Louis Agassiz

Louis Agassiz, The Swiss-American naturalist was an outstanding comparative anatomist who studied many kinds of animals in Europe and America. Louis Agassiz promulgated the glacial theory and opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. He became noted for his work on both modern and fossil forms of fish. He established a zoological laboratory on an island in Buzzards Bay off the coast of Massachusetts to study animals in their natural surroundings. Louis Agassiz believed that animal species do not change, as a geologist; he showed that glaciers once covered large areas of Earth.


Palaeontology was just beginning to emerge as a science; speculations about the distribution of species and their relationships to each other were becoming a major preoccupation of naturalists, and science was taking on an increasingly important place in the curricula of educational institutions. Louis Agassiz played an important role in all these developments, both in Europe and in America.

Early life and Education of Louis Agassiz

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born on May 28, 1807, in MotierenVuly, Switzerland. His father, the last of a line of seven Protestant clergymen, instilled in Louis the religious qualities that marked his life, and his mother, Rose Mayor Agassiz, encouraged the precocious taste for science that led him to neglect his books to collect a huge assortment of pets.


Louis Agassiz was sent to school at Bienne at the age of 10, and at 15 to the College of Lausanne. He studied at the universities of Zurich, Heidelberg, and Munich. In 1824 he began medical training at the University of Zurich, and in 1826 he enrolled at Heidelberg, where his interest in natural history increased under the influence of the distinguished staff, which included Friedrich Tiedemann and Heinrich Bronn. In the following year at the University of Munich, he came under the lasting impact of Ignaz von Döllinger, a pioneer embryologist.


While at Munich, Louis Agassiz, then only 21 years old, published the work that launched him on his long and distinguished scientific career, The Fishes of Brazil (1829), prepared from the collections of two eminent naturalists, J. B. von Spix, and Karl von Martius. This was the most important account of a local fish fauna published then. During the following winter, he began work on his Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (1833-1844).

Influence of Georges Cuvier on Louis Agassiz

Louis Agassiz moved to Paris in the fall of 1831. Still pursuing medical studies, he nevertheless spent a part of each day with the fossil fish collection in the Museum of Natural History of the Jardin des Plantes. Georges Cuvier, the brilliant comparative anatomist (who at this time was developing a new system of animal classification), immediately became interested in the young naturalist, gave him a corner in one of his laboratories, and offered him the material he had been collecting for years for his work on fishes.


Louis Agassiz worked under Cuvier and adopted his views of the plan of creation, which put Agassiz bitterly at odds with all “developmental” or evolutionary theories. Cuvier had noted the succession of types in geological history but saw no genetic connection between any of the four great classes he recognized, Articulates, Mollusks, and Radiates.


Working with Cuvier’s delineation of types, Louis Agassiz regarded his investigations as glimpses into the divine plan, of which the structures of the types were the expression. Divine ideas, he held, were especially embodied in animal life, each species being the “thought unit.” Agassiz viewed the marvel of structural affinity in creatures of widely diverse habits and outward appearance as a result of the association of ideas in the divine mind, as Charles Darwin thought, as proof of common descent.


Louis Agassiz further developed the notion that species were created in the localities where they were destined to pass their lives, that is, common forms found in widely separated areas were proof not of migration but of separate creation. Throughout his life, he used these ideas to combat every form of evolutionism.

Work on Glaciers of Louis Agassiz

While teaching at Neuchâtel in 1836, Louis Agassiz became interested in glacial action. He concluded that it had probably been a major agency in shaping the topography from the North Pole to the Mediterranean and Caspian seas. He studied ongoing glacial action and other parts of Europe, and in 1840 he published his first comprehensive discussion in Études sur les glaciers (2 vols.). This was followed by other works in 1846 and 1847, in which he established his expanding theory of general glacial action wherever the earth’s surface bears drift material and polished or striated erratic boulders.

Louis Agassiz in America

Louis Agassiz came to the United States in 1846. On his arrival in Boston, the following month, he was hailed as an internationally famous scientist and was lionized by the scientific community. He gave lectures at Lowell Institute and embarked on an extremely successful lecture tour, which included most of the major eastern cities. Charmed by the enthusiastic receptions he received, convinced that America offered unprecedented opportunities for a naturalist, and disturbed by political problems in Europe, Agassiz decided to make America his permanent home. In 1848 he accepted the chair of zoology and geology that had been created especially for him by Abbott Lawrence at Harvard University.

Books by Louis Agassiz

Louis Agassiz remained America’s most popular naturalist until his death and gained a reputation as a great teacher, he produced no more works of the caliber of those published in Europe. His Contributions to the Natural History of the United States (1857-1862), a projected 10-volume work of which only 4 were published, was his most ambitious undertaking. Its most important portion, the “Essay on Classification,” was a statement of the idealistic point of view about to become outmoded because of the Darwinian revolution. His last work, another argument against the theory of evolution, appeared in the Atlantic Monthly shortly afterward.


Here are some of Louis Agassiz’s notable works with importance.

A Journey in Brazil (1867)

Co-authored with his wife Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, this book details their expedition to the Amazon River in 1865. It provided valuable insights into the region’s natural history and cultures, and helped to popularize the study of the tropics among scientists.

Contributions to the Natural History of the United States (1857-1864)

This multi-volume work, co-authored by Alexander Dallas Bache, documented the vast diversity of flora and fauna found in the United States. It was a significant contribution to American natural history and helped to establish Agassiz as a leading scientist in the country.

Methods of Study in Natural History (1863)

This book outlined Agassiz’s approach to scientific inquiry, emphasizing the importance of observation, experimentation, and classification. It was a popular text for natural history students and helped to shape the development of American science education.

Geological Sketches (1866)

This book explored Agassiz’s ideas on glacial geology, including his theory of ice ages. While his specific theory has been superseded by more recent scientific understanding, his work on glaciers helped to advance the field of geology.

It’s important to note that Louis Agassiz’s views on race and human origins have been widely criticized as racist and scientifically inaccurate. However, his contributions to the study of natural history and his influence on American science education remain significant.

Louis Agassiz had no sooner published his first volume than he embarked on a bitter debate with Asa Gray, a fellow Harvard professor and enemy of several years’ standing, over the theory of evolution.

Institutional Accomplishments of Louis Agassiz

Louis Agassiz was a fund-raiser without parallel in 19th-century American science. He was instrumental in securing legislative grants and private gifts to establish Harvard’s museum of comparative anatomy, where an enormous working collection for the specialist and a series of displays for general instruction were assembled. He became the museum director in 1859. The museum’s profound influence during the next few decades as a center of scientific research and study can hardly be exaggerated.


With other members of the elite group of American scientists fled by Alexander Dallas Bache, with whom he had become associated, Louis Agassiz helped found the National Academy of Sciences during the Civil War. Only a few months before his death, Agassiz secured an endowment to establish a summer school of science on Penikese Island, which became the first American teacher- training institute. Here teachers learned to see nature and to teach others how to see it by the method of direct experience that.


Despite opposing evolution, Louis Agassiz left a lasting legacy. He championed glacial theory, established a renowned natural history museum, and advocated for science education through groundbreaking teacher training.


His first wife had died in Switzerland, and in 1850 he married Elizabeth Cabot Cary of Boston. His son, Alexander, and two daughters joined their father in America.

He died in Cambridge on Dec. 14, 1873.


See further article: William Rose

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