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.
In the introduction to his wonderful new biography Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science, ChristophÂ Irmscher carefully lists some of the more âundelightfulâ aspects of the life and work ofÂ the eminent Swiss zoologist, glaciologist, and paleontologist: âhis shabby treatment ofÂ his first wife, whom he left when he traveled to the new world; his relentless resistanceÂ to Darwinism; and perhaps most of all his reprehensible belief that America belonged toÂ whites only.â And it doesnât 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,Â schools, and even a mountain range in Switzerland, recently had his reputation almostÂ single-handedly felled by a Cambridge, Mass., eighth-grader. The student, whoÂ attended the Agassiz School there, discovered Agassizâs abhorrent racial views in anÂ edition of biologist Stephen A. Gouldâs The Mismeasure of Man." The horrified student,Â Irmscher writes, âsuggested that the school change its name, which it did.â
Irmscher, a professor of English at Indiana University, asks some very difficult questionsÂ about Agassizâs legacy at the onset of this biography. Despite the bookâs rather generous subtitle, Irmscher ultimately cannot reconcile Agassizâs numerous and significant scientific achievements with his abhorrent views on evolutionÂ and race.
For example, Agassiz was an early and vociferous proponent of suchÂ biological quackery as polygenism (the idea that races of humans stemmed from distinctÂ and different ancestors and thus were of separate origin) as well as miscegenation, or racial admixture within a society. Agassiz could also be called a prototypical 19th-century âracial philosopherâ because of his curious obsession with comparative brain size and cranial capacity, and their relationship to intelligence among races of humans.
Agassiz, always the charismatic showman,Â compounded the damage to his own reputation by regaling attendees at a Charleston, S.C., conference with his racial sophistry, which unfortunately encouraged and enabledÂ much of Americaâs pro-slavery faction. His patrons included the notorious AlabamaÂ physician Josiah C. Nott, who, as the owner of nine slaves, sought out Agassizâs counsel to validate his own theories about the subjugation of blacks through slavery.Â Nott infamously stated that those indentured achieved their greatest perfection, physicalÂ and moral (as well as longevity), in a state of slavery. Agassiz and other scientists whoÂ espoused polygenism also emboldened colonialists, who believed that the inherent superiority of the white race gave credence to Kiplingâs âwhite manâs burden" â theÂ obligation and duty of whites to rule over other, presumably inferior, races.
Agassizâs youth in Switzerland had a powerful influence on his own attitudes toward his family, students, and colleagues. His autocratic father was a merchant with both aÂ manipulative personality and a provincial worldview. He soughtÂ to control his sonâs career path by repeatedly suggesting that studying toÂ become a zoologist (with two doctoral degrees, no less) was a waste ofÂ time andÂ money. Agassizâs mother was also aggressive, perhaps even abusive. The pressure she exerted on Agassizâs beautiful and artistically talented wifeÂ CĂ©cilie (Silli) Braun to subject herself to her husbandâs ambitions left Silli feeling helplessÂ and abandoned.
Eventually â in an act Irmscher likens to that of a âmodern womanâ â Silli took their children and left Agassiz. In September, 1846,Â Agassiz, whose writings and traveling lectures on glaciers, Brazilian fishes, and otherÂ exotic and arcane topics had brought him worldwide acclaim, would leave Europe forÂ good to accept a professorship at Harvard University. And Silli, who once illustrated her husbandâs published works and shared his professional enthusiasms,Â would die in loneliness and despair two years later.
Agassizâs second wife, Elizabeth Cabot Cary, fared considerably better. Born intoÂ âblue-bloodâ Boston in 1822, âLizzieâ Cary had a powerful intellect rivaling that of Agassiz. She employed her intelligence to her future husbandâs advantage â as well as her own â byÂ editing his books and other writings. But hidden underneath the scholarly veneer andÂ the "strenuously rational language" of their correspondence, Elizabeth had a âtrue,Â lasting affectionâ for Agassiz. Following their marriage in 1850, she sought to realize herÂ keen interest in education by starting a private school for young girls in the attic of theirÂ Quincy Street home. Twenty-two years after Agassizâs death, she became the firstÂ president of Radcliffe College. In between, she accompaniedÂ Agassiz on his Charleston lectures and assisted him in gathering specimens on theÂ Galapagos Islands. And in her attempt to solidify her late husbandâs legacy, she alsoÂ authored a comprehensive and well-regarded biography of Agassiz.
Alexander von Humboldt, the pre-eminent zoologist during Agassizâs youth, also hadÂ a profoundly important influence on Agassizâs career. Mentor, patron, and cheerleaderÂ to Agassiz, von Humboldt had royal patrons, which gave him wealth and added to hisÂ prestige. He would write fawning letters to Agassiz, and his âscionâ would respondÂ with equally fawning, almost obsequious, replies. But if anyone could conjureÂ insecurities in Agassiz, it was von Humboldt, whom Irmscher likens to Agassizâs âsurrogateÂ fatherâ â the one who really saw Agassizâs scholarly potential and unselfishly nurtured andÂ financed it.
