Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

by Christoph Irmscher

A provocative new life restoring Agassiz--America's most famous natural scientist of the nineteenth century, inventor of the Ice Age, stubborn anti-Darwinist--to his glorious, troubling place in science and culture.

  • Format: eBook
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547568928
  • ISBN-10: 0547568924
  • Pages: 496
  • Publication Date: 02/05/2013
  • Carton Quantity: 1

About the book

Charismatic and controversial, Louis Agassiz is our least known revolutionary—some fifty years after American independence, he became a founding father of American science.

One hundred and seventy-five years ago, a Swiss immigrant took America by storm, launching American science as we know it. The irrepressible Louis Agassiz, legendary at a young age for his work on mountain glaciers, focused his prodigious energies on the fauna of the New World. Invited to deliver a series of lectures in Boston, he never left, becoming the most famous scientist of his time. A pioneer in field research and an obsessive collector, Agassiz enlisted the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural specimens, dead or alive, for his ingeniously conceived museum of comparative zoology. As an educator of enduring impact, he trained a generation of American scientists and science teachers, men and women alike. Irmscher sheds new light on Agassiz’s fascinating partnership with his brilliant wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, a science writer in her own right who would go on to become the first president of Radcliffe College. 

But there’s a dark side to the story. Irmscher adds unflinching evidence of Agassiz’s racist impulses and shows how avidly Americans looked to men of science to mediate race policy. The book’s potent, original scenes include the pitched battle between Agassiz and his student Henry James Clark as well as the merciless, often amusing exchanges between Darwin and Harvard botanist Asa Gray over Agassiz’s stubborn resistance to evolution.

A fascinating life story, both inspiring and cautionary, for anyone interested in the history of American ideas.

About the author
Christoph Irmscher

Christoph Irmscher, professor of English at Indiana University, is editor of the Library of America John James Audubon and author of Longfellow Redux, called "one of the most important books on Longfellow ever written" (Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and editor of Dante's Inferno: The Longfellow Translation).


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...



"Evocative new biography….Irmscher is a richly descriptive writer with an eye for detail, the compexities and contradictions of character, and the workings of institutional and familial power structures….This book is not just about a man of science but also about a scientific culture in the making—warts and all."

—The New York Times Book Review

"Compelling biography...A masterful portrait illuminating the tangled human dynamics of science."

Booklist, STARRED

"In Irmscher’s hands, Agassiz’s life and passions are embedded in the major intellectual ideas of his time…. The relationship between Agassiz and his second wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the first president of Radcliffe College, is also fascinating."

Publishers Weekly

"Christoph Irmscher's elegant, beautifully written account does the essential task of setting the mysterious Agassiz in his full social and historical context, where we can both appreciate his gifts and see his flaws clearly. His portrayal of Elizabeth Agassiz and her contributions is brilliant, and his exploration of Agassiz's stagnation, as the world turned without him, is both rigorous and poignant. Through the prism of Agassiz's life, much of 19th-century culture gleams freshly."

—Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal

"A biography as exuberant as its brilliant but wrong-headed subject, the unforgettable forgotten celebrity scientist Louis Agassiz. Christoph Irmscher is in his element detailing the exploits of this larger-than-life anti-hero of the Age of Darwin, whose feats of discovery took him from the Swiss Alps to the Amazon jungle and made him Harvard’s reigning eminence for decades."

—Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters and Margaret Fuller

"Christoph Irmscher has brought to life an essential figure in the history of American science and culture. Irmscher's expertise and talent for vivid prose open a fascinating window onto the origins of American science as we know it."

—Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club

"A thoroughly satisfying biography…Irmscher makes a convincing case that this egotistical, often wrongheaded figure deserves his reputation as a founder and first great popularizer of American science."

—Kirkus Reviews

"Reading this book is a pleasure - the writing is engaging and witty, while always intellectually rewarding …. Irmscher's account of Agassiz's life reminds us always to examine our own preconceptions concerning the nature of reality and man's place in the universe."

—Tom Cronin, Professor of Biology, University of Maryland