Book Review: Who Cares About Louis Agassiz?

A review of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science by Christoph Irmscher.

By Vicki Linton

Louis Agassiz was on the wrong side of history. His science was based on the notion that nature revealed a divine plan in which species were separately created. Species, Agassiz believed, represented the thoughts of God.

Agassiz spent the later years of his life, following the publication of the Origin of Species, battling Darwinism. Louis Agassiz and his science decisively lost.

So why is anyone writing about Agassiz 150 years later? Christoph Irmscher takes as his premise in his new Agassiz biography that Louis Agassiz was a “creator of American science.” Indeed Agassiz played a pivotal role in 19th Century science, coming from Switzerland to the United States and founding the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University.

But Louis Agassiz is also of considerable importance in the popularization of natural history in the United States, an area of great cultural significance. The spreading of interest in natural history studies and the appreciation of nature that flowered in the 19th Century led to the preservation movement which created the National Park System, inspired artists, launched bird watching as a pastime and with it bird conservation efforts, and on to conservationist and environmental movements throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st.

Louis Agassiz’s finest scientific activities involved going into the field and collecting specimens. Collecting was a major endeavor of naturalists in the 19th Century before awareness of the limits of nature set in. Charles Darwin famously collected beetles before embarking on his career as a naturalist.

In Darwin’s England and elsewhere in Europe, natural history activities were the provenance of the wealthy. But when Louis Agassiz came to America he found a more egalitarian spirit. Agassiz felt right at home in the U.S., given his popularizing spirit.

Agassiz had a large personality and loved cultivating popular admiration. He gave lectures on science to audiences of thousands across his new country. But he sincerely believed that science should be accessible to all. His plan for his new museum—the Museum of Comparative Zoology—included not only research but elaborate displays of his specimens to provide education to the public.

“Agassiz was confident he could win the trust of the farmers, merchants, and ministers of New England by sheer force of his personal example and by showing everyone that he was serious about natural history,” writes Irmscher. Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science tells of how Agassiz quickly became famous in Massachusetts for seeking specimens everywhere.

Agassiz put out a call to citizens across the country to send him specimens, inspiring an interest in nature among many. Irmscher describes how when Agassiz was seeking turtles for his collection “a school principal named John Whipple Potter Jenks from Middleboro, Massachusetts, one Sunday morning harvested some fresh turtle eggs for Agassiz and using his horse to intercept a freight train, delivered the precious cargo in three hours to Agassiz’s doorstep.”

Agassiz received specimens from a fisherman in Maryland, a physician in Tennessee, a civil engineer in Pennsylvania. A correspondent in Ohio wrote Agassiz, “I explored the Youghy and its tributaries in that vicinity and have all varieties I have found…. I have engaged a good Ohio River fisherman to save for you a full sorte [sic] of all he catches.”

Agassiz’s plan for his museum was for it “to be an ever expanding library of all the volumes of natural history ever written,” meaning by the display of the thousands of his specimens. With his zeal for bringing science to a popular audience, Agassiz several times convinced the Massachusetts state legislature to provide funding for the museum.

His plans for the museum went awry because Agassiz’s penchant for big ideas was not accompanied by a talent for managerial follow-through. But his big ideas rippled through society and inspired a wide interest in nature study.

Irmscher’s new biography includes a fascinating chapter on Agassiz’s American wife and her role in science popularization. Agassiz married Elizabeth Cabot Cary, an intelligent woman from a Boston Brahmin family. She quickly became indispensible to Agassiz in his scientific activities.

Ultimately Elizabeth Agassiz took over the writing for and promotion of Agassiz’s career. She accompanied Agassiz on a collecting trip to Brazil—80,000 specimens were returned by the expedition—and it was she who primarily wrote the memoir of the trip that was published under both their names.

A Journey in Brazil became a widely read example of late 19th Century travel and nature literature. Irmscher quotes a passage about Agassiz returning from an excursion, “At the close of our ramble, from which the Professor returned looking not unlike an ambulatory representative of tropical vegetation, being loaded down with palm tree branches, tree-ferns and the like, we found breakfast awaiting us.” Elizabeth deftly combined scientific description with travel tidbits to create a style that appealed to many readers.

Elizabeth always accompanied Louis on his researches during their summers on the Massachusetts coast. She published two popular books on the subject. A First Lesson in Natural History was designed for young people while Seaside Studies in Natural History took a more scientific tone.

Irmscher credits Elizabeth Agassiz with advancing popular science writing. Elizabeth, he writes, worked on “perfecting the genre that we today would call the science essay, balancing state-of-the-art scientific knowledge with the stance of the outsider not privy to the things real scientists see.”

Louis Agassiz died clinging tenaciously to a defeated view of science and never completed his plan for his grand museum. But his charismatic personality and enthusiasm for communicating about science with a wide audience left a lasting imprint on the U.S. And while many were inspired by Agassiz, as Irmscher shows in his new biography, none was more important than Louis Agassiz’s wife Elizabeth who left a lasting imprint of her own.

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