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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/December 1907/Jean Louis Rudolphe Agassiz

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 71‎ | December 1907

By Professor EDWARD S. MORSE


JEAN LOUIS RUDOLPHE AGASSIZ was born in Motier, Switzerland, May 28, 1807, and died in Cambridge, December 14, 1873.

He was one of the great naturalists of the world, a student of Cuvier, beloved by Humboldt, counting every distinguished name in science as an admirer and idolized by his associates. At the age of twenty-four he had an international reputation. He had conferred upon him many degrees, one of which was the doctor's degree of medicine and surgery, in the preparation for which Von Siebold says he prepared seventy-four theses on anatomical, pathological, surgical and obstetrical subjects, also investigations in materia medica, medicina forensis and the relation of botany to these topics.

He studied at the medical school at Zurich, the University of Heidelberg and at the University of Munich. Investigations of the widest diversity in natural science were embodied in 415 papers, memoirs and books, many in quarto and folio, representing nearly ten thousand pages and a thousand plates.

Besides his profound attainments as a naturalist he was equally remarkable as a teacher and most eloquent as a lecturer. Always enthusiastic in his own work, he had the further power of inspiring this enthusiasm in others. At the age of twenty-three, in a letter to his brother, he said: "What troubles me is that the thing I most desire seems to me, at least for the present, farthest from my reach, namely, the direction of a great museum." He little foresaw that thirty-one years from that time he would see the inauguration with pomp and circumstance of the great museum at Cambridge of which he was the originator and director. Nor could he have anticipated that his son, profiting by his engineering and geological studies in the Lawrence Scientific School with which this museum was affiliated, should use that knowledge in securing the fortune by which the museum has expanded far beyond the most ardent imagination of its founder.

In the very prime of his manhood, in the very height of his fame, he came to our country, and by his enthusiasm, his eloquence, his winning and democratic ways, he won the hearts of all, and from his advent here may be dated the wide-spread love of natural science among the masses.

Agassiz's contributions as a naturalist covered the entire range of the animal kingdom. A study of his bibliography exhibits communications, papers and memoirs on every Cuvierian class. A further study of this bibliography indicates that, as a young man, he grappled vrith. some of the most difficult groups of the animal kingdom. The fishes had been one of the most distracting divisions of the higher animals. The limitations of their genera, the homologies of their bony structure, had daunted most zoologists who confined their work to the description of species. Agassiz's first important work was the "Fishes of Brazil," based upon material brought home by Martins and Spix. This was done at the age of twenty-two. The work was written in Latin, dedicated to Cuvier, and illustrated with a folio of ninety plates. At the age of twenty-three he issued his prospectus of the natural history of the fresh-water fishes of central Europe, which was completed twelve years after, accompanied by a folio atlas of forty-one colored plates.

Difficult as was this task, he wrestled with a still more difficult one, namely, the "Fossil Fishes," and in nine years had completed this remarkable work in five quarto volumes with 400 colored folio plates. This publication alone placed him in the front rank of naturalists. An eminent geologist has written in regard to this work that Agassiz's power of classifying fossils and his success in reducing to order thousands of specimens of fishes, a great many of which were perfect puzzles to every one, was simply marvelous. The echinoderms, with their complicated covering of curious plates, spines and minute appendages, formed another most difficult group for study. From the number of fossil species in the rocks in his neighborhood Agassiz was led to a minute examination of both living and fossil forms which culminated in his great monograph of echinoderms with many plates.

The prodigious extent and character of the work done before he was thirty years old may be appreciated when it is stated that on a meager salary of $400 a year he established a lithographic press at Neuchatel, he employed two skilful artists, published a number of parts of his monograph of the echinoderms, several parts of his fossil fishes, made a profound study of the glacial phenomena of the Alps as well as of the geology and paleontology of the Jura and superadded to all this work the monographing of two molluscan genera, Mya and Trigonia. Ernest Favre, in his biographical notice of Agassiz, says, in regard to this period of his life, that he displayed an incredible energy, of which the history of science offers, perhaps, no other example.

