In the midst of as beautiful scenery as one finds on earth, snow-white
Alps, blue lakes, great fields of purple crocus, and picturesque homes,
Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born at Motier, on Lake Morat,
Switzerland, May 28, 1807.
His father, a clergyman, descended from a long line of clergymen, was a
gentle but efficient man, universally esteemed. His mother, Rose Mayor,
the daughter of a physician on
he shore of Lake Neuchatel, was a woman
of strong character and most tender affection. She had buried her first
four children; therefore Louis was cared for with unusual solicitude.
Until he was ten years old, he was taught by his parents, and allowed to
develop his natural tastes. Possibly his sweetness of disposition
resulted, in part, from the wise training of the father and mother.
Doubtless as many children are spoiled by undue thwarting and irritating
as by over-indulgence. Though Louis met almost unsurmountable obstacles
later in life, he was able to rejoice, having enjoyed a sunny childhood.
Such a childhood we can give to our children but once.
In a great stone basin back of the parsonage, the boy made his first
aquarium. There he gathered fishes, frogs, tadpoles, indeed, everything
which he could obtain from Lake Morat. In the house he had pet birds,
hares, rabbits, field-mice, with their families, all cared for as though
they were royal visitors.
He was skilful as a carpenter and boot-maker. When the village cobbler
came to the house, two or three times a year, to make shoes for the
family, the lad was quick to imitate him, and made well fitting shoes
for his sister's dolls.
Mrs. Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, in her fascinating life of her husband,
tells this incident of his boyhood: "Though fond of quiet, indoor
occupation, he was an active, daring boy. One winter day, when about
seven years of age, he was skating with his little brother Auguste, two
years younger than himself, and a number of other boys, near the shore
of the lake. They were talking of a great fair held that day at the town
of Morat, on the opposite side of the lake, to which M. Agassiz had gone
in the morning, not crossing upon the ice, however, but driving around
"The temptation was too strong for Louis, and he proposed to Auguste
that they should skate across, join their father at the fair, and come
home with him in the afternoon. They started accordingly. The other boys
remained on their skating ground till twelve o'clock, the usual dinner
hour, when they returned to the village. Mme. Agassiz was watching for
her boys, thinking them rather late, and, on inquiring for them among
the troop of urchins coming down the village street, she learned on
what errand they had gone. Her anxiety may be imagined. The lake was not
less than two miles across, and she was by no means sure that the ice
"She hurried to an upper window with a spy-glass, to see if she could
descry them anywhere. At the moment she caught sight of them, already
far on their journey, Louis had laid himself down across a fissure in
the ice, thus making a bridge for his little brother, who was creeping
over his back. Their mother directed a workman, an excellent skater, to
follow them as swiftly as possible. He overtook them just as they had
gained the shore, but it did not occur to him that they could return
otherwise than they had come, and he skated back with them across the
lake. Weary, hungry, and disappointed, the boys reached the house
without having seen the fair or enjoyed the drive home with their father
in the afternoon."
At ten, Louis was sent to a school for boys at Bienne, where, though the
children studied nine hours a day, the time was wisely divided between
work and play, so that they were kept well and happy. The lad always
remembered affectionately his teacher at this school, Mr. Rickly. When
the vacations came, Louis and Auguste walked twenty miles home to
Motier, and did not find the journey long or tedious.
At fourteen, Louis left Bienne, having finished his education, as he
supposed, prior to entering the business house of his uncle, Francois
Mayor, at Neuchatel. That his young mind turned longingly towards a
different future, may be seen from his desires written at this time on a
sheet of foolscap.
"I wish to advance in the sciences, and for that I need D'Anville,
Ritter, an Italian dictionary, a Strabo in Greek, Mannert and Thiersch;
and also the works of Malte-Brun and Seyfert. I have resolved, as far as
I am allowed to do so, to become a man of letters, and at present I can
go no further: first, in ancient geography, for I already know all my
note-books, and I have only such books as Mr. Rickly can lend me; I must
have D'Anville or Mannert; second, in modern geography also, I have only
such books as Mr. Rickly can lend me, and the Osterwold geography, which
does not accord with the new divisions; I must have Ritter or
Malte-Brun; third, for Greek I need a new grammar, and I shall choose
Thiersch; fourth, I have no Italian dictionary, except one lent me by
Mr. Moltz; I must have one; fifth, for Latin I need a larger grammar
than the one I have, and I should like Seyfert; sixth, Mr. Rickly tells
me that, as I have a taste for geography, he will give me a lesson in
Greek (gratis) in which we would translate Strabo, provided I can find
one. For all this I ought to have about twelve louis. I should like to
stay at Bienne till the month of July, and afterward serve my
apprenticeship in commerce at Neuchatel for a year and a half. Then I
should like to pass four years at a university in Germany, and finally
finish my studies at Paris, where I would stay about five years. Then,
at the age of twenty-five, I could begin to write."
