Agassiz’s 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 a manipulative personality and a provincial worldview. He sought to control his son’s career path by repeatedly suggesting that studying to become a zoologist (with two doctoral degrees, no less) was a waste of time and money. Agassiz’s mother was also aggressive, perhaps even abusive. The pressure she exerted on Agassiz’s beautiful and artistically talented wife Cécilie (Silli) Braun to subject herself to her husband’s ambitions left Silli feeling helpless and abandoned.
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.