His original way of dealing with subjects is well illustrated in his studies of fossil bivalve mollusca. It had been customary to describe the external markings of the shell and when possible the muscular impressions within. Agassiz soon realized the importance of studying the interior contour of the shell, and forthwith proceeded, by means of casts, to bring to light the relations of these fossils with their living representatives. His maxim was to have abundant material—thousands of specimens, if necessary—for any proper research. In studying glaciers he literally rode on the back of one for weeks at a time. He furthermore urged his students to read all that had been written on a subject before publishing.

Agassiz not only defined many new species of animals in various classes, but he was continually dwelling on the affinities and homologies among the various groups; more particularly their classification and their geographical and stratigraphical distribution. His studies in embryology and his familiarity with the work of Von Baer led him to recognize the general truth that the young of higher animals in their respective groups resembled the mature forms of animals lower down in the scale. From these studies he soon grasped the greater conception that this principle was carried out in time as well, and that fossil animals in the early horizons of geological history resembled the embryonic or early condition of higher animals now living and hence the idea of comprehensive or prophetic types. This same broad grasp of fundamental principles was remarkably illustrated in his studies of glacial phenomena in the Alps. One of his biographers says, "With his power of quick perception, his unmatched memory, his perspicacity, and acuteness, his way of classifying, judging and marshaling facts, Agassiz promptly learned the whole mass of irresistible arguments collected patiently during seven years by Charpentier and Venetz, and with his insatiable appetite and that faculty of assimilation which he possessed in such a wonderful degree he digested the whole doctrine of the glaciers in a few weeks," and added a great many new and important facts.

From his study of the glaciers of the Alps he soon announced his belief that the whole northern hemisphere had at one time been covered by an ice sheet. The various records of this vast sea of ice which had been interpreted by the most eminent geologists as the result of diluvial action and flowing mud he rightly attributed to the action of ice. In the face of the most strenuous and even bitter opposition he triumphantly established the former existence of the Great Ice Age. Subsequent studies, while modifying the limitation of the great ice sheet, have only strengthened the views of Agassiz.

Agrassiz's absorbing interest in the structural relations of animals led him to define with greater accuracy the limitation of various groups. As a student of the great French naturalist, Cuvier, he became an eloquent advocate of the existence in nature of four great branches of the animal kingdom. He was early convinced that branches, classes, orders, families and genera had as distinct an existence in nature as species, and his life work was to make clear and rigid their definition. His eager desire to understand the relations existing between obscure forms was expressed one day in a private talk to his pupils, when he earnestly exclaimed, "The lamprey eel has been my puzzle and my misery for twenty years."

Not only in many technical essays, but as an eloquent teacher, he made these principles of classification so plain that vast audiences were able to grasp his conceptions. Those who heard his lectures on the subject will never forget the vivid way in which he impressed upon his auditors these views emphasized by graphic blackboard drawings.

In his methods of study in Natural History he presented in a popular form the leading features of his belief in the systematic relations of animals as embodied in his famous "Essay on Classification." The following quotation from his Methods of Study will indicate the ideas which were surely preparing the ground for the acceptance of the theory of evolution:

Man is the crowning work of God on earth, but though so nobly endowed, we must not forget that we are the lofty children of a race whose lowest forms lie prostrate within the water, having no higher aspirations than the desire for food; and we can not understand the possible degradation and moral wretchedness of Man, without knowing that his physical nature is rooted in all the material characteristics that belong to his type and link him even with the fish. The moral and intellectual gifts that distinguish him from them are his to use or to abuse; he may, if he will, abjure his better nature and be Vertebrate more than Man. He may sink as low as the lowest of his type, or he may rise to a spiritual height that will make that which distinguishes him from the rest far more the controlling element of his being than that which unites him with them.

Not only by such expressions just quoted, but in other statements, he certainly prepared the way for the more prompt recognition of Darwin's views.

