- 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
At Yale, Agassiz met Benjamin Silliman and decided he was “the patriarch of science in America.” He admired Yale’s fine collection of minerals, but again it was American wildlife that attracted him most. He had never before seen such great flocks of ducks as fluttered around the steamer after he left the train at New Haven and embarked upon Long Island Sound to complete his journey from Boston to New York. He returned to Boston to begin his lectures with his baggage augmented by a large barrel of fish he had collected in New York—at the Fulton Fish Market.
On his lecture platform, Agassiz usually set up his own portable blackboard, a roll of canvas painted black which pulled down like a window shade. He began his talks with descriptions of the most primitive sea creatures, now found in fossil form, and as he talked he drew in chalk to illustrate his words. Ernest Longfellow, son of the poet and himself an artist, said that Agassiz’s sketches had the beauty of the finest Japanese drawing. “It was a real treat,” he said, “to see a perfect fish or a skeleton develop under his hand with extraordinary sureness and perfect knowledge, without any hesitation or correcting.” The audience always breathed a sigh of regret when Agassiz erased his work. Of course, his pictures were not always pretty. To one young lady who inquired why a certain fish was so ugly, Agassiz replied: “Oh, God must have His leetle joke.”
The Swiss professor always began with “things easy to understand” and then would plunge into the more difficult, “where only technical language could be used.” The faces of the “thousands of people who sat and listened would take on an expression of struggling perplexity,” only to relax into comprehending smiles as the great professor made them understand.
Everyday-scenes acquired a new meaning for Agassiz’s audiences as they learned to identify rocky outcroppings and to look for signs of glacial action. Wherever Agassiz went, he found something to admire, giving his lecture-goers a new sense of local pride. It seemed a distinction that Princeton’s turtles should have extra-long tails. A huge rock in a farmer’s pasture near Manchester, Massachusetts, once merely a nuisance, became “Agassiz Boulder,” and strangers could be told how an ice floe brought it there. Agassiz’s discovery of ice-scored cliffs increased the popularity of the White Mountains as a resort, and today a height near Bethlehem, New Hampshire, is called “Mount Agassiz.”
By 1848, Agassiz, was a widely respected and beloved scientific figure, but he still held no permanent place in American education. In that year, Abbott Lawrence, who had just given fifty thousand dollars to Harvard to establish the Lawrence Scientific School, offered Agassiz. the chair of zoology and geology, with a salary of fifteen hundred dollars a year to be paid by Lawrence personally for a term of three years. To a man who had considered four hundred a year adequate, the sum was magnificent. Agassiz accepted the offer and became Harvard’s first foreign-born professor.
Cambridge now found itself containing a “permanent fixture” whose personality, as well as his whole approach to education, was startlingly different from anything the town had yet encountered. At Harvard, the Boston Transcript reported, Agassiz “smashed all the traditions of correctness of demeanor and chilly aloofness ... He wore a soft hat and smoked like a steam engine.” His gait was often referred to as a “trot” as he crossed the Harvard Yard puffing his huge cigar. “He smoked in classroom and sent out scientific knowledge through smoke rings.”
Maturity of attitude was Agassiz’s first demand of his students. There were no entrance examinations at the Lawrence Scientific School. A prospective student came by to see Professor Agassiz, had a talk with him, and was told that he was free either to stay or to go. Thus, Edward Sylvester Morse, a truculent youth who had been expelled from all the schools he had attended, became a student of Agassiz’s because of his extraordinary knowledge of land snails and the gleam in his eye when shells were mentioned. Morse became a famous conchologist, a professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo, and later director of the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
The enthusiastic teacher, realizing the limitations of nineteenth-century scholarship, never failed to caution his students that the books they read were not necessarily accurate. He put observation first, as always. Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, an early Lawrence student who was to become a professor of geology at Harvard, said Agassiz was the worst instructor but the best educator he had ever known. This would have pleased Agassiz, for it made just the point he was trying to explain to the president and fellows of Harvard: a university should be for men, not boys. Students should arrive well-instructed in the fundamentals so that they could take advantage of an opportunity for education.
It was a rule at Harvard that professors live in Cambridge, and Agassiz rented a house on Oxford Street just north of Harvard Yard. He established a startling household. Former associates from Europe, most of them penniless refugees, flocked to Oxford Street. Many were competent scientists, and Agassiz was able to find positions for them. Others were mere hangers-on who had heard that Agassiz was well paid in America and remembered his openhanded generosity. Sometimes Agassiz found himself with more than twenty nonpaying guests.