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Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

A new biography sheds light on some of the 'undelightful' aspects of the life and work of eminent Swiss zoologist, glaciologist, and paleontologist Louis Agassiz.

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Louis Agassiz – Creator of American Science, by Christoph Irmscher
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
434 pp.

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In the introduction to his wonderful new biography Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science, Christoph Irmscher carefully lists some of the more “undelightful” aspects of the life and work of the eminent Swiss zoologist, glaciologist, and paleontologist: “his shabby treatment of his first wife, whom he left when he traveled to the new world; his relentless resistance to Darwinism; and perhaps most of all his reprehensible belief that America belonged to whites only.” And it doesn’t get much better from there.

Agassiz (born Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz), a world-renowned and celebrated Swiss-born scientist whose name, more than 100 years later, would grace street signs, schools, and even a mountain range in Switzerland, recently had his reputation almost single-handedly felled by a Cambridge, Mass., eighth-grader. The student, who attended the Agassiz School there, discovered Agassiz’s abhorrent racial views in an edition of biologist Stephen A. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man." The horrified student, Irmscher writes, “suggested that the school change its name, which it did.”

Irmscher, a professor of English at Indiana University, asks some very difficult questions about Agassiz’s legacy at the onset of this biography. Despite the book’s rather generous subtitle, Irmscher ultimately cannot reconcile Agassiz’s numerous and significant scientific achievements with his abhorrent views on evolution and race.

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