Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/July 1907/What We Owe to Agassiz

THE

POPULAR SCIENCE

MONTHLY

 

JULY, 1907




WHAT WE OWE TO AGASSIZ[1]
By Professor BURT G. WILDER

CORNELL UNIVERSITY

THIS day, one hundred years ago, was born in Switzerland a man-child destined to astonish and uplift the world. Christened Jean Louis Rodolphe, he was and is known as Louis Agassiz, or simply Agassiz, his eminent son being distinguished as Alexander.

Why is this centennial celebrated here and elsewhere? Rather, by such as know what Agassiz was, what he did, and what he tried to do, would it be asked. Why is not this day observed in all lands, by all classes, yea, even in behalf of animals, plants, the rocks and the very elements?

For, from a child, Agassiz loved nature and humanity. The one he strove to interpret, the other to cheer and enlighten. He was a naturalist in the broadest sense, a sense broader than is possible in these days. His thirst for knowledge was equaled only by his desire to impart it, and his ability to earn money was surpassed only by his determination to spend it for the welfare of man and the glory of God.

More or less complete accounts of Agassiz have been published in various books and periodicals. A partial list of these is included. By far the best, although lacking many desirable details and restricted by the relationship, is the "Life and Correspondence" by his wife. My admiration for this grows with each re-reading. In respect to both subject and style it might well be included among the entrance requirements in English. It portrays an eminent scholar, indefatigable collector and teacher, sincere patriot, staunch friend and fascinating personality in a manner so just, so vivid and inspiring that, were it practicable, in place of the many spoken observances of this centenary, I could wish that the coming Memorial Day might be partly devoted to its perusal—out-of-doors—by every man, woman and child.[2]

In enumerating the grounds upon which this commemoration might be well-nigh cosmic in its scope, so far as possible I shall use the words of Agassiz hmiself or of others fitly representing the several groups.

The following account of the "Glacial Theory" is condensed from the address[3] at the unveiling of the Agassiz tablet in our Memorial Chapel, June 17, 1885, by the geologist and paleontologist, Professor J. S. Newberry:

"In 1837 the Association of Swiss Naturalists met at Neufchatel, and Agassiz then advanced the theory of a general glacial epoch of which he may justly be called the author. At first it met with violent opposition [Marcou says, p. 108, 'it was like a pistol-shot fired into the midst of the assembly'], but this only stimulated those who had adopted it to greater enthusiasm in their researches. ... One of the motives which led Agassiz to America was his ardent desire to see for himself whether the glacial record was the same for the New as for the Old World. ... Many years before his death he had the satisfaction of knowing that his theory was applicable to the whole northern hemisphere, and the pleasure of studying a similar record in southern South America." I wish there were time to quote from Mrs. Agassiz's volume (pp. 317-332) the graphic, indeed thrilling, story of his life upon the glaciers. He once caused himself to be lowered into a crevasse to the depth of one hundred and twenty-five feet, when death would have attended either the fraying of the rope by sharp edges of ice or the dislodgement of the huge stalactites between which he had to steer his way.

Agassiz was a well-informed botanist. His "Lake Superior" and "A Journey in Brazil" deal largely with vegetation; two or three smaller papers are botanic, and one of the courses before the Lowell Institute was, he told me, upon trees and plants.[4] A member of the administrative staff of our College of Agriculture related to me the following incident: During Agassiz's stay here in 1868 he often walked about the then very open campus. She and her brother, little children, conceived a great admiration for him, called him "our Frenchman," and used to offer him flowers. On one occasion she was about to pluck a red clover upon which a bumblebee had just alighted. He restrained her, saying gently, "Do not frighten it away; the bees are the friends of the flowers."[5]

Agassiz's concern for the promotion of agriculture was evinced by word and deed upon many occasions.[6] In 1861 he supervised the drawings for the "New Edition" of Harris's "Insects injurious to vegetation," and "rendered assistance by way of suggestion and advice throughout" the publication of the work that was the prototype of the later extensive reports and organizations, state and national, in the line of economic entomology. The last chapter of "A Journey in Brazil," published in 1868, was more than half devoted to the agriculture and forestry of that country.

So deeply interested was Agassiz in the problems involved in the improvement of domesticated animals that, at the close of his exhausting summer at Penikese, and only three months before his death, he wrote me a letter of 1,700-1,800 words devoted mainly to that subject. The following sentences are very suggestive:

We naturalists can not afford the expense necessary for making the investigations and answering the questions about which farmers universally expect us to be prepared to give information. It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to study the embryology of the horse as I have studied that of the snapping-turtle. But turtle eggs can be had for the asking, while every egg and every embryo of the higher animals will cost the price of a mare or a cow, and so for other species. I do not know one scientific man in the world so placed that he could kill one hundred of these animals a year, for a number of successive years in order to study their embryology; and yet until this is done we shall go on groping in the dark as far as any real improvements in the breeding of stock are concerned.

It is probable that this topic occupied him in his last public effort, a lecture on "The Structural Growth of Domesticated Animals" before the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, only twelve days before his death.

On the twenty-eighth of May, 1874, the birthday of Agassiz next following his death, there was held here a Memorial Meeting.[7] It was addressed, among others, by the Hon. John Stanton Gould, then our non-resident lecturer on agriculture, who had witnessed interviews between Agassiz and farmers seeking information as to animals, crops and soils. He said "It was beautiful to see that illustrious man impart the needed facts in language perfectly adapted to the intellectual and scientific status of the inquirer."

How clearly the situation was recognized by Agassiz himself is shown in the following paragraph from the preface to his "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States":

There is not here [as in Europe] a class of learned men, distinct from the other cultivated members of the community. On the contrary, so general is the desire for knowledge, that I expect to see my book read by operatives, by fishermen, by farmers, quite as extensively as by the students in our colleges or by the learned professions, and it is but proper that I should endeavor to make myself understood by all.

For the means of carrying on the regular work of the museum, and for such special projects as are referred to above, Agassiz depended largely upon grants from the state legislature as recommended by the board of education. Many of the legislators were farmers or from agricultural districts, so that his efforts to improve the quality of domesticated animals and to check the ravages of insects were both natural and politic.

But it may well be doubted whether even the weighty facts and arguments at his disposal would have sufficed without the extraordinary influence of his personality and eloquence. This was alluded to by Oliver Wendell Holmes[8] in the sentence, "The hard-featured country representatives flocked about him as the fishes gathered to hear Saint Antony, as the birds flocked to hear the sermons of Saint Francis." It has been more fully described by Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Charles Mellen Tyler.[9] With the latter's permission I will quote it in advance, nearly verbatim:

In 1861-2 I was in the Massachusetts Legislature and a member of the Committee on Education before which Professor Agassiz appeared to secure the annual appropriation for his museum. It was the year of the storming of Fort Sumter, of the attack upon a Massachusetts regiment passing through Baltimore, and of the first battle of Bull Run. Members of both houses of the Legislature foresaw a prolonged and bloody conflict, a great demand upon the Treasury, an increased and burdensome taxation to maintain the forces in the field. Our hearts were not high; we cut and slashed all bills of appropriation, and scrutinized with microscopic suspicion every bill of either house which looked to any increase of expenditure. Our committee anticipated the interview with Agassiz with some impatience and in a negative disposition of mind. We had, in fact, resolved beforehand not to recommend to the House and Senate the usual gift from the State. But when Agassiz appeared before us with his delightful accent and bland, persuasive, almost affectionate personal appeal to each of us, we wholly forgot the distress of the nation, the probable rejection of our recommendation by the two houses, and went over to Agassiz, horse, foot and dragoons, reported a bill for the usual outlay for his benefit, and to our surprise we carried it through.

Agassiz was born near Lake Neufchatel in the region known as the Seeland of Berne. His early home was literally surrounded by lakes, rivers and marshes. "Almost as soon as he was able to move alone he took to water like a young duck. All the fishermen became at once very fond of the little fellow, and there was a friendly rivalry among them to get him into their boats and show him how to catch fish."[10]

This friendly relation with the takers of fish was maintained throughout his life. Wherever he went he visited the markets and ascertained who were the most enterprising and intelligent purveyors. From them he gained not merely specimens but information, and to them he imparted his own knowledge in appropriate terms. One of his closest friends was Captain N. E. Atwood, of Provincetown, Mass., whose personal knowledge of marine fish and fisheries was so highly estimated by Agassiz that, upon the latter's suggestion, he was invited to give a course of lectures before the Lowell Institute.

In 1853 he issued a circular asking for collections of fishes from various fresh-water systems of the United States. ... To this he had hundreds of answers, many of them very shrewd and observing. ... A great number and variety of collections ... were forwarded. As to the marine forms, "many a New England captain, when he started on a cruise, had on board collecting cans,[11] furnished by Agassiz, to be filled ... and returned." (Mrs. Agassiz, pp. 518-519.)

The participation of women in any memorial of Agassiz is most natural. His mother was his most intimate friend and his letters to her from America are simply delightful. At the museum his lectures were open to women as well as men. He had great sympathy with the desire of women for larger and more various fields of study and work, and a certain number, including the librarian, have always been employed as assistants. For eight years (1855-63) he lectured almost daily in a school conducted by his wife; and upon her intellectual companionship and cooperation he became so dependent that he once declared to me, with signs of deep emotion, "Without her I could not exist." Never from his lips did I hear a word that might not have been spoken in her presence.

In 1873, of the forty-four teachers admitted by him as pupils at the Penikese school, sixteen—more than one third—were women. Coeducation—then hotly debated and regarded by some as a bugbear—had not with him even the dignity of existence as a problem. He declared that he had "no hesitation from the start." His attitude was certainly consistent; among the theses defended at his graduation in 1830 one was entitled Femina humana mari superior. Are some male members of this university concerned lest that phrase become the appropriate motto for the College of Arts and Sciences?

Before me are representatives of the African race, members of the university in full enjoyment of all its educational advantages. Fitly may they unite in honoring the memory of one who so effectively aided the establishment of this cosmopolitan institution. For, whatever may have been Agassiz's technical vieves as to the diversity of origin of the so-called human races, and however he may have deprecated amalgamation and the premature conferring of certain political privileges, his correspondence with Dr. Samuel G. Howe leaves no doubt as to his position upon the fundamental issue:

The negroes should be equal to other men before the law. . . . They are entitled to their freedom, to the regulation of their own destiny, to the enjoyment of their life, of their earnings, of their family circle. ... It is one of our primary obligations to remove every obstacle that may retard their highest development.

One of Agassiz's two daughters married Quincy A., brother to Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the "Fifty-fourth," the first of the two Massachusetts colored regiments in the Civil War. On the eighteenth of July, 1863, Colonel Shaw fell at Fort Wagner and was there buried with his dusky followers. So far from regretting the circumstances of his death or the nature of his last resting-place, the hero's name has been repeated in the second generation.

By none should the memory of Agassiz be cherished more devoutly than by the science teachers of America. I refer here not so much to the favored few[12] who enjoyed his direct instruction whose office is so finely drawn in these lines by James Russell Lowell:

He was a Teacher; why be grieved for him
Whose living word still stimulates the air?
In endless file shall loving scholars come.
The glow of his transmitted touch to share.

From highest to lowest, every teacher of natural science in this country is indebted to Agassiz for improvements in methods, for elevation of public respect, and for increase in compensation.

Upon the point last named Agassiz had cause for entertaining decided views. For years his regular salary was only $1,500; indeed, not until the very end did a gift relieve him entirely from the necessity for outside labors which doubtless shortened his days. His last letter to me, dated November 25, 1873, contained the following significant sentence: "If scientific men are ever to be placed on a proper footing of independence in this country, it is for the younger to work for it. They have a fine opportunity of doing it by pointing out what the older men have done on a starving allowance." On an earlier occasion he declared that thereafter he would not give a public lecture for less than $500, in order to let those who held the purse-strings appreciate the value of such services.[13] While he did not hesitate to accept for the museum, at a low remuneration, or even with none, the services of young men who desired at the same time to learn from him or to enjoy opportunities for research, my personal experience with him during four years and one summer warrants me in saying that in cases of a different sort he was liberal and even generous.

At the middle of the last century American naturalists were few, scattered and little understood. Commonly their vocation was medicine, and their botanic and zoologic avocations were rather condoned than commended. The prevailing notions are embodied in this anecdote: A few years after his arrival in America Agassiz made one of a small party of Harvard professors who traversed the White Mountain region in a carriage driven by a countryman. Three of them were vivacious, restless, and on the lookout for specimens. They would call a halt; leap from the vehicle before it stopped: dash over the fields, and return with prizes in their boxes, in their hands and pockets, and even pinned upon their hats. The fourth, Professor Felton, the brother-in-law of Agassiz, sat quietly in his corner reading a favorite Greek author. When the bewildered driver could stand it no longer he elicited from Felton information which led him to view the behavior of the others with compassionate toleration. His interpretation was thus conveyed to the innkeeper at the close of the day: "I drove the queerest lot you ever saw. They chattered like monkeys. They wouldn't keep still. They jumped the fences, tore about the fields, and came back with their hats covered with bugs. I asked their keeper what ailed them; he said they was naturals, and judgin' from the way they acted I should say they was."

Before long, however, in and about Cambridge and wherever Agassiz remained for any time, he and those inspired by him made the pursuit of natural history not only familiar and reputable, but almost fashionable. Yet when this university opened the collecting of specimens was so unusual that the following incident is related to me by Winfield Scott Merrill, who was here in 1868-9:

While walking in the country I saw a boy holding a horse, and he told me it belonged to a "crazy Dutchman" over in the woods looking for birds' nests.[14]

In an article, "Louis Agassiz, Teacher,"[15] his ideas and practise as to methods of teaching are considered by me at some length. On the present occasion I quote from E. L. Youmans, late editor of the Popular Science Monthly:

Agassiz had a profound interest in popular education, but the soul of that interest was for improvement in its methods. In the matter of public instruction he was a revolutionist and a propagandist. He warred with current ideas and consecrated practises. He condemned in the most emphatic way the wretched lesson-learning routine that prevails in the schools. ... He never wearied in the endeavor to propagate more rational opinions, and we can not doubt that the seed thus sown will yet ripen into most valuable fruit. He denounced our wordy and bookish education as baseless and unreal, and demanded such a change in our system of instruction as shall bring the pupils face to face with nature herself, and call out the mind by direct exercise upon phenomena—the facts, laws, relations and realities of the world of experience.

The abundance of this educational fruit is indicated by Liberty H. Bailey, an exponent alike of "nature-study teaching" and of "science-teaching for science' sake":

Agassiz gave us the motto, "Study nature, not books." He taught the study of nature by the natural method. ... And, although his teaching may not have been nature-study, as we understand the term—being given from the investigator's or the specialist's view-point, and intended primarily for students and adults—the present nature-study movement undoubtedly is a proximate result of the forces that he set in motion. ("The Nature-study Idea," pp. 5, 6, 8.)

Summer schools and biologic stations are now so common at the seashore and by inland waters that those who attend them for instruction or research do not always realize their origin with Agassiz, thirty-five years ago in the establishment of "The Anderson School of Natural History at Penikese Island." Its history is given in the report of the trustees, and various aspects of it have been presented in the publications enumerated in my article, "Agassiz at Penikese."[16] The first session was directed by Agassiz himself, in the last summer of his life; the second by his son. "Although," to quote Mrs. Agassiz (p. 772), "the Penikese school may be said to have died with its master, it lives anew in many a seaside laboratory organized upon the same plan."

Our proneness to forget the pioneers by whose ideas and labors we profit was noted by Agassiz himself in his Humboldt Address (pp. 5, 6):

The fertilizing power of a great mind is truly wonderful; but as we travel farther from the source, it is hidden from us by the very abundance and productiveness it has caused.

Particularly should this day be remembered by that apparently diminishing number of collegiate teachers who hold that the kingdom of scholarship cometh not with observation nor with the assumption of millinery. In this country Agassiz wore no decorative ribbon of any kind, although he possessed that of the Red Eagle of Prussia and that of the French Legion of Honor. Although impressive in aspect and dignified in manner, he was extremely simple and unpretending in his ways, and did not like to make an appearance different from that of ordinary people in his neighborhood. He was of a joyous disposition and upon occasion he could be merry as a child. But for his merriment time and place must be fitting; Dulce est desipere in loco. He upheld the dignity of scholarship, and regarded university property and university time as consecrated to the loftiest functions.

Agassiz has not generally been thought of as a disciplinarian; yet a single incident would justify the celebration of this day by those who regard the saying, "Boys will be boys," as inapplicable beyond the secondary school. Early in the summer at Penikese three young men committed a breach of decorum which some might consider amusing. The next morning Agassiz simply announced that they had shown themselves undeserving and would leave the island before noon.

To the public Agassiz was best known through his lectures before the Lowell Institute and elsewhere, and by the "Methods of Study in Natural History." But an enormous amount of technical work is represented by his European publications, by the four volumes of the "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States," and by his papers of greater or less length upon many zoologic topics. Marcou enumerates 425 titles. Coues thinks[17]

the greatest practical boon he ever conferred upon working naturalists was his "Nomenclator Zoologicus," with its accompanying index—the veriest drudgery imaginable for an author, yet drudgery of a kind that no hack or mere compiler could have performed; and only those who have to keep it at their elbows can be sufficiently grateful for this instrument.

But working zoologists, anatomists and chemists are indebted to Agassiz for another practical service which probably could not have been rendered so efficiently by any other human being, viz., the remission, by act of congress, of the tax upon alcohol used for scientific purposes. Alcohol is consumed largely in chemical laboratories, and it was nearly the only museum preservative in use before the comparatively recent introduction of formal. Representations to congress were made by Spencer F. Baird and others concerned, but it is doubtful if they would have succeeded without the exercise of Agassiz's commingled powers of conviction and persuasion.

No native scientist did more than Agassiz to establish and maintain the intellectual independence of his adopted country.[18] Aside from his published works, his training of young men, his founding of the museum and his provision of means for employment and research that might otherwise have been sought abroad, upon at least two occasions he urged such cultivation of science in this country as should free American naturalists from the necessity of looking up to Europeans as their leaders and guides.

At the annual meeting of the Boston Society of Natural History, May 17, 1848, "he made a most earnest and stirring appeal" in that direction. Three years later he made a declaration of sentiment and policy, emphatic, specific and self-sacrificing. This shall be given in his own words:[19]

Twenty years ago I was present at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Cincinnati, where specimens from all parts of the west were brought together to be seen by the scientific men of the east. ... When one of the members of the association moved that to make the best use of these collections they should be sent to Europe to be identified by paleontologists and zoologists of the old world, I opposed that motion as earnestly as I could, stating that it would be an acknowledgment of inferiority on the part of America from which we could never rise again. ... My motion was carried, and yet I remained under the imputation, which was loudly expressed by some, that I had carried a big job; that my motion had been made in order that I might have the benefit of describing those specimens, and thus raise my reputation. I resolved then to myself, but never spoke of it before, that I would never describe an American fossil, and I have kept my resolve. The progress since then has been such that now an American student scouts the idea of sending a piece of work to a European ordeal.

Agassiz came to America upon a scientific mission provided for by the King of Prussia. He found here unlimited material for research, the chance of earning by lecturing the means of repaying obligations incurred by his European publications, and a cordial welcome alike from naturalists, from society and from the people at large. Changed political conditions rendered his return less desirable, and he accepted a professorship in the newly-established Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University.[20] Ten years later he declined a favorable and repeated offer of a chair in the Paris Museum of Natural History. When the Civil War broke out "no American cared more than he for the preservation of the Union and the institutions it represented." Indeed, "he was naturalized in the darkest hour of the war, when the final disruption of the country was confidently prophesied by her enemies. By formally becoming a citizen of the United States he desired to attest his personal confidence in the stability of her constitution and the justice of her cause.[21]

Although the subjects of Agassiz's studies had commonly to be killed, he was not a sportsman. "His passion for Natural History never carried him so far as to shoot birds or animals for sport." The creatures needed were put to death, as were the mortally wounded soldiers by old Ambroise Paré, "doucement et sans cholère."

An even more impressive exemplification of the apparently paradoxical character of Agassiz was his attitude toward theology. His writings contain abundant evidence of his firm belief in the existence of a Creator, but he would not discuss dogmas and repelled as impertinent the too prevalent American fashion of asking what church a man attends. So while criticized as a bigot by some scientists he was denounced as an infidel by some theologians because he could not reconcile the facts of geology with the literal interpretations of Scripture. In this regard, with Lord John Russell in politics, Agassiz might have said he was "sure he was right because both parties found fault with him." To the "righteous overmuch" who may hesitate to unite in this commemoration of one who seemed to make light of Genesis and to pass over Adam as if he had never existed, is commended reflection upon the following incidents: On the eighth of August, 1873, commenting on the death of an assistant, he said, "My time will come soon, and I am ready." In four short months that time had come.

On the first of May, 1868, to my remark that I could not understand why Providence and the community had allowed him to lack the means for the complete development of his plans, he replied, "I suppose it is all right; had I obtained all I wished it might have gratified my ambition too much.

At the opening of the Penikese School, July 8, 1873, Agassiz said: "I think we have need of help; I ask you for a moment to pray for yourselves." The incident was commented upon as follows by Henry Ward Beecher:[22]

It seems to us that this scene of Agassiz and his pupils with heads bowed in silent prayer for the blessing of the God of Nature to be given to that school then opened for the study of nature, is a spectacle for some great artist to spread out worthily upon canvas, and to be kept alive in the memory of mankind. What are coronations, royal pageants, the parade of armies, to a scene like this? It heralds the coming of the new heavens and the new earth—the golden age when nature and man shall be reconciled, and the conquests of truth shall supersede the conquests of brute force.

As an American, as a student and teacher of science, and as a member of Cornell University,[23] I might, like hundreds of others, take some part in this commemoration. But there are special reasons why, when possible, I have complied with requests to speak or write of Agassiz, and why the invitation to give the present address was accepted with joy and with a sense of obligation, notwithstanding its preparation has seriously interfered with prior plans for purely scientific work. I am one of the few survivors of those who were directly associated with Agassiz as pupils, assistants or colleagues. He inspired me with interest, with admiration, with respect, nay, almost veneration. No shadow ever came between us. Whatever benefits he may have conferred upon others, I have reason to believe that, outside his family circle, there is no one, living or dead, who has such cause for gratitude and affection in return for counsel, for encouragement, for opportunity, and even for material aid in the form of specimens or information.

The following statements are based not only upon my vivid recollections but upon my diaries and upon the letters of Agassiz, all of which have been preserved.

I am unwilling to speak of myself on this occasion, and yet I do not know how else I can do justice to one of the most beautiful sides of his character. His sympathy for all young students of nature was one of the noblest traits of his life. It may truly be said that toward the close of his career there was hardly one such in this country who was not under some obligation to him.[24]

As of yesterday I recall the first interview, now half a century ago. At the age of fifteen (in the middle of the last century a considerably less mature epoch than at present) some observations of mine upon spiders were brought to the notice of Agassiz by one of his assistants, James E. Mills, and led to an invitation to visit him. In my "Entomological Diary" he is described as a "very pleasant, fine-looking gentleman." Now I should write, "The most fascinating and magnificent of men."[25] At once I appreciated the saying current in Cambridge that in winter one needed an overcoat less while passing his house. His commendation of the spider essay led my parents to grant my request to prepare for the profession of naturalist.

That preparation comprised (1) Two more years of Latin and Greek to complete the Harvard entrance requirements in those languages; (2) additions to the collection of insects that formed the nucleus of the collection at Cornell; (3) reading the first two volumes, just issued, of Agassiz's "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States" (Turtles, and Essay on Classification). This was done before breakfast, and such was my conviction of its value that, although the text was largely unintelligible at that stage of my progress, I felt fortified for the ordinary tasks of the day somewhat as is the religious neophyte by his matutinal fasting and prayer. The experience is related as a warning rather than as an example, but it illustrates the influence unconsciously exerted by Agassiz upon those whom he had welcomed to the scientific fold.

That influence was similarly illustrated while attending his lectures at Cambridge in my first year. No topic was so vital as the general problem of animal life, and no expositor could compare with Agassiz. As an outlet for my enthusiasm each discourse was repeated, to the best of my ability, for the benefit of my companion[26] on the daily four-mile walk between Cambridge and our Brookline home. So sure was I that all the statements were correct and all the conclusions sound that any doubts or criticisms upon the part of my acute and unprejudiced friend shocked me as a reprehensible compound of heresy and lèse majesté.

From the fall of 1866 until, mainly upon his recommendation, my connection with Cornell University, I was employed in making preparations to illustrate the structure of sharks and rays for his projected volume upon those fishes.[27] This work brought me into relations with him, more and more close, instructive and delightful. From my diaries and letters are selected a few incidents exemplifying phases of his nature not generally appreciated.

Speaking of Darwin, whose doctrines he vehemently opposed, he remarked: "Much as we disagree, we are truly friends."

With some earlier assistants there had been a serious disagreement ending in temporary estrangement;[28] yet when their names were mentioned before him he made no adverse comment. He once showed me a letter from one of them asking permission to examine certain specimens at the museum. Upon my remarking that the presence of that man might not be very pleasant for him he replied, almost with reproof, "It is true that I have built up this museum, but I am only its trustee, and if the devil himself wished to study here he should be welcome."

His tenderness is shown in the following incident. The artist who was drawing the plates for the volume upon sharks and rays above mentioned was an elderly German who, uncertain of the term of his employment, had left his family in St. Louis. At last, in his loneliness, he sent for one of his children, a lad of ten. Supplied with credentials of various kinds, the boy reached Cambridge and inquired for "Herr Professor." It was after dark and Agassiz sorely needed rest after a long day at the museum. Yet, instead of summoning a servant, he took the child by the hand, walked with him several squares, and delivered him safe to the anxious father.

The summer of 1867 I spent literally at his side in the laboratory adjoining his summer home at Nahant. Together we dissected the sharks and rays that were brought in by the fishermen. To the paraphrase, "No naturalist is a hero to his laboratory assistant," he was an exception. For me that summer was a scientific idyl. That the pleasures of my memory of it are less than perfect is due to my later realization of how inadequately I appreciated my privileges and opportunities. Three specifications in the general charge of my unworthiness will serve to set his own tact and delicacy in a clearer light.

A fisherman brought a hammer-head shark. Although familiar with pictures of its rather strange form, I had never seen a specimen, and expressed my interest somewhat exuberantly. The man named a certain price, and Agassiz paid it. When he had gone, Agassiz said to me seriously, but with no shade of rebuke: "This shark is not so very rare, but your outspoken surprise led the man to ask about twice what it was really worth." After that I would have held my peace in the presence of the "sea-serpent."

Agassiz was paying me one dollar per hour, an arrangement convenient for both, especially in the summer. I wished to learn stenography, and studied that early in the day, going to him about nine o'clock. One hot July morning I found him grieving over the rapid deterioration of some specimens that had been brought in at daybreak. I explained the cause of my delay, and added that, but for the necessity of earning my living, I would gladly work for him all the time and for nothing, in return for what I learned from him. "Ah," he said, "I hoped you felt so, but I was not sure. Now we are like lovers after the important word has been spoken." Not for all the short-hand systems ever devised would I lose the memory of those words and of the look that accompanied them.

In those days (it was forty years ago) it might fairly be said that about the brain, zoologists knew little and cared less. No one of my teachers had made a special study of either its structure or its functions.[29] That summer, however, Agassiz studied the brains of sharks and rays, exposing them by "whittling" the cartilaginous skulls with a jack-knife given him by Longfellow (who, by the way, made a visit to the laboratory). He compared the various forms with the only published plate we had (that of Dumeril), and would sit poring over them by the hour. Occasionally he would show them to me, and ask if I would not like to work at them. (Remember that he was paying me out of his own pocket and was entitled to assign all the subjects.) No, I had started upon some other parts of the anatomy, and was indifferent. That is too mild a term; I must have been a compound of a mole and a mule. He sighed and gave it up. That I then made the mistake of my life I did not perceive until years afterward, too late to repair the loss. Now, by way of atonement, I insist that the objective study of the brain should begin in the primary school,[30] and I look forward—however undeservedly—to the period when no other subject need claim my attention. At times, however, I speculate as to what part of the nether world is paved with ignored advice and neglected opportunities.

His helpful attitude toward prospective teachers was exhibited in the following incidents. After my appointment to Cornell University in October, 1867, he arranged for me to give at the Museum a course of six "University Lectures," and warned me to prepare for them carefully because he should give me a "raking down." He attended them all (at what interruption of his own work I realize better now) and discussed them and my methods very frankly with me.

A year later, while at Ithaca, he attended several of my lectures upon physiology, although they broke up his forenoons and the subject did not interest him particularly. After one he expressed his approval of its simplicity and the absence of hifalutin,[31] and advised me to counteract the effect of lecturing by investigation. Another lecture dealt with the structure and functions of the heart, for the illustration of which we had excellent charts and models although not, at that time, any actual specimens. I believed that I had done very well, and accompanied him down the hill toward his hotel in the hope that he would say something complimentary. All he said was, "After lecturing upon a subject I have found it a good plan to go to work and study it some more." Then he began to talk of the glacial scratches upon a big rock that we passed. The justice of his criticism was equal to the delicacy of its conveyance.

The work done by me here in 1871-3 upon the brains and embryos of domesticated animals has been referred to already as one of the indirect benefits conferred by Agassiz upon this university. His satisfaction with the results evidently led him to make a most honorable overture and invitation. On the seventeenth of November, 1872, he wrote a letter beginning: "I wish I could have you permanently in Cambridge as professor in connection with the Museum and the University. The first thing to know is whether such a plan would suit you and under what conditions you could accept a proposition, etc." The matter was discussed at more length in letters dated December 7, 1872, and September 10, 1873. It has never been mentioned before by me, but there seems to be no longer reason for reticence.

The second letter contained also the invitation to be one of the instructors at the summer school already mentioned on p. 12. He wrote: "Among my plans is a course of practical instruction in Natural History at the seashore, during the summer months, chiefly with the view of preparing teachers to introduce Natural History into our schools. ..."

In the two cases just mentioned it may be said that the advantage was mutual although mine much more than his. But in the following instance his words and deeds can bear no other interpretation than disinterested willingness to aid another at his own inconvenience.

In preparing for a course of lectures before the Lowell Institute I wished to dissect the limbs of certain rare animals which we could neither collect nor afford to buy. On making my wants known to him he promptly took a knife, went with me to the museum store-rooms, and with his own hands cut an arm and a leg from each of several precious specimens. In thanking him I said I had reason to believe that the invitation to give the course was due largely to his having taken the trouble to commend me to the curator; and that I wished he would let me make return by doing some work for him without compensation. He replied, emphatically, "I could not think of it; it is my business to help young men."

In Agassiz were combined five qualities, not uncommon singly or even by twos and threes, but rarely so completely united or so highly developed in one personality, viz., attractiveness, eloquence, strength, energy and helpfulness. As distinguished from Napoleon, from Bismarck, from Goethe, and even from Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Agassiz was at once fascinating, persuasive, powerful, active and uplifting. Under my personal observation have come but two others comparable with him in this most potent combination of great qualities, viz., Henry Ward Beecher and Phillips Brooks. They were preachers; so was he. They based their ministrations upon what they regarded as the Word of God; he drew his texts from what, with equal faith, he held to be the works of a Divine Creator. They were also alike in this; never was voice or hand raised otherwise than for the betterment of mankind.

On returning from Penikese in the fall of 1873 I went to the museum to arrange some specimens, when he came in and reproached me for not letting him know I was there. I explained that I knew he was tired and ill and that I would not take his time. He replied, "Doctor, you are always kind," and those last words have been treasured as a benediction. This coming fifth of September it will be thirty-four years since I beheld my teacher, friend and benefactor in the flesh, but in my mind's eye his image will never fade. Take him for all in all I ne'er shall look upon his like again. Would that it might be justly said of all great men, as I now say of Agassiz: The sun shone brighter at his birth, and shadowed when he died.

