Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/February 1881/Sketch of Count Pourtales



BY the death of this able naturalist, in the full maturity of his powers, American science has sustained a great and irreparable loss. We give a likeness of him from the only photograph we could find, and, as no biography of him, that we are aware of, has been written, we are indebted for the materials of this statement to such fragmentary notices as have been furnished to the press since his death.

Louis François de Pourtales was of the Swiss nationality, and was born in 1823. He belonged to an old family, which had branches also in France, Prussia, and Bohemia. He was educated as an engineer, but showed from boyhood a predilection for natural history. He became a student of Professor Agassiz, and was one of his favorites, accompanying him to America in 1847, and joining in his early labors, first at East Boston, and subsequently at Cambridge. In 1848 he entered the Government service in the department of the Coast Survey, and continued in it many years. Professor Theodore Lyman, writing of Pourtales in the "Boston Advertiser," says:

"His talents and industry made him a man of mark, to whom was intrusted much work that required original thought. Especially did he show interest in the problems of deep-sea soundings and the structure of the ocean-bottom, an interest that led to profound observations on the physical geography of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf Stream. His papers on this subject were of the first order, and established his reputation in Europe as well as in America.

"By the death of his father, he succeeded to the title, and received a fortune which enabled him to devote himself wholly to his favorite studies, and to do much in continuing the great work of Louis Agassiz. Appointed keeper of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy, he gave himself, with untiring devotion, to carrying out the arrangement so laboriously planned by his friend and master. Dividing the task with the curator, Alexander Agassiz, he pushed forward his part of the work with the easy power of a strong and highly-trained intellect. Every day and all day at his post—now pursuing special investigations, and now directing the details of the museum—he was the model of an administrative officer.

"He had not an enemy, and could not have had one; for, although firm and persevering in temper, he possessed the gentleness of a child and a woman's kindness. His modesty amounted almost to a fault; and people wondered why a man who was master of three languages should talk so little. But with intimate friends he would speak freely, and never without giving information and amusement. His range of learning was very wide, and his command of it perfect; nor was it confined to mathematics, physics, and zoölogy. He did not scorn novels and light poetry, and was knowing in family anecdotes and local history. Indeed, it was a saying in the Museum that, if Count Pourtales did not know a thing, it was useless to ask any one else."

Professor Alexander Agassiz writes to "Nature" as follows: "M. Pourtales was the pioneer of deep-sea dredging in America, and he lived long enough to see that these expeditions had paved the way not only for similar English, French, and Scandinavian researches, but had led in this country to the Hassler, and finally to the Blake Expeditions, under the auspices of the Hon. Carlile P. Patterson, the present Superintendent of our Coast Survey. On the Hassler Expedition from Massachusetts through the Straits of Magellan to California, he had entire charge of the dredging operations; owing to circumstances beyond his control, the deep-sea explorations of that expedition were not so successful as he anticipated.

"The materials of the different deep-sea dredging expeditions above mentioned had been chiefly deposited at the Museum in Cambridge, and were thence distributed to specialists in this country and in Europe. A large part of the special reports upon them have already appeared. M. Pourtales reserved to himself the Corals, Halcyonarians, Holothurians, and Crinoids. A number of his papers on the deep-sea corals of Florida, of the Caribbean Sea, and of the Gulf of Mexico, have appeared in the Museum publications. He had begun to work at the magnificent collection of Halcyonarians made by the Blake in the Caribbean Sea, and had already made good progress with his final report on the Holothurians. The Crinoid memoirs published by him relate to a few new species of Comatula and to the interesting genera Rhizocrinus and Holopus.

"The titles of his memoirs indicate the range of his learning and his untiring industry. His devotion to science was boundless. A model worker, so quiet that his enthusiasm was known only to those who watched his steadfast labor, he toiled on year after year without a thought of self, wholly engrossed in his search after truth. He never entered into a single scientific controversy, nor ever asserted or defended his claims to discoveries of his own which had escaped attention. But, while modest to a fault and absolutely careless of his own position, he could rebuke in a peculiarly effective, though always courteous, manner ignorant pretensions or an assumption of infallibility.

"Appointed keeper of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy after the death of Professor Agassiz, he devoted a large part of his time to the administration of the Museum affairs. Always at his post, he passed from his original investigations to practical details, carrying out plans which he had himself helped to initiate for the growth of the institution. As he had been the devoted friend of Professor Agassiz's father, he became to his son a wise and affectionate counselor, without whose help in the last ten years the Museum could not have taken the place it now occupies. If he did not live to see the realization of his scientific hopes, he lived at least long enough to feel that their fulfillment is only a matter of time. He has followed Wyman and Agassiz, and like them has left his fairest monument in the work he has accomplished and the example he leaves to his successors."

H. N. Mosely communicates to the same journal the following observations on Pourtales's scientific work: "Almost from the commencement of his connection with the United States Coast Survey he deeply interested himself in deep-sea questions, and some of the earliest observations on the nature of the deep-sea bottom and of Globigerina mud were made by him. He wrote on the structure of Globigerina and Orbulina, and described the occurrence of the small Globigerina-like shells bearing spines in the interior of certain Orbulinæ, which he concluded were the swollen terminal chambers of Globigerinse containing young in progress of development. The first step in deep-sea investigation in the United States was taken by the late Professor Bache on his assuming the duties of the United States Coast Survey in 1844, when he ordered the preservation of specimens brought up by the lead. Every specimen was carefully preserved and labeled, and deposited in the Coast-Survey Office in Washington. The microscopical examination of the specimens was commenced by the late Professor J. W. Bailey, and after his death this work passed into the hands of Pourtales, who devoted his time to it in the intervals of other duties. That most important deposit, Globigerina mud, was first discovered by Lieutenants Craven and Maffit, U. S. N., during GulfStream explorations in 1853. In 1867 systematic dredging in deep and shallow water was commenced on the assumption of the superintendence of the Survey by Professor B, Peirce, who ordered the dredging. At the suggestion of Louis Agassiz, dredgings were made down to a depth of one thousand fathoms. In Professor Agassiz's report, one of the richest grounds for deep-sea corals, lying off Cape Florida, was named Pourtales Plateau. In 1871 Pourtales published what is probably his best-known work, namely, his "Deep-Sea Corals" ("Illustrated Catalogue, Museum of Comparative Zoölogy," Harvard, No. iv), a most excellent memoir containing valuable disquisitions on the affinities of various genera, and excellent notes on the geographical distribution of the species and the nature of the bottom on which the dredgings were made.

"Count Pourtales's name is indissolubly connected with deep-sea zoölogy by means of the genus Pourtalesia, named after him. Pourtalesia, a sea-urchin, one of the Spatangidæ allied to Ananchytes, was found by the Challenger Expedition to be one of the most ubiquitous and characteristic deep-sea animals. Numerous species of the genus new to science were obtained by the expedition in deep water, some of them being of most extraordinary shapes. In conclusion, it need only be added that Count Pourtales's kindness and good-nature were as much appreciated by English naturalists as elsewhere. He was most generous, always ready to give advice to naturalists working in the same most difficult field as himself, to supply them with specimens for investigation, and to discuss in the freest manner, with perfect impartiality, any question of systematic arrangement. He will be regretted by many friends in England, to which he paid frequent visits on his way to his native country, his last visit having been made in the spring of the present year."

Count Pourtales was a man of a strong frame, a vigorous constitution, and a temperate mode of life, which gave hope of a long period of usefulness. But he was attacked by a fatal internal disease, and, after several weeks of great suffering, heroically endured, he died at Beverly Farm, in Massachusetts, on July 17, 1880, aged fifty-seven years.