- Historic Sites
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
Strolling one day into the classroom of a young teacher at a country academy, Agasssiz remarked that he needed fresh-laid turtle eggs in order to complete a study in embryology. The young teacher promptly promised to find some and at once began haunting a nearby lake every morning at dawn. It was on a Sunday, and there were no passenger trains, when the young man finally caught a turtle in the act of laying and stole the eggs. He flagged a freight and after many hazards arrived at Agassiz’s door in Cambridge very early in the morning. In answer to his ring, down the stairs came Agassiz, still in his nightshirt, to greet the amateur scientist with enthusiastic praise. The gift of sharing enthusiasm made Louis Agassiz a hero to the young man who watched entranced as the professor dissected one of the eggs, discoursing all the while on the value of the gift. “No one,” a pupil said of Agassiz, “could stand before his words and his smile.”
Agassiz’s gift of persuasion had been early developed in pleading with his father, a Swiss Protestant clergyman, for permission to study natural history. His father was Louis’ only teacher until he was ten years old. By that time, the boy could read, speak, and write Latin, so no one objected very much if he spent part of his time catching fish in the Lake of Morat, where his home, the village of Motier, was located. The parsonage, besides having a view of the Bernese Alps, had a vineyard, an orchard, and a kitchen garden, these last being much to the point in a family that had to struggle to make ends meet. Louis kept his fish in a spring-fed pool in the garden, and they made a welcome addition to the family table. When he taught himself to dissect his catch, to mount and compare delicate bone structures, it seemed a harmless hobby. His mother thought perhaps Louis would be a doctor like her father and one of her brothers. Louis’ father thought that a doctor’s education would be beyond their means, however, and the youth was sent to a boarding school to learn bookkeeping.
Agassiz himself never made a secret of his plans. In fact, he was so openly aware of his own potentialities that, although most people took him at his own appraisal, there would always be those who considered him conceited. At about the age of fourteen he announced that he would one day head the greatest museum of his time—the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Once literally a garden for the raising of medicinal herbs, the Jardin contained a menagerie, galleries of collections, a library, laboratories, and a lecture hall. Europe’s leading scientists, among them Baron Cuvier, founder of the science of comparative anatomy, and Baron Alexander von Humboldt, discoverer of the Humboldt Current off South America, lectured there. Agassiz’s father told him severely that he must prepare himself “for some humble walk in life” and not dream of such an exalted position. But Agassiz did more than dream: he went to the University of Zurich, then to Heidelberg, then to Munich, and finally to the Jardin des Plantes to study, where he became Cuvier’s protégé.
On Cuvier’s death, Agassiz was hired by the University of Neuchâtel in his native Switzerland at a salary of four hundred dollars a year. This princely sum enabled the young academician to marry Cécile Braun, sister of a student he had known at Heidelberg. He spent the next decade teaching and endeavoring to direct a printing and lithographing establishment which he had set up to produce his own immensely expensive monographs on European fresh-water and fossil fish. He won prizes and gradually gained a wide reputation. And during this period—almost overnight, it seemed—he became possessed by his idea that at one time the earth had been covered with ice. Baron von Humboldt, who had been his friend and patron at the Jardin des Plantes, reproached him bitterly for tossing aside his reputation as a scientist to propound so ridiculous a theory. But, after protracted argument, Humboldt came over to Agassiz’s side, as did other noted European scientists.
It was then, in 1846, that King Friedrich Wilhelm sent Agassiz to the New World. In triumph his students saw him off with a torchlight parade. But the opportunity came at a time of personal disaster. His wife, who was an artist, and whose fine drawings had enhanced his first Neuchâtel publications, had given up this work to care for their three children. Depressed because she could no longer help, harassed by lack of money and by the assistants who invaded her home as nonpaying guests, she left Agassiz to return to her family. The printing establishment failed and was sold at auction. When Agassiz accepted the King of Prussia’s offer, he was glad to get away. His popularity in the United States soon resulted in such high lecture fees that he was able to send money home to pay some of his debts and, as it were, to start life anew. Yet the smiling, genial face he presented to the world often hid a private sorrow.
Before his Lowell lectures began, Agassiz toured America’s scientific establishments. He visited Princeton, where Professor Joseph Henry’s department of physics was “remarkably rich in models of machinery and in electrical apparatus, to which the professor especially devotes himself.” Of course it was of still more interest to Agassiz as a natural scientist that “in the environs of the town” of Printeton he tried—and almost succeeded—in catching “a rare kind of turtle, remarkable for … the length of the tail.”