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Alexander Agassiz:
A Reluctant Millionaire

July 2024
4min read

HE WAS ON his way to becoming a naturalist long before he knew it. One of his earliest memories was of bouncing across the cold dazzle of the Aar glacier to the Alpine hut where his father was developing radical theories about the Ice Age. That was in 1841, when Alexander Agassiz was five years old. His father, Louis Agassiz, was already well known as a geologist and zoologist, and on his way to becoming famous.

Alexander was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, a place evidently conducive to the natural sciences: in a very few years the district produced Pasteur and Cuvier as well as the elder Agassiz. This atmosphere, and his vigorous father, engaged Alexander from the start. He early became interested in zoology and began dissecting specimens with unusual skill. But where Louis Agassiz was big, florid, and gregarious—there was always a touch of Barnum about the great naturalist—Alexander had his mother’s reticence and slight build. This troubled his father; perhaps the boy would prove too shy to cope with the world.

Louis needn’t have worried: his son might look ethereal, but he was very tough indeed. Alexander was just ten when the retired army officer who was governor of Neuchâtel came to Louis in a rage: the boy had passed him in the street and failed to salute him properly. It was true, said Alexander; so long as Prussia owned Neuchâtel, he would salute no Prussian. Frederick William, King of Prussia, was Louis Agassiz’s patron: Alexander got a caning. The next day he saluted the governor with burlesque punctilio. He got another caning. He remained unrepentant.

Louis Agassiz went to lecture in America in 1847, leaving Alexander behind with his mother, Cécile, who was suffering from tuberculosis. The family moved to an uncle’s at Freiburg, where Alexander nearly stopped a bullet when the house came under bombardment during the revolution of 1848. That summer his mother died; Alexander stayed in school in Freiburg for a while longer, then took to the road, wandering from relative to relative, often sleeping in haystacks. “Almost anybody,” he said later, “would give such a tiny traveler a piece of bread or a bit of cheese.”

Someone in the family, he realized, would have to get rich.

In 1849 word reached him from his father: Louis Agassiz had accepted a professorship in zoology and geology at Harvard, and Alexander was to come join him there. The boy didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived that summer, but he made his way through the Cambridge public school and was graduated from Harvard in 1855. Two years later he took a degree in engineering from the Lawrence Scientific School, then immediately returned to Harvard and the study of chemistry. In the meantime he taught at the Agassiz School for Girls, run by his stepmother, Elizabeth Gary Agassiz. There the delicate good looks that troubled his father made him devastating to his pupils: the day after he lost a crew race—he loved to row—the girls showed up for class wearing crepe mourning bands. He was in turn devastated by one of the students, and in 1860 the dark, lovely, patrician Anna Russell became his wife.

Now he began his lifelong study of marine invertebrates; North American Acalephae and Embryology of the Starfish , illustrated with hundreds of his own drawings, both appeared in 1865. He took no part in the Civil War. “I am ashamed and have been ashamed any longer to stay at home,” he wrote, “and yet what is to become of father, if I go?” He had been helping with the museum the elder Agassiz had long worked to establish, and “father will go to thunder if I don’t stay and hold on to his coat tails.” He knew that his magnetic, grandiloquent father had little trouble raising money but no ability whatever to hold on to it. If things were to proceed at all smoothly, someone in the family would have to get rich.

SO IT WAS that in 1866 Alexander left the work he liked best and journeyed to the wild, steep landscape on the Michigan shore of Lake Superior where a man named Edwin Hurlbert had opened the Calumet copper mine. Hurlbert was the perfect picture of the mid-nineteenth-century entrepreneur: brave, hardy, independent, willing to take on enormous challenges; the only trouble was that he was deeply stupid about mining. Alexander looked around, saw the land was rich, “but with the kind of management many of the mines have had, then even if the pits were full of gold, it would be of no use.” He borrowed a little money, bought land south of Calumet, organized the Hecla Mining Company, and went to work. He was thorough, diligent, and a good boss to the miners. Soon he became treasurer of the Calumet and Hecla mines. His wife and infant son George came to live with him in a log cabin surrounded by country so raw that Anna would strap a revolver to her waist before taking George for a walk. Alexander persevered through a thousand reverses, both small (Hurlbert was jealous of everything he did) and great (the gauge of the locomotive brought in at enormous trouble and expense was an inch too narrow for the track that had been laid).

By 1868 he’d done the job. It would be a year before Hecla paid its first dividend, but Agassiz believed that, thereafter, he would have to come west only for brief visits. He was right. Hecla eventually produced more copper than any mine on earth and paid its investors bigger dividends than any metal mine in history. Alexander had permanently damaged his health, but he was free now to devote his efforts to his work on marine biology, Revision of the Echini .

In 1873 he wrote, “Everything seems so prosperous that I feel as if some of us would have to pay a heavy penalty, by and by, for all our happiness. …” That winter Louis Agassiz suffered a stroke and died a week later. Young Anna Agassiz caught pneumonia while caring for her stricken father-in-law and died eight days after that. “Few young men,” wrote Alexander, “have reached my age and have attained … all their ambition might desire, and yet the one thing which I crave for … is wanting. How gladly would I exchange all that I have for what I have lost.”

He never remarried. In time he made a comfortable widower’s life for himself, looked after by his beloved stepmother and giving dinner parties at Newport that were famous for their conviviality and good food. But until the end of his days he could never bear to make the briefest mention of Anna’s death. “I feel as if I were acting a lie,” he said once, “but it is a harmless one which I must make up my mind to keep up for many a long year.”

HE WAS by no means idle. He raised the funds to complete his father’s Museum of Comparative Zoology—$1,215 came in from the Calumet miners—and embarked on a series of exploratory voyages that would occupy the rest of his life. Here, too, in his oceanographic studies, he honored the memory of his father. The elder Agassiz could never bring himself to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution, holding to the end that only God could bring about new species. Alexander knew better than to attack the Englishman on that, but for a quarter of a century he kept up a relentless drumfire against Darwin’s theories of atoll formation.

During those years he never ceased his researches, and they won him honor after honor: England awarded him the Victoria Research Medal; France made him an Officer of the Legion of Honor; and before his death in 1910 the house of Hohenzollern overlooked the insults he had offered it a lifetime before to make him a Knight of the Order of Merit of Prussia.

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