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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Louis Agassiz (1807–1873)

“AT first, when a mere boy, twelve years of age,” writes the great Swiss naturalist, “I did what most beginners do. I picked up whatever I could lay my hands on, and tried, by such books and authorities as I had at my command, to find the names of these objects. My highest ambition at that time, was to be able to designate the plants and animals of my native country correctly by a Latin name, and to extend gradually a similar knowledge in its application to the productions of other countries. This seemed to me, in those days, the legitimate aim and proper work of a naturalist. I still possess manuscript volumes in which I entered the names of all the animals and plants with which I became acquainted, and I well remember that I then ardently hoped to acquire the same superficial familiarity with the whole creation. I did not then know how much more important it is to the naturalist to understand the structure of a few animals than to command the whole field of scientific nomenclature. Since I have become a teacher, and have watched the progress of students, I have seen that they all begin in the same way. But how many have grown old in the pursuit, without ever rising to any higher conception of the study of nature, spending their life in the determination of species, and in extending scientific terminology! Long before I went to the university, and before I began to study natural history under the guidance of men who were masters in the science during the early part of this century, I perceived that though nomenclature and classification, as then understood, formed an important part of the study, being, in fact, its technical language, the study of living beings in their natural element was of infinitely greater value. At that age—namely, about fifteen—I spent most of the time I could spare from classical and mathematical studies in hunting the neighboring woods and meadows for birds, insects, and land and fresh-water shells. My room became a little menagerie, while the stone basin under the fountain in our yard was my reservoir for all the fishes I could catch. Indeed, collecting, fishing, and raising caterpillars, from which I reared fresh, beautiful butterflies, were then my chief pastimes. What I know of the habits of the fresh-water fishes of Central Europe I mostly learned at that time; and I may add, that when afterward I obtained access to a large library and could consult the works of Bloch and Lacépède, the only extensive works on fishes then in existence. I wondered that they contained so little about their habits, natural attitudes, and mode of action, with which I was so familiar.”

It is this way of looking at things that gives to Agassiz’s writings their literary and popular interest. He was born in Mortier, Canton Fribourg, May 28th, 1807, the son of a clergyman, who sent his gifted son to the Universities of Zürich, Heidelberg, and Munich, where he acquired reputation for his brilliant powers, and entered into the enthusiastic, intellectual, and merry student-life, taking his place in the formal duels, and becoming known as a champion fencer. Agassiz was an influence in every center that he touched; and in Munich, his room and his laboratory, thick with clouds of smoke from the long-stemmed German pipes, was a gathering-place for the young scientific aspirants, who affectionately called it “The Little Academy.” At the age of twenty-two, he had published his ‘Fishes of Brazil,’ a folio that brought him into immediate recognition. Cuvier, the greatest ichthyologist of his time, to whom the first volume was dedicated, received him as a pupil, and gave to him all the material that he had been collecting during fifteen years for a contemplated work on Fossil Fishes. In Paris Agassiz also won the friendship of Humboldt, who, learning that he stood in need of money, presented him with so generous a sum as to enable the ambitious young naturalist to work with a free and buoyant spirit.

His practical career began in 1832, when he was installed at Neufchâtel, from which point he easily studied the Alps. Two years later, after the ‘Poissons fossiles’ (Fossil Fishes) appeared, he visited England to lecture. Then returning to his picturesque home, he applied himself to original investigation, and through his lectures and publications won honors and degrees. His daring opinions, however, sometimes provoked ardent discussion and angry comment.

Agassiz’s passion for investigation frequently led him into dangers that imperiled both life and limb. In the summer of 1841, for example, he was lowered into a deep crevasse bristling with huge stalactites of ice, to reach the heart of a glacier moving at the rate of forty feet a day. While he was observing the blue bands on the glittering ice, he suddenly touched a well of water, and only after great difficulty made his companions understand his signal for rescue. These Alpine experiences are well described by Mrs. Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, and also by Edouard Desors in his ‘Séjours dans les Glaciers’ (Sojourn among the Glaciers: Neufchâtel, 1844). Interesting particulars of these glacial studies (‘Études des Glaciers’) were soon issued, and Agassiz received many gifts from lovers of science, among whom was numbered the King of Prussia. His zoölogical and geological investigations were continued, and important works on ‘Fossil Mollusks,’ ‘Tertiary Shells,’ and ‘Living and Fossil Echinoderms’ date from this period.

