- 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
Mrs. Agassiz went along, the only woman in the party. What had at first been planned as a vacation for Agassiz developed into a full-scale operation, with paid assistants and student volunteers. Among the volunteers was Stephen van Rensselaer Thayer, son of Agassiz’s patron, and Walter Hunnewell, blessed with a large income and an amiable disposition. Hunnewell brought along a camera and worked hard at learning the use of this remarkable contraption. Among the other students accepted was William James, future Harvard professor of psychology.
The Colorado, with Agassiz and his party on board, sailed from New York on March 30. Agassiz’s stateroom looked like “a huge Christmas stocking into which enthusiastic Santa Clausi (or æ) were perpetually thrusting wines, cigars, oranges, apples, chocolate drops and books and newspapers,” said Sam Ward, Julia Ward Howe’s genial brother, who had come to see the party off. Agassiz was “flying around … now drawing a check, now giving an order” and distributing handshakes “as freely as Louis Philippe on his accession.” He had been up all night, but when someone suggested he go to bed as soon as the ship cleared the Narrows, Agassiz scoffed at the idea. He must at once begin charting the temperature of the sea water “for our approach to the Gulf Stream,” he said.
Agassiz gave a lecture to his assistants every day aboard ship. It was a “ long lecture,” remarked William James, but Mrs. Agassiz took note of the fact that “all the passengers, several officers of the ship and the Captain” came. With the optimism that never left him, Agassiz planned the exploration, “explaining over the map of South America and making projects as if he had Sherman’s Army at his disposal,” James said.
The expedition reached the bay of Rio de Janeiro on April 23. Agassiz immediately exerted his charm upon Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, with the result that the Amazon, not yet officially open to commerce, was opened to Agassiz, with the Emperor furnishing guides and arranging free transportation. Off went the Thayer Expedition, north along the coast, then up the Amazon in the steamer Incamiaba. The deck provided the “pleasantest sleeping place,” and here the whole party slung their hammocks, Mrs. Agassiz’s being rose-colored with white gauze curtains. “Can this be really Lizzie Cary, floating up the Amazon with a parcel of naturalists?” she wondered. Or would she wake “and find it all a dream?”
There was nothing dreamlike about the way Agassiz worked. The Amazon was teeming with fish, none of them safe from his nets. He discovered many new species, among them one that carried its young in its mouth; this he named for the Emperor, a touching tribute. Agassiz also wanted botanical specimens, and bird skins, and living animals such as a sloth, assorted monkeys, and some turtles. He was especially interested in the natives, but as there seemed no practical way of bringing any home, he set Hunnewell to photographing them.
Some of Agassiz’s happiest days were spent on a plantation on a lake inland from the Amazon. His artist was kept frantically busy recording the colors of lake fish new to science, while Agassiz jotted down observations and plopped hundreds of specimens into preserving alcohol. Here, after watching native dances one evening, Mrs. Agassiz was asked by the Indians to demonstrate a dance of her own people. She and “Ren” Thayer waltzed, to illustrate the folkways of Boston.
Agassiz found what he thought were glacial remains in Brazil, and would have liked to look for more in the Andes; so he was disappointed in not being able to visit Peru and Uruguay. In July, 1866, the Thayer Expedition, stocked with more than eighty thousand specimens for the museum, had to return home.
Five years later, however, on a gray December afternoon in 1871, with “the first snow-storm of the New England winter” just beginning, Agassiz and his wife set out again. This time, they would explore a glacier in the Strait of Magellan, easily seen from the main channel of the strait. It had been mentioned often in the accounts of travelers, but no one had ever recorded approaching it. “A wall of ice” stretched the whole width of the valley, and Agassiz declared that this was “one of the greatest glaciers he had ever seen.” Along its lower edge, where a rushing river began its course, were “deep caves of blue, transparent ice” and on going inside one, they saw “between the lower surface of the ice and the ground the accumulated mass of stones, pebbles, and boulders” called ground moraine. That night they “dined gayly,” pledging the glacier in a glass of champagne and naming it, by right of exploration, the Hassler—in honor of their Geodetic Survey steamer.
During the Civil War, Agassiz became a naturalized American citizen. “I seem like the spoiled child of the country,” he said, and he wanted to do something in return for all the happiness he had found here. When he had arrived in 1846, natural history museums were almost nonexistent. There were collections of curios here and there—skulls in Philadelphia, shells in Maine. By 1872, when he came back from the Hassler expedition, there were good museums in almost every American city, most of them Agassiz-inspired, many of them with Agassiz-trained curators. But Louis Agassiz could never feel that his debt to the United States was paid, and he plunged into a new project, a summer school for the teaching of marine natural history—the forerunner of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts.