Louis Agassiz is recognized as one of the early pioneers in the field of natural history. He was first to attempt the classification of fishes based on the shape of their teeth and the nature of their scales, fins, and bones.
In 1837, he was first to scientifically propose that the earth had gone through traumatic changes in its history. He recognized the characteristic traces of glaciation on a vast scale across the northern and southern hemispheres, and proposed the theory of continental glaciation, or ice ages.
The early years
Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in May 1807, in Môtiers, Switzerland. He was home-schooled for a time before finishing elementary school in Lausanne and four years of secondary school in Bienne.
Choosing medicine as his career, Agassiz' studies took him to universities in Heidelberg, Munich, and Zurich. The subject of natural history caught his attention. After receiving his doctorates of philosophy and medicine, he moved to Paris in 1830. He became the protégé of Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier, who guided him in his paired careers of geology and zoology, respectively.
A branch of zoology, ichthyology, seemed to tie in with his geological pursuits, given a number of fossils found in the slates of Glarus (a Swiss canton) and the limestones of Monte Bolca (a sedimentary deposit in Italy) being available for study.
An unlikely voyage
Unbeknownst to Agassiz, at the time 12 years old, an expedition was taken into the Brazilian interior by two German scientists to collect as many samples of fishes as they could manage.
Upon their return, their intention was to work out the history of those fishes, but one partner died in 1926, before much could be done. The other partner, however, selected Agassiz to take up the task. And he did, with a fervor that was to characterize his efforts throughout his career.
The task of describing the Brazilian fishes was completed and published in 1829. Agassiz left that project to research the history of the fishes found in Lake Neuchâtel, in northwestern Switzerland. By 1830, he was enlarging his plans as he issued his prospectus of a work titled The History of the Freshwater Fish of Central Europe.
In 1832, amid the swirl of academic pursuit, Agassiz was named professor of natural history at the University of Neuchâtel. On his way to worldwide fame, Agassiz published five volumes of his Research on Fossil Fishes at various times, from 1833 to 1843.
As Agassiz' work proceeded, it was evident that a promoter was needed if he were to continue. Several stepped forward, including Lord Francis Egerton, Earl of Ellesmere, who presented all 1,300 of Agassiz’ drawings to the Geological Society of London.
That was just the beginning for Agassiz. In 1836, the society awarded him the Wollaston medal for his work on fish fossils, and in 1838, he was tabbed as a foreign member of the Royal Society.
The Ice Age
The year 1937 brought some bold hypotheses to the table regarding a possible hypothermal event in the Earth’s past. Working from a hypothesis expressed by his friend Karl Schimper, Agassiz observed what he believed were the markings of a huge sheet of ice that once covered an area from the polar ice cap to the Mediterranean. As that ice deposit, or glacier, receded, it rode atop all manner of rocks of varying sizes, smoothing and rounding them out into a moraine as it contracted. That action left telltale marks on the surrounding striata as well.
From the markings, Agassiz did his calculations and eventually made public his conclusion that the Earth had gone through what is now known as an Ice Age.¹
From 1842 to 1846, Agassiz issued his Nomenclator Zoologicus, a classified and referenced list of all names in zoology for genera and groups — a work of great labor and research. With an influx of money from the king of Prussia, Agassiz crossed the Atlantic in the fall of 1846, to investigate the natural history and geology of the United States, as well as deliver a series of lectures on zoology, by invitation from J.A. Lowell at the Lowell Institute in Boston, Massachusetts.
Agassiz was appointed professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University in 1847, and also served as a guest lecturer at Cornell University while carrying on his duties at Harvard.
To share his knowledge on the greatest possible scale, Agassiz accepted a medical professorship of comparative anatomy at Charlestown, Massachusetts. That lasted for two years — enough time to influence some of his students to carry on in that field.
While at Harvard, Agassiz published some of his most important work. From 1848 to 1854, he consolidated his vast collection of papers into Bibliographia Zoologiae et Geologiae in four volumes.
From 1857 to 1862, Agassiz released his Natural History of the United States, also published in four volumes. Among those influenced by him were Joseph Le Conte, Alpheus Packard, and Agassiz' son, Alexander.
He also influenced the work of paleontologist Charles Walcott, who named Pleistocene-age Lake Agassiz (now Lake Winnipeg) after him. Even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow paid tribute, penning “The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz," in his honor.
The later years
As life’s tide ebbed from Agassiz’ body, he frequently became ill. He decided to make a last push for knowledge by returning to Brazil in 1865, to resume his study of the resident fish population.
After publishing his journal in 1868, Agassiz made another trek in 1871, this time to the southern shores — Pacific and Atlantic beaches — of North America.
Finally, Agassiz recruited a benefactor to establish a small, private bioecologic reserve to study animals in their natural habitat. John Anderson stepped forward in 1873, to fund the project by giving the island of Penikese in Buzzards Bay, Masachusetts, to Agassiz.
The project failed, owing to Agassiz’s untimely death, but it can be said that the Anderson Project encouraged others and was itself a precursor to the esteemed work now done at nearby Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
It should be noted that, because so many advancements in so many different fields occurred during the mid 1800s, leaders of various disciplines frequently came together to discuss the relative merits of the latest discoveries.
At other times, factions might be at odds over the radical ideas espoused by their colleagues, such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Agassiz would have none of it, while noted botanist, Asa Gray, helped to confirm several of Darwin’s hypotheses.
Louis Agassiz died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1873, and was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. His monument is an erratic² plucked from the moraine of the glacier of the Aar River valley, near the site where old Hotel des Neuchatelois once stood, not far from the site where his primitive hut once stood.
¹It was too early to tell that there had been numerous ice ages in the Earth’s four-billion-year history.
² A boulder, or the like, moved by natural means, e.g. glacial action, to an unusual location.
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