In September 1866, the American consul to Mauritius, fresh off the boat, paid a visit to the Boston publisher James T. Fields. He carried precious cargo with him, though it was not intended for Fields, but rather for the man known as America’s greatest naturalist, the man everyone wanted to see when they came to Cambridge: Louis Agassiz. In the consul’s luggage were two complete skeletons of the extinct flightless bird known as the dodo. Fields made sure that Agassiz received the bones forthwith. They were not perfect skeletons, Agassiz decided, but it was good to have them anyway. When Fields, making conversation, asked if “the Dodo were good enough to eat,” Agassiz’s face lit up. “Yes, indeed! What a peety we could not have the Dodo at our club. A good dinner is humanity’s greatest blessing!” Unfortunately, the Dutch had beaten them on that score and killed all the dodos. But at least there were the bones. Agassiz put them in his museum.
Surely Agassiz was joking in that response to Fields. The image of the illustrious members of the Saturday Club—among them the poet and publisher Fields, the poet and doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, the poet and professor James Russell Lowell, and the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson—feasting on dodo at the dinner table at Boston’s Parker Hotel is absurd enough, and Annie Fields likely had some fun including this passage in her postmortem biography of James Fields. And yet the anecdote says much about the appeal Agassiz had for his fellow Americans: an expert on all manner of things living and dead, he kept his mind firmly trained on the enjoyment of life. In Agassiz, Americans had found the “lusty laugh that the Puritan forgot,” Oliver Wendell Holmes once said. Agassiz was a bon vivant. He worked hard, harder than anyone these New England literati had ever known, but he also knew how to live life to the fullest. And a well-stocked dinner table defined Agassiz’s world in more than one way. In a later conversation, Fields asked Agassiz if he thought man would ever figure out the mystery of life and death. Agassiz pointed at the food they were about to eat: “I am sure he will,” he replied. “The time will come when these things will be made as clear as the table spread out before us.” We are still waiting for that time, it seems. Ironically, in a sense the dodo has outlived Agassiz, its would-be consumer: its skeleton (or at least the skeleton of some dodo) even today greets the visitor to Agassiz’s museum, now known as the Museum of Comparative Zoology.
The story of the consul from Mauritius, with his dodo skeletons destined for Agassiz’s museum, illustrates well the worldwide fame Louis Agassiz enjoyed. The details of his fabulous life had become the stuff of legend. Popularizer of the ice age, climber of mountain peaks, dredger of the deep seas, describer of fossil fish and jellyfish, taxonomist of turtles—Agassiz had done it all. He had given America its greatest science museum at the time, and he founded, on Penikese Island off the coast of Massachusetts, the first serious summer school in natural history, actively welcoming women as participants. At Harvard, he assembled around him the best and brightest young men of his time, thus creating, arguably, the first American graduate school. Born in full view of the stately snow-clad mountains of Switzerland, on the shores of lac de Neuchâtel, where he had first taught science to schoolchildren, Agassiz was mentored by the great naturalists Georges Cuvier and Alexander von Humboldt. When he came to the United States in 1846, not even forty years old, it seemed as if the New World had always been waiting for him.
Agassiz took to America like a fish to water. His unorthodox religious views resonated with New England Unitarianism, but he brought to them a scientific rigor and an uncompromising seriousness that his new friends, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell, could only dream about. Agassiz’s God, James Russell Lowell once said, in a poem dripping with admiration, was “very God.” Agassiz was never an orthodox believer or churchgoer, but his science was infused with the presence of the divine, which he found wherever he went: in Swiss glaciers, American lakes, and the Amazonian rain forest.
Industrious he certainly was: Agassiz published over four hundred scientific books and papers in his lifetime, most of which “could be consulted productively today by workers in the field,” according David C. Smith and Harold W. Borns of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. A few years ago, a massive volume containing interviews with over fifty scientists gave tribute to what the book’s very title identified as Agassiz’s Legacy. Many of those interviews had taken place at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, not far from Penikese Island, where Agassiz had founded his Anderson School of Natural History, seen by many as the direct ancestor of Woods Hole. Agassiz had taught his students to find, observe, and ask questions about creatures in their own environments, and this is precisely what, according to the interviews, biology professors are still doing today, at Woods Hole as well as at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, which was the creation of Agassiz’s former student David Starr Jordan. The photograph on the cover of Agassiz’s Legacy shows a scene Agassiz would have enjoyed. The biologist Don Abbott and a young female student (Gabrielle Nevitt, who would later teach at the University of California–Davis) are gathering sponges in an intertidal zone off Hopkins Marine Station. Abbott, white-haired and distinguished-looking, is up to his knees in an intertidal pool, gazing at an open jar in his hand, while his student, kneeling on the slippery rocks, is about to close hers. This kind of intimacy—with nature, students, other scientists—was what Agassiz craved more than anything else. Fieldwork, for Agassiz, was an affair of the senses. It meant delighting in the present moment: the things we see, the sounds we hear, the air we feel, and the surfaces we touch. It meant passing on such delight to others, his students.
There were, to be sure, distinctly undelightful sides to Louis Agassiz: his shabby treatment of his first wife, whom he left behind when he traveled to America; his relentless resistance to Darwinism; and, perhaps most of all, his reprehensible belief that America belonged to the whites only. In fact, people who are not working scientists tend to think of Agassiz as a misguided, opportunistic bigot. Even in his own Cambridge he has become a liability. A few years ago, an eighth-grader at the Agassiz School, a stone’s throw from Agassiz’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, came across a summary of Agassiz’s racial views in the biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man. Horrified, he suggested that the school change its name. Which it did. In 2004, an official ceremony celebrated the renaming of the Agassiz School to honor its first African American principal, Maria Baldwin. And there’s more to rename. In a recent broadcast of Living on Earth, the producer Bruce Gellerman, interviewing the Darwin biographer James Moore, referred to Agassiz with evident disgust, adding, “We’re not far from Harvard University right here from our studios and many things are named after him.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the pothole-riddled Cambridge street that bears Agassiz’s name was someday given a new identity too. And what about Mount Agassiz in New Hampshire or, for that matter, in California, one of the tallest peaks in th...