He had long desired to visit America, when he realized this wish in 1846 by an arrangement with the Lowell Institute of Boston, where he gave a series of lectures, afterwards repeated in various cities. So attractive did he find the fauna and flora of America, and so vast a field did he perceive here for his individual studies and instruction, that he returned the following year. In 1848 the Prussian government, which had borne the expenses of his scientific mission,—a cruise along our Atlantic coast to study its marine life,—released him from further obligation that he might accept the chair of geology in the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University. His cruises, his explorations, and his methods, combined with his attractive personality, gave him unique power as a teacher; and many of his biographers think that of all his gifts, the ability to instruct was the most conspicuous. He needed no textbooks, for he went directly to Nature, and did not believe in those technical, dry-as-dust terms which lead to nothing and which are swept away by the next generation. Many noted American men of science remember the awakening influence of his laboratories in Charleston and Cambridge, his museum at Harvard, and his summer school at Penikese Island in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts, where natural history was studied under ideal conditions. It was here that he said to his class:—“A laboratory of natural history is a sanctuary where nothing profane should be tolerated.” Whittier has left a poem called “The Prayer of Agassiz,” describing

  • “The isle of Penikese
  • Ranged about by sapphire seas.”
  • Just as he was realizing two of his ambitions, the establishment of a great museum and a practical school of zoölogy, he died, December 14th, 1873, at his home in Cambridge, and was buried at Mount Auburn beneath pine-trees sent from Switzerland, while a boulder from the glacier of the Aar was selected to mark his resting-place.

    Agassiz was greatly beloved by his pupils and associates, and was identified with the brilliant group—Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell,—each of whom has written of him. Lowell considered his ‘Elegy on Agassiz,’ written in Florence in 1874, among his best verses; Longfellow wrote a poem for ‘The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz,’ and Holmes ‘A Farewell to Agassiz’ on his departure for the Andes, whose affectionate and humorous strain thus closes:—

  • “Till their glorious raid is o’er,
  • And they touch our ransomed shore!
  • Then the welcome of a nation,
  • With its shout of exultation,
  • Shall awake the dumb creation,
  • And the shapes of buried æons
  • Join the living creatures’ pæans,
  • While the mighty megalosaurus
  • Leads the palæozoic chorus,—
  • God bless the great Professor,
  • And the land its proud possessor,—
  • Bless them now and evermore!”
  • Numerous biographies and monographs of Agassiz exist in many languages, a complete list of which is given in the last published ‘Life of Agassiz,’ by Jules Marcou (New York and London, 1896), and also in the ‘Life of Agassiz,’ by Charles F. Holder (New York, 1893). Complete lists of Agassiz’s works are also given in these biographies, and these titles show how versatile was his taste and how deep and wide his research. His principal contributions to science are in French and Latin, but his most popular books appeared in English. These include ‘The Structure of Animal Life,’ ‘Methods of Study,’ ‘Geological Sketches,’ and ‘Journey in Brazil,’ the latter written with Mrs. Agassiz. His ‘Contributions to the Natural History of the United States,’ planned to be in ten large books, only reached four volumes.

    In his ‘Researches concerning Fossil Fishes,’ Agassiz expressed the views that made him a lifelong opponent of the Darwinian theories, although he was a warm friend of Darwin. Considering the demands upon his time as teacher, lecturer, and investigator, the excellence not less than the amount of the great naturalist’s work is remarkable, and won such admiration that he was made a member of nearly every scientific society in the world. One of his favorite pastimes was deep-sea dredging, which embraced the excitement of finding strange specimens and studying their singular habits.

    Of his love and gift for instructing, Mrs. Agassiz says in her ‘Life’ (Boston, 1885):—

  • “Teaching was a passion with him, and his power over his pupils might be measured by his own enthusiasm. He was, intellectually as well as socially, a democrat in the best sense. He delighted to scatter broadcast the highest results of thought and research, and to adapt them even to the youngest and most uninformed minds. In his later American travels he would talk of glacial phenomena to the driver of a country stage-coach among the mountains, or to some workman splitting rock at the roadside, with as much earnestness as if he had been discussing problems with a brother geologist; he would take the common fisherman into his scientific confidence, telling him the intimate secrets of fish-culture or fish-embryology, till the man in his turn grew enthusiastic and began to pour out information from the stores of his own rough and untaught habits of observation. Agassiz’s general faith in the susceptibility of the popular intelligence, however untaught, to the highest truths of nature, was contagious, and he created or developed that in which he believed.”
  • The following citations exhibit his powers of observation, and that happy method of stating scientific facts which interests the specialist and general reader alike.