  1. Address at the Centenary of Louis Agassiz delivered, at the request of President J. G. Schurman, in Barnes Hall, Cornell University, May 28, 1907.
  2. The only other comparable biography is the "Life, Letters and Works" by Marcou, and it will he quoted frequently. Its peculiarities are well stated in The Nation for May 7, 1896. In a letter to me, dated March 21, 1896, he expresses his regret at the inadvertent omission of "some of the best" from the enumeration of Agassiz's pupils and assistants.
  3. As printed in the "Proceedings in memory of Louis Agassiz and in honor of Hiram Sibley," pp. 11-12.
  4. May this be that which was given in 1853 under the title, "Natural History"?
  5. See, also, the relation of a botanist, Professor C. F. Millspaugh, Cornell Era, June, 1907, p. 443, and "Proceedings of the Memorial Meeting of the Cambridge Historical Society," May 27, 1907.
  6. It is not easy to account for the omission of entries like agriculture and farmer from the indexes of the volumes by Marcou and Mrs. Agassiz.
  7. It was for the purpose of raising a sum to be added to the "Teachers and Pupils' Fund" in support of a scholarship at the Museum. There was raised $100, of which about one fourth was given by President White.
  8. In the letter declining the invitation to attend the unveiling of the Agassiz tablet, p. 7 of the "Proceedings" mentioned above.
  9. The former in the Boston Transcript for April 23, 1907, and the latter in the Harvard Graduates' Magazine for June, 1907, p. 778.
  10. Marcou, I., pp. 7-8.
  11. One of these cans arrived at Penikese during the last summer of his life, and I well recall the interest, akin to that in a Christmas box, with which Agassiz and his assistants and pupils drew forth the contents.
  12. For example, A. C. Apgar, of Trenton; W. O. Crosby, of Boston; W. K. Brooks, of the Johns Hopkins; David S. Jordan, of Stanford; C. S. Minot and W. H. Niles, of Boston; T. B. Stowell, of Potsdam, N. Y.; C. 0. Whitman, of Chicago, and A. E. Verrill, of Yale.
  13. This was said to Professor Wyman in my presence, November 17, 1866.
  14. This was printed in the Cornell Era of the period, but by some it was regarded as a myth.
  15. In the June number of the Harvard Graduates' Magazine.
  16. American Naturalist, March, 1898.
  17. Review of "Marcou" in The Nation, May 7, 1896.
  18. Unconsciously I have used here nearly the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes in his letter referred to above.
  19. From the report of the meeting of the joint committee on education of the Massachusetts Legislature as printed in the Boston Weekly Spectator for February 12, 1871. Among other obvious misprints Agassiz is made to say that his protest was made "twenty-four" years ago, which would be 1847, whereas the first Cincinnati meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was in 1851.
  20. His first wife died July 27, 1848, and in the spring of 1850 he married Miss Elizabeth Cabot Cary, of Boston, who became his "guardian angel."
  21. Mrs. Agassiz, pp. 568, 570.
  22. In the Christian Union, July 15, 1873, p. 51. See also "The Prayer of Agassiz," by Whittier.
  23. As delivered the address described what Agassiz did for Cornell University, directly and indirectly; see the Cornell Era for June, 1907, pp. 441-446.
  24. Slightly altered from Agassiz's address on Humboldt, p. 44.
  25. "In a letter dated Charleston, S. C, March 12, 1853 (printed in the Century Magazine for December, 1903, p. 188), Thackeray describes Agassiz as a "delightful, bonhommious person, as frank and unpretending as he is learned and illustrious."
  26. James Herbert Morse, Harvard, '63.
  27. See his report as director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology for 1867, p. 10.
  28. The full merits of the case may never be understood, and this is not the place for its discussion; but in the light of my own experience with him, on the one hand, and with my pupils and assistants, on the other, I incline toward his view of it.
  29. In 1844 and 1845 Agassiz published two short papers upon the brains of fishes; in "A Journey in Brazil," p. 244, note, he deplores the loss, in a storm, of a lot of brain preparations in a cask that had been left on deck. In the last but one of the twenty lectures given at Cornell University, he said, "The brain is the organ that determines the rank of animals."
  30. Upon this point see my papers in Science, December 17, 1897, p. 903, and May 26, 1905, p. 814.
  31. This, the only approach to slang that I recall from his lips, doubtless referred to my introduction of a somewhat far-fetched quotation from Shakespeare in an address before the Harvard Natural History Society, reproduced in the American Naturalist, Vol. I., p. 421; it was my first and last transgression of the kind.