Book Review – Louis Agassiz, a biography by Christoph Irmscher

Agassiz coverI first heard of Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) in my beginning geology courses. A Pleistocene lake, Lake Agassiz, which covered parts of Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and Minnesota, was named after Agassiz posthumously because of Agassiz’s research on glaciers in the Swiss Alps.

Aggasiz was born in Switzerland and educated there and in Germany, receiving a PhD. in 1829 in natural science, and a Doctorate in surgery and medicine in 1830, the later to please his Calvinist father.

In 1846 he moved to America where he became a professor of Zoology at Harvard, founded the Anderson School of Natural History near Cap Cod (one of the first coed colleges) that eventually became Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Agassiz was a passionate collector and established what would become the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He advertized far and wide for specimens, living or dead.

According to Irmsher, Agassiz was a complex man, a great friend to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and an arch-rival to Charles Darwin. He was a passionate scientist and part P.T. Barnum. And he had a dark side.

Irmsher writes that Agassiz’s story is “riven with the contradictions of a man who wanted to come across as both rigorously professional and unrelentingly popular, a man who believed that science practiced with due diligence could clear up not only the little problems that confounded the specialists but also the whole cosmic puzzle itself. Agassiz was one of the first to establish science as a collective enterprise. Yet he insisted on putting his own personal stamp on anything that came out of the museum he had founded and forbade his assistants to claim credit for any part of their own research done on company time. He was an ardent advocate of abolition, yet he also believed in the racial inferiority of blacks.”

Agassiz’s study of glaciers and fossils lead him to reject Darwin’s new theory of evolution. Rather, Agassiz was somewhat of a Creationist, but not as the term is currently used. Agassiz believed not in continuous evolution, but a series of creation events, in “oscillations,” where ice ages killed off everything and God created and recreated life anew.

Agassiz published over 400 books and scientific articles and was one of the first to propose that Europe and North America were once covered by glaciers. He was, however, a great proponent of field work, “study nature, not books.” He was also the consummate lecturer and his lectures were not confined to the classroom. His “popularity in America transcended class as well as regional boundaries.”

Irmsher spins an interesting story of a complex man based largely upon abundant correspondence from Agassiz, his contemporaries, and his wife and sister.

One of Agassiz’s great strengths was his ability to explain science to the layman. Irmsher writes in the epilogue, “as Louis Agassiz drifts into the sunset of this narrative, it is worth remembering how his struggles, problems, and aspirations are still with us. Yes, we haven’t moved beyond his biases and blindnesses as much as much as we would like to think we have, but that isn’t all. In my view, Louis Agassiz was never more provocative than when he argued science ought to be part of the general fabric of society.” I agree. More emphasis on science is needed in general education.

If you are interested in the history of science, its development and its characters, you will be interested in the story of Louis Agassiz.

The book is available is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available at Amazon as a hardcover book (to be released Feb. 5) and a Kindle edition. It is also available from Barnes & Noble.

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