Agassizâs anxiety about von Humboldtâs towering legacy was never more inÂ evidence than when Agassiz was asked to prepare a series of lectures at Harvard onÂ the occasion of what would have been von Humboldtâs 100th birthday in 1869. Agassiz fretted about every detail, and was adamant that it be carried off perfectly â inÂ other words, to his own satisfaction.
Agassizâs career-long competition with English naturalist Charles Darwin was focused on a few distinct areas of contention, including Darwinâs theories of evolution and naturalÂ selection, in which Darwin emphasized an evolutionary process for the adaptation ofÂ species dependent on their mobility. Agassiz, although particularly religious,Â believed that though man was mobile, species of animals were not, and that theyÂ developed where God placed them.
Darwin, âa sharp observer of other peopleâs foibles,â sawÂ Agassizâs work as âcontemptible rubbishâ and also compared him to one of the jellyfishÂ Agassiz obsessively researched and chronicled: âweird, infinitely interesting,Â capable of inflicting a certain amount of harm, but destined ultimately to fade intoÂ insubstantiality.â Regarding Agassizâs Charleston folly, Darwin sarcastically wrote toÂ his cousin William Darwin Fox, âAgassiz lectures in the US in which he has beenÂ maintaining the doctrine of several species â much, I daresay, to the comfort of the slave-holding Southerns.â
Over his academic career, Agassiz earned another unfortunate reputation: that of aÂ stingy, domineering, and credit-stealing professor who both alienated and smotheredÂ the ambitions of legions of students and research assistants. Here, Irmscher hasÂ exhaustively examined numerous letters and journals (the book contains 44 pagesÂ of endnotes) of former protĂ©gĂ©s such as Charles Girard and Ădouard Desor, whoÂ worked and studied with Agassiz at the University of NeuchĂątel in Switzerland, andÂ Henry James Clark and Addison Emery Verrill, who were both assistants to Agassiz atÂ Harvard. Agassizâs rancorous yet fascinating episodes with these young men were marked by common themes of professional jealousy, theft of what would now beÂ called âintellectual property,â and bitter personal attacks.
Particularly revealing (as well as heartbreaking) is the case of Clark, who toiled inÂ penury within Agassizâs shadow for years as an âAdjunctâ professor helping to organizeÂ Agassizâs career-long ambition, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Clark,Â shortchanged both in credit and in remuneration, was eventually pushed out of hisÂ position by the Harvard Corporation after a very public quarrel with Agassiz. And inÂ the case of Girard â who came to regret following his âflawed masterâ Agassiz fromÂ Switzerland to America and eventually defected to Washington D.C.âsÂ Smithsonian, headed by Spencer Fullerton Baird â Agassiz could not help but badmouthÂ his former student to Baird, saying that Girard had âno judgment,â was âobstinate asÂ a mule,â and needed to be led with âa high hand and kept in an entirely subordinateÂ position.â
When it comes to his books, Agassizâs "Ătudes sur les Glaciers" (1840), isÂ outstanding, not only for its scholarship, but also for its exceptionally beautiful,Â lithographed atlas volume. But for all its beauty and scientific importance, the nameÂ of Agassizâs friend and fellow glaciologist, Karl Friedrich Schimper, is absent from itsÂ pages. Even the initial use of the term âice ageâ (eitzeit), Agassiz cribbed fromÂ Schimper. As Irmscher asserts, this was âthe first prominent instance of the cavalier,Â unattributed use of other peopleâs ideas that, in the eyes of Agassizâ critics, wouldÂ become a hallmark of his career.â
And in a supreme act of hypocrisy added to whatÂ Irmscher terms âa similar mix of ruthlessness and ... naivetĂ©,â Agassiz, who thoughtÂ that another, contemporary author, Jean de Charpentier, had pre-empted his "Ătudes," wrote of his âdisappointmentâ that Charpentier âhadnât used his [Agassizâs] observationsÂ in order to establish âsynonymyâ between âyour theory and mine.ââ Embarrassment wasÂ obviously not in Agassizâs lexicon.
There is no question that Agassizâs shadow looms large in numerous scientificÂ disciplines. But Irmscherâs devastating new appraisal pushes Agassiz out of that shadow and into the klieg lights â leaving all theÂ hagiographic and illusive imagery behind. In the book's epilogue, Irmscher writes, âThe history ofÂ science is unforgiving; it remembers those who were right and commits to the dustbinÂ those who were wrong. And Agassiz certainly was, dead wrong, about evolution andÂ about race.â What this groundbreaking book distills is ugly and very disturbing; butÂ ultimately, it is the necessary and timely exposure of a great man who in truth reallyÂ wasnât.
Chris Hartman is a Monitor contributor.