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Louis Agassiz

1807 - 1873

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, better known as Louis Agassiz, was a Swiss-born American zoologist, geologist, and teacher. While in his early twenties, he established an international reputation among zoologists with his research on fossil fishes, and then turned to the study of glaciers. He illuminated the phenomenon of “erratics"—boulders scattered on the earth’s surface far from their geological source—that had long puzzled Edward Hitchcock and other geologists.

Agassiz was born in Motier, Switzerland. He studied medicine and natural history at the universities of Zürich, Heidelberg, and Munich. His scientific work began with classifying fossil fishes and he continued this work for more than a decade. His numerous research publications established his reputation as an outstanding scholar and thinker in zoology. In 1832, Agassiz traveled to Paris and studied with the eminent zoologist, anatomist, and taxonomist Georges Cuvier, shortly before Cuvier died. Agassiz so impressed the elder scientist that after Cuvier’s death, his associate invited Agassiz to stay in Paris and continue Cuvier’s life work. Instead, Agassiz accepted a professorship at the Universite de Neuchâtel, Switzerland, a position created for him at the suggestion of the geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. 

While at Neuchâtel, Agassiz began studying Swiss glaciers. They unquestionably existed in the mountains, but most scientists, including Agassiz, at first rejected the earlier notion that glaciers had once covered a larger land mass. This, and not the biblical deluge, they thought, explained “drift.” In 1840, when Agassiz published his landmark research, he concluded that a vast ice sheet had blanketed his homeland, and in a relatively recent geological period. Though many scientists rejected these revolutionary findings, Agassiz eventually convinced the leading geologists William Buckland and Charles Lyell that glaciers had left similar traces in Great Britain. 

In 1847, Agassiz accepted a professorship in zoology at Harvard University. Three years later, after the death of his first wife, he married Elizabeth Cabot Cary of Boston, an advocate for women’s education who later became the first president of Radcliffe College. Agassiz also joined the Boston Society of Natural History, where he and Edward Hitchcock became familiar with each other's research. Beginning in 1848, Agassiz gathered evidence of vast glaciation in North and South America, which generated controversy among American geologists. Hitchcock, though initially excited by Agassiz’s glacier hypothesis, waxed skeptical, believing icebergs explained “drift”: "I have never supposed it possible to apply the glacial theory of Agassiz to this country without modification," he wrote in Benjamin Silliman’s American Journal  of Science (July 5, 1842). Both scientists had ancient glacial lakes named for them: Lake Hitchcock in New England, and Lake Agassiz in north central North America. 

In 1859, Agassiz founded what is now the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College, the first publicly funded science building in North America. Like Hitchcock, who was the first president of the organization now called the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Agassiz promoted the development of scientific institutions as a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences and a regent of the Smithsonian Institution. As an educator, Agassiz also popularized science among the general public, much as writers such as Carl Sagan and Jared Diamond did during the late twentieth century.

Two major flaws mar Agassiz’s scientific reputation today: as a staunch creationist, he rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution. Although he trained the next generation of zoologists at Harvard, most of them did embrace evolutionary theory. Second, Agassiz held racist views that were extreme even in his time, believing that non-white humans constituted separate and inferior species. Louis Agassiz died on December 14, 1873, in Cambridge, Massachusestts. A boulder from Switzerland marks his grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery.