- 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
Along with the human assemblage, the house sheltered innumerable animal inmates. Everywhere he went, Agassiz continued to urge naturalists and laymen alike to send him specimens, live ones if possible. From Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau sent fish, turtles, and a black snake. When Agassiz informed him joyfully that among the fish was an unnamed species, Thoreau was enchanted: “How wild it makes the pond and the township,” he wrote in his journal, “to find a new fish in it!” In a corner of Agassiz’s back yard was an eagle with clipped wings, and in a tank there were alligators. In his basement lived a bear who once got loose, managed somehow to open a keg of good German beer stored there, and then lurched up the cellar stairs—into the midst of one of Agassiz’s Sunday night supper parties. Scattering students, visiting scientists, and Harvard professors right and left, the tipsy bear climbed up on the table and helped himself to dinner.
In 1848, scarcely two years after Agassiz’s arrival in the United States, his wife, still in Switzerland, had died of tuberculosis. Agassiz sent for his son, but his two little girls remained for a time with relatives in Switzerland because his strange Cambridge household was not the place for them. With the thirteen-year-old Alex now added, however, Agassiz began to feel the need for some womanly assistance in managing his domestic affairs. It was Longfellow, who always took a great interest in his friends’ romances, who learned some news from the French wife of one of Agassiz’s scientist friends.
“It is true,” said the lady, “that he plans to marry. He has need of a housekeeper.” Nevertheless, it was a love match and not a marriage of convenience when, at King’s Chapel in Boston on April 25, 1850, Louis Agassiz married Elizabeth Cabot Cary, daughter of one of Boston’s leading bankers. “Lizzie looked lovely,” her sister wrote in her journal, “dressed in a green silk, white camel’s hair shawl, straw bonnet trimmed with white, and leathers on each side. After the ceremony they drove directly out of town”—to Agassiz’s home in “dusty Oxford Street.”
Elizabeth Agassiz received an early initiation in the sort of life that lay before her. Writing to her mother, she humorously issued a warning “to any woman who thinks of becoming the wife of a naturalist.’ One Sunday evening, she wrote, as she was dressing for church, “I ran to my shoe cupboard for my boots, and was just going to put my hands upon them when I caught sight of the tail of a good-sized snake, which was squirming about among the shoes. I screamed in horror to Agassiz, who was still sound asleep, that there was a serpent in my shoe-closet. ‘Oh, yes,’ said he sleepily, ‘I brought in several in my handkerchief last night.... I wonder where the others are.’” When all the snakes were finally rounded up, Agassiz “had the audacity” to call upon his wife to “admire their beauty.”
The deep attachment that Agassiz felt for his new home was clearly demonstrated when, in 1858, the directorship of the Jardin des Plantes and a seat in the French Senate were offered him. Here was the fulfillment of Agassiz’s boyhood ambition, but he declined the offer. The Jardin des Plantes now seemed to him a trifling affair compared to the vast museum he himself planned to build and direct, with laboratories, collections, lecture halls, and public exhibition rooms. His museum was to be “a library of the works of God,” Agassiz said, and he planned to build it in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
To realize such a vision, Agassiz would need money, but, always a successful solicitor of funds for scientific projects, he would not miss the patronage of a Bonaparte or a Friedrich Wilhelm. In America he found Francis Calley Gray of Boston, descendant of a pioneer maker of shoes in Lynn. Impressed by Agassiz, Gray left fifty thousand dollars in his will to establish a museum of natural history connected with Harvard. But Mr. Gray earmarked his money expressly for the purchase of collections, prohibiting its expenditure for brick and mortar. Agassiz now went to the Massachusetts legislature and, contrary to the expectations of his friends and advisers, got an appropriation of one hundred thousand dollars. Over seventy thousand dollars more was raised by public subscription for construction, and the first section of what would eventually become a formidable row of tall brick buildings on Oxford Street could now be started. The name decided upon was “Museum of Comparative Zoology,” because Agassiz believed that the study of natural history transcended in importance the name of any one man. But the museum was soon familiarly known as “the Agassiz.” It still is. A later acquisition of curious examples of German glass-blowing gave the museum its present reputation as “the place where the glass flowers are.”
Agassiz found another sponsor for natural history while the Civil War was still in progress. Nathaniel Thayer, partner in the firm eventually to become Kidder, Peabody, and possessor of one of the largest fortunes acquired by any New Englander, financed Agassiz᾿s Thayer Expedition to Brazil. It realized another early dream. Ever since his Munich days, when he had described in Latin the Brazilian fish brought back by two scientists, Spix and Martius, he had longed to go to Brazil himself to find more and rarer specimens. In 1865 he was on his way.