At this early age, then, he was thinking of being an author!
He begged his parents to defer the business project for two years, that
he might study at the College of Lausanne. They were willing and glad to
please their boy; but they knew from experience the ills of poverty, and
they hoped to save him from it by a wise choice of a life-work.
They gratified him, however, and he went to Lausanne. His uncle, Dr.
Mathias Mayor, a physician of Lausanne, seeing that the boy was deeply
interested in anatomy, advised that he should study medicine; so this
was decided upon, as being more in accord with Louis' tastes than
As poor Vincenzio Galileo found it a difficult matter to make a wool
merchant or a doctor out of a boy destined to be a man of science, so
did the father of Louis Agassiz.
At seventeen, Louis left Lausanne for the medical school at Zurich. Here
he became the friend as well as pupil of Professor Schinz, who held the
chair of Natural History and Physiology. He gave young Agassiz a key to
his private library, and also to his collection of birds; of course, the
love for natural history grew stronger. Both boys, for Auguste had come
to Zurich with his brother, were too poor to buy books even when they
cost but a dollar a volume. The Swiss minister was saving to the
uttermost to pay for board and decent clothes for his sons, to say
nothing of books. Therefore the use of Schinz's library was a great
Said Agassiz in after years, "My inability to buy books was, perhaps,
not so great a misfortune as it seemed to me; at least, it saved me from
too great dependence on written authority. I spent all my time in
dissecting animals and in studying human anatomy, not forgetting my
favorite amusements of fishing and collecting. I was always surrounded
with pets, and had at this time some forty birds flying about my study,
with no other home than a large pine-tree in the corner. I still
remember my grief when a visitor, entering suddenly, caught one of my
little favorites between the floor and the door, and he was killed
before I could extricate him. Professor Schinz's private collection of
birds was my daily resort, and I then described every bird it contained,
as I could not afford to buy even a text-book of ornithology.
"I also copied with my own hand, having no means of purchasing the work,
two volumes of Lamarck's 'Animaux sans Vertebres,' and my dear brother
copied another half-volume for me. I finally learned that the study of
the things themselves was far more attractive than the books I so much
coveted, and when, at last, large libraries became accessible to me, I
usually contented myself with turning over the leaves of the volumes on
natural history, looking at the illustrations, and recording the titles
of the works, that I might readily consult them for identification of
such objects as I should have an opportunity of examining in nature."
The boys remained two years at Zurich. One vacation, as they were
walking home, the family having moved from Motier to Orbe, they were
overtaken by a gentleman who asked them to ride, shared his lunch with
them, and took them to their own door. Some days afterward he wrote to
M. Agassiz that he had been so impressed by his son Louis that he wished
to adopt him and provide for him through life.
This request caused great commotion in the little home, for the writer
of the letter was a man of wealth in Geneva, but, after careful
consideration, both parents and son declined the offer, preferring to
struggle with poverty rather than bear separation.
At the end of the two years in Zurich, Auguste went to the commercial
house of his uncle at Neuchatel, and Louis to the University of
Heidelberg, taking letters of introduction from Professor Schinz and
others. Professor Tiedemann, the chancellor, had studied with Schinz;
therefore, Agassiz received a warm welcome, and an offer of books from
The young student worked earnestly. He wrote to his father: "Every
morning I rise at six o'clock, dress and breakfast. At seven I go to my
lectures given during the morning.... If, in the interval, I have a
free hour, as sometimes happens from ten to eleven, I occupy it in
making anatomical preparations.... From twelve to one I practise
fencing. We dine at about one o'clock, after which I walk till two, when
I return to the house and to my studies till five o'clock. From five to
six we have a lecture from the renowned Tiedemann. After that, I either
take a bath in the Neckar, or another walk. From eight to nine I resume
my special work, and then, according to my inclination, go to the Swiss
Club, or, if I am tired, to bed. I have my evening service and talk
silently with you, believing that at that hour you also do not forget
your Louis, who thinks always of you."
At Heidelberg, like Humboldt, Agassiz needed a congenial friend, and
found one in Alexander Braun, of Carlsruhe, an ardent lover of botany,
afterward Director of the Botanical Gardens in Berlin. He wrote to his
parents concerning Agassiz, "a rare comet on the Heidelberg horizon....