Inspired by the belief in the existence in nature of categories of structure, he strengthened old homologies and established many new ones. In representing the four Cuvierian branches by schematic lines, he did not draw a series of lines one above the other, or enclose each group by sharply defined brackets, but drew these lines, parallel it is true, but side by side in an ascending scale, slightly overlapping. He endeavored to indicate by such a diagram his belief, which was correct, that the higher members of a lower group were more advanced in structure than the lower members of a group next above. Thus while the vertebrates were higher as a branch than the articulates, the highest class of the articulates, the insects, were higher in structure than many of the lowest vertebrates. In this way he broke up the idea that the animal kingdom formed a continuous ladder in creation, from the lowest form to man. This was an important approach to a phylogenetic diagram, for it was readily seen that the lower forms in each great division had closer affinities with each other than existed among the higher members. In other words, that his schematic lines should not be made parallel, but should converge below—a genealogical tree in fact. His generalized or prophetic types lend overwhelming support to this conclusion.

It has been repeatedly said, and with truth, that Agassiz's teachings paved the way for the prompt acceptance of the theory of evolution— first, because he familiarized the great public with a structural knowledge of the animal kingdom and the affinities existing between the different groups, and, second, because he demonstrated the recapitulation theory of Von Baer, and added the great conception that the history of the animal kingdom from the earliest geological horizons added further proof of these principles. Agassiz came to an environment well fitted to encourage him. He came to an intellectual center famous for its leadership in science and letters, but the hearty reception accorded him in widely separated regions leads to the conviction that had he settled anywhere in the Country he would have inspired the same enthusiasm and induced hard-headed legislators everywhere to have voted large appropriations, and private citizens to contribute generous sums. It required only his touch to bring into recognition names among us that had before his magic influence been known only in limited circles. Men of the caliber of those of 1846 are a thousand times more widely known to-day, not because of the changed character of the public press, which celebrates with equal prominence and impartiality girl graduates of a public school and men who have revolutionized the world by their inventions, but becouse he made us appreciate the worth of an investigator. Our nation has always believed in education and public schools, and hence has universally approved of high endowments for educational purposes. His great plea and one that had its effect on the legislators was that the museum was an educational institution, that it was to be opened every day free to the public and that it was a sound investment, though its dividends were wholly intellectual. A few personal reminiscences may be of interest at this point. In the early part of the civil war, one of our class enlisted and received an appointment as an officer of the line—the rest of us bought a fine sword and presented it to him. On showing the sword to Agassiz, he instantly threw himself into the attitude of a fencer and became absorbed in thrust and parry, utterly unconscious of our amazement at his earnestness and skill. We learned afterwards that as a student at Munich he had not only fought a number of student duels in which he was always the victor, but on one occasion he had challenged a whole class, whereupon the best swordsman was selected to meet him, when he insisted that he had really challenged every member of the class to fight. After four had crossed swords with him and been vanquished the remainder were quite ready to retire. Agassiz with all his genius had no capacity for business and, as he admitted, was incapable of doing a simple sum in addition; nevertheless, he plunged into investigations which to carry out involved the expenditure of large sums of money. Mrs. Agassiz in the charming tribute to her distinguished husband says:

He was frugal in his personal habits. At this very time, when he was keeping two or three artists on his slender means, he made his own breakfast in his room and dined for a few cents a day at the cheapest eating houses. But where science was concerned the only economy recognized, either in youth or old age, was that of an expenditure as bold as it was carefully considered.

While expressing his great appreciation of the many honors given him by distinguished societies, he seemed to be indifferent to the certificates of these honors. As an illustration of this indifference I may cite an experience that a few of us had with an enormous mass of pamphlets which were unpacked and which Agassiz asked us to classify and arrange by their respective subjects. Intermixed with these pamphlets were numerous diplomas, some of them badly wrinkled, attesting to his election as associate or honorary member of great societies and academies, university degrees, and, if I remember rightly, medals of honor also.

