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Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

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Eventually – in an act Irmscher likens to that of a “modern woman” – Silli took their children and left Agassiz. In September, 1846, Agassiz, whose writings and traveling lectures on glaciers, Brazilian fishes, and other exotic and arcane topics had brought him worldwide acclaim, would leave Europe for good to accept a professorship at Harvard University. And Silli, who once illustrated her husband’s published works and shared his professional enthusiasms, would die in loneliness and despair two years later.

Agassiz’s second wife, Elizabeth Cabot Cary, fared considerably better. Born into “blue-blood” Boston in 1822, “Lizzie” Cary had a powerful intellect rivaling that of Agassiz. She employed her intelligence to her future husband’s advantage – as well as her own – by editing his books and other writings. But hidden underneath the scholarly veneer and the "strenuously rational language" of their correspondence, Elizabeth had a “true, lasting affection” for Agassiz. Following their marriage in 1850, she sought to realize her keen interest in education by starting a private school for young girls in the attic of their Quincy Street home. Twenty-two years after Agassiz’s death, she became the first president of Radcliffe College. In between, she accompanied Agassiz on his Charleston lectures and assisted him in gathering specimens on the Galapagos Islands. And in her attempt to solidify her late husband’s legacy, she also authored a comprehensive and well-regarded biography of Agassiz.

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