Alexander Agassiz: A Reluctant Millionaire


In 1873 he wrote, “Everything seems so prosperous that I feel as if some of us would have to pay a heavy penalty, by and by, for all our happiness. …” That winter Louis Agassiz suffered a stroke and died a week later. Young Anna Agassiz caught pneumonia while caring for her stricken father-in-law and died eight days after that. “Few young men,” wrote Alexander, “have reached my age and have attained … all their ambition might desire, and yet the one thing which I crave for … is wanting. How gladly would I exchange all that I have for what I have lost.”

He never remarried. In time he made a comfortable widower’s life for himself, looked after by his beloved stepmother and giving dinner parties at Newport that were famous for their conviviality and good food. But until the end of his days he could never bear to make the briefest mention of Anna’s death. “I feel as if I were acting a lie,” he said once, “but it is a harmless one which I must make up my mind to keep up for many a long year.”

HE WAS by no means idle. He raised the funds to complete his father’s Museum of Comparative Zoology—$1,215 came in from the Calumet miners—and embarked on a series of exploratory voyages that would occupy the rest of his life. Here, too, in his oceanographic studies, he honored the memory of his father. The elder Agassiz could never bring himself to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution, holding to the end that only God could bring about new species. Alexander knew better than to attack the Englishman on that, but for a quarter of a century he kept up a relentless drumfire against Darwin’s theories of atoll formation.

During those years he never ceased his researches, and they won him honor after honor: England awarded him the Victoria Research Medal; France made him an Officer of the Legion of Honor; and before his death in 1910 the house of Hohenzollern overlooked the insults he had offered it a lifetime before to make him a Knight of the Order of Merit of Prussia.