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Professor Of The World’s Wonders
Everything interested Louis Agassiz, from tiny fish to gigantic glaciers, and he transmitted his enthusiasm to the students of a whole generation
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
Louis Agassiz, the enthusiastic Swiss naturalist, appeared on the American scene at exactly the right time and place. The place was Boston, the time, the mid-nineteenth century. Science was beginning to challenge religious concepts long held sacred. Public attention was increasingly directed toward scientific advance and toward the study of nature. Now came Agassiz, the scientist “with the Gallic power of pleasing,” to demonstrate that the physical world was full of wonders and undiscovered secrets. It was just the thing that practical, intelligent young Americans were seeking: a new frontier—a glacial theory, expeditions to Brazil, mountain peaks to scale, and ocean depths to plumb. Agassiz was eager to teach, and he found an America eager to be taught.
It was as a scientist of recognized brilliance that Agassiz came to the United States in 1846. Just under forty, he had written and published his Recherches sur les poissons fossiles more than ten years before. He had received a doctorate in zoology in 1829 and a medical degree in 1830. At twenty five he was appointed lecturer and curator at the University of Neuchâtel, and during the fourteen years he was there, the small Swiss institution had become a major scientific center. By the time he left Switzerland, Agassiz had about 175 publications to his credit, including twenty books with some two thousand excellent plates. He had already formulated his revolutionary glacial hypothesis, having become infected with the idea of an ice age, a whole pre-historic continent under a sheet of ice—powerful, inexorable, carrying great jagged rocks upon its surface, and grinding rock to pebbles and sand beneath it.
King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, continuing his predecessor’s support of Agassiz, now awarded the scientist sufficient funds to travel to America and continue his work on glaciers. Agassiz went, and with the aid of Charles Lyell, an eminent English geologist, soon obtained the esteemed Lowell lectureship at Harvard. It was his first public appearance in this country, and at once he captured the popular imagination.
“Plan of the Creation, especially in the Animal Kingdom” was the name of the series of lectures he gave for the Lowell Institute, and the scope suggested by the title was typical of the man. He demonstrated what were then new ideas concerning the great age of the earth, using his studies of marine fossils to demonstrate the long passage of time and his observations of Alpine glaciers to prove his point. Some clergymen denounced him for extending the seven days of Genesis to the eras of geological time—but there was no shorter road to fame than to be denounced in Boston.
To the over-capacity crowds that flocked to hear him in Boston and all along the eastern seaboard, Agassiz spoke with a strong foreign accent, one of the many fables about him being that he had learned just enough English to deliver his lectures. This was not strictly true. He never would abandon his accent, however, being too much the born showman not to realize that to Americans it was part of his charm.
Agassiz looked more like a Swiss mountaineer than the learned professor that he was. Describing his first encounter with Louis Agassiz, Longfellow wrote of “a pleasant, voluble man with a bright, beaming face.” And later, after they had become close friends, Longfellow said that Agassiz had “a laugh the Puritans forgot.” It was when they were both on a lecture tour and met in Charleston, South Carolina, that Thackeray described Agassiz as “a delightful bonhommious person, as frank and unpretending as he is learned and illustrious.” In the course of his investigations of Alpine glaciers, he and his associates had climbed the Jungfrau, claiming to have been the first to do so. With boyish frankness, he boasted to his new American friends that he had scarcely ever been ill, that he could carry a man on his back “and at the same time one under each arm,” and that he could “lift an anvil that the smith could not.”
From the moment he set foot on American soil, Agassiz regarded his stay in the United States as an educational mission. His introduction to Harvard was the occasion for his scathing remark that the university was no better than a preparatory school in Europe and that students there acted like spoiled children. His philosophy of education, both as preached and practiced, was strikingly opposed to that generally in use. “My intention,” he stated some years later, “is not, however, to impart information, but to throw the burden of study on you. If I succeed in teaching you to observe, my aim will be attained.” He extended this philosophy beyond the classroom, urging it on all with whom he came in contact.
And the results were no less exciting than the philosophy. People from all walks of life wanted to show Agassiz what they had seen, what they had observed. At Nahant, just north of Boston, where Agassiz eventually had a marine laboratory, fishermen would row long distances after selling the day’s catch—just to bring him some strange specimen they had found in their nets. “Come in, come in and sit down,” Agassiz would exclaim, delighted with the gift. If the fish were well known to him he would tell the fisherman strange facts about it; if the specimen proved new he would share with the fisherman the thrill of scientific discovery.