- 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
Once more a sponsor came forward as soon as Agassiz proposed his plan. This time it was John Anderson, a New York merchant, who gave his island of Penikese in Buzzard’s Bay off New Bedford, together with fifty thousand dollars, to start the project. The Anderson School of Natural History opened in July, 1873, with about fifty students, many of them women. Considerable publicity resulted from the startling sight of “ladies dissecting fish.” Agassiz’s charm as a lecturer was undiminished, and workmen, in the midst of remodeling some buildings, would put down their tools to listen to him. It was perhaps a still greater tribute when the carpenters agreed to work overtime to finish the lecture hall. Most of the students gathered at Penikese during the summer were teachers, and this was perhaps the most sympathetic group Agassiz ever had. It was to be his last experience as a leader in the ever-expanding field of natural science, and it was perhaps his happiest one.
Agassiz always worked at high tension and he had had several warnings of ill health, the most serious being a cerebral hemorrhage which temporarily impaired his speech and kept him in bed for many months. That was in 1869, and he had recovered. But one day in December, 1873, he went to his laboratory feeling “strangely asleep.” He returned home earlier than usual and lay down on the couch in his study. Soon losing consciousness, he died December 14, at the age of sixty-six.
“Men who have made their mark in the history of science, disappear from the history of the very center where they have been most active.” So said Agassiz’s son, himself a scientist of high repute. But it was Louis Agassiz, the man, whom people remembered. The poets who knew him—Longfellow, Whittier, Emerson, and Lowell—all tried to express what this warm-hearted human being had meant to them. Longfellow remembered him “in life’s rich noon-tide, joyous, debonaire.” To Whittier he was always “hopeful, trustful, full of cheer.” James Russell Lowell memorialized Agassiz in more than five hundred lines, but came closest to catching the essence of the man in eleven words: