil, was published in 1868. In December 1871 he made a second eight month excursion, known as the Hassler expedition under the command of Commander Philip Carrigan Johnson (brother of Eastman Johnson), visiting South America on its southern Atlantic and Pacific seaboards. The ship explored the Magellan Strait, which drew the praise of Charles Darwin.

Elizabeth Aggasiz wrote, at the Strait: ‘…the Hassler pursued her course, past a seemingly endless panorama of mountains and forests rising into the pale regions of snow and ice, where lay glaciers in which every rift and crevasse, as well as the many cascades flowing down to join the waters beneath, could be counted as she steamed by them…. These were weeks of exquisite delight to Agassiz. The vessel often skirted the shore so closely that its geology could be studied from the deck.’