Very few are aware of the profound influence Agassiz's devotion to his work and his enthusiasm had on the character of Harvard College. To apply an expression of Froude, he came in to this staid college community like a meteor out of the clear sky. One day as he crossed the college campus I drew a sketch of him: it contradicts every custom and tradition of the Harvard professor since the foundation of the college in 1638. On his head a soft hat, in his pockets his hands, in his mouth a cigar! President Eliot, in his address at the Agassiz commemorative meeting of the Cambridge Historical Society, said that Agassiz's ability in securing from hard-fisted members of the General Court large appropriations for his museum, excited the envy of other departmental chiefs. Yet in obtaining these large sums from the legislature, and from private citizens as well, he finally provoked the habit of liberal giving to the college as a whole. Thus the college grew into a university, and the inception of this growth dates from the advent of Agassiz. His advice was followed in shaping the work of the Smithsonian Institution. A similar influence must be accredited to him in enlarging the work of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. Professor Bache, then superintendent, was an intimate friend of Agassiz, and the broadening views of Agassiz on the work of this important branch of the national government was marked. The American Association for the Advancement of Science is indebted to Agassiz for the remodeling of the old Society of Geologists and Naturalists along the line of the British Association, of which he had long been a member. He became president of the association in 1851. Agassiz, Bache and Henry were the leading spirits in originating the National Academy of Sciences. The character of the man is indicated by the fact that the highest authorities in art, science and literature were immediately drawn to him and found in him a true friend and a charming companion.

The students associated with Agassiz at the dedication of the museum in Cambridge with few exceptions became heads of many of the great museums of the country.

Professor Hyatt was, at the time of his death, custodian of the Boston Society of Natural History. Dr. Scudder had preceded him in the same office. Professor Shaler continued at Harvard as professor of geology and became dean of the Lawrence Scientific School. Professor Putnam, one of the originators of the Peabody Academy of Science in Salem, and for years director of its museum, is now director of the Peabody Museum at Cambridge. Professor Verrill has been professor of zoology at Yale since his graduation and is director of the museum at New Haven. Professor Packard, for some years director of the Peabody Museum at Salem, was at the time of his death, professor of zoology at Brown University. Professor Bickmore was closely identified with the inception of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was its first director and continued in the office for many years, and the writer has for twenty-seven years been director of the Peabody Museum at Salem.

This record is certainly a credit to the great teacher whose pupils adhered to the initial impulse imparted to them by their master.

At the age of twenty-two, in a letter to his father, he wrote:

I wish it may be said of Louis Agassiz that he was the first naturalist of his time, a good citizen, and a good son, beloved by those that knew him. I feel within myself the strength of a whole generation to work toward this end, and I will reach it if the means are not wanting.

This boyish prophecy was fully established as attested by the glorious records of his life.

Note to the Editor: In view of the distracting state of zoological nomenclature at the present time with the habit of regarding the slightest deviation in structure as of generic value with the result that nearly every species has a separate generic name, it may be regarded as a misfortune that Agassiz could not have established on a sure and enduring foundation his various categories of classification. In a conventional manner it would be profitable to adopt his definitions, even if the groups have no real existence in nature. Only in this way can relief be secured from a condition which is confusing and exasperating.

As an illustration of Agassiz's firm adherence to his principles of classification so clearly elaborated in his famous essay on the subject, I may be excused for giving a letter written to me a few days after I had explained to him my views regarding the systematic position of the Braciopoda:

Your statements of last Saturday haunt me and I can not rest before I have seen more of your facts concerning the Anneliden affinities of the brachiopods. The most telling evidence in your favor[2] you have never yet alluded to, at least not in my presence. But I must be cautious and wait till I see and hear more of your facts. When and where can I see you again? This is not a question of structural complication.

Very truly yours,
L. Agassiz.
Cambridge, Jan. 2, 1871.
  1. Read at the unveiling of the Agassiz tablet at the Hall of Fame, New York, May 30, 1907. In the preparation of this brief address I am indebted to Mrs. Elizabeth Agassiz's charming tribute to her husband in her "Life and Letters of Louis Agassiz" and to Marcou's "Life of Agassiz."
  2. The italics are his.