Not only do we collect and learn to observe all manner of things, but we
have also an opportunity of exchanging our views on scientific matters
in general. I learn a great deal from him, for he is much more at home
in zooelogy than I am. He is familiar with almost all the known mammalia,
recognizes the birds from far off by their song, and can give a name to
every fish in the water.
"In the morning we often stroll together through the fish market, where
he explains to me all the different species. He is going to teach me how
to stuff fishes, and then we intend to make a collection of all the
native kinds. Many other useful things he knows; speaks German and
French equally well, English and Italian fairly, so that I have already
appointed him to be my interpreter on some future vacation trip to
Italy. He is well acquainted with ancient languages also, and studies
Schimper, another brilliant botanist, was a friend of both Braun and
Agassiz. The professor in zooelogy, Leuckart, was very fond of these
bright pupils, and allowed himself to be gotten up at seven in the
morning, to give them extra lectures.
When vacation came, Braun took Agassiz to his home; a cultured place,
rich in books, music, and collections of plants and animals. Agassiz was
very happy there; possibly the happiness was increased by the fact that
Braun had a lovely and artistic sister, Cecile. Agassiz wrote home, "My
happiness would be perfect were it not for the painful thought which
pursues me everywhere, that I live on your privations; yet it is
impossible for me to diminish my expenses further. You would lift a
great weight from my heart if you could relieve yourself of this burden
by an arrangement with my uncle at Neuchatel.... Otherwise I am well,
going on as usual, always working as hard as I can, and I believe all
the professors whose lectures I attend are satisfied with me."
In the spring of 1827, when Agassiz was twenty, he was taken ill of
typhus fever, and it was feared he would not recover. As soon as
possible he was removed to Braun's home, and most tenderly cared for.
When he became able, he went to his own home, at Orbe. From there he
writes to Braun: "I had the good fortune to find at least thirty
specimens of Bombinator obstetricans, with the eggs. Tell Dr. Leuckart
that I will bring him some,--and some for you also. I kept several
alive, laid in damp moss; after fourteen days the eggs were almost as
large as peas, and the little tadpoles moved about inside in all
directions. The mother stripped the eggs from her legs, and one of the
little tadpoles came out, but died for want of water. Then I placed the
whole mass of eggs in a vessel filled with water, and behold! in about
an hour some twenty young ones were swimming freely about. I shall spare
no pains to raise them, and I hope, if I begin aright, to make fine
toads of them in the end. My oldest sister is busy every day in making
drawings for me to illustrate their gradual development."
In the fall of 1827, Agassiz and Braun, after spending a little more
than a year at Heidelberg, went to the University of Munich, there
meeting Schimper. He wrote home, that from one of his windows he could
see "the whole chain of the Tyrolean Alps, as far as Appenzell.... It is
a great pleasure to have at least a part of our Swiss mountains always
in sight. To enjoy it the more, I have placed my table opposite the
window, so that every time I lift my head my eyes rest on our dear
At Munich, the young students were stimulated by the presence of many
noted men. Doellinger lectured on comparative anatomy; Schelling, on
philosophy; Oken, on natural history, physiology, and zooelogy; Martius,
on botany. Agassiz and Braun roomed in Doellinger's house. This room soon
became the intellectual centre for the bright men of the college, and
was called "the little academy." Here different students gave lectures,
each on his special subject of study; the professors, even, coming as
"In that room," said Agassiz, years later, "I made all the skeletons
represented on the plates of Wagler's 'Natural System of Reptiles';
there I once received the great anatomist Meckel, sent to me by
Doellinger to examine my anatomical preparations, and especially the many
fish-skeletons I had made from fresh-water fishes. By my side were
constantly at work two artists; one engaged in drawing various objects
of natural history, the other in drawing fossil fishes. I kept always
one, and sometimes two artists, in my pay. It was not easy, with an
allowance of two hundred and fifty dollars a year; but they were even
poorer than I, and so we managed to get along together. My microscope I
had earned by writing." Poor Agassiz! he was yet to see greater
pecuniary trials than this.
Says Mr. Dinkel, one of the artists who worked with Agassiz for many
years: "I soon found myself engaged four or five hours almost daily in
painting for him fresh-water fishes from the life, while he was at my
side, sometimes writing out his descriptions, sometimes directing me....
He never lost his temper, though often under great trial; he remained
self-possessed, and did everything calmly, having a friendly smile for
every one, and a helping hand for those who were in need. He was at that
time scarcely twenty years old, and was already the most prominent among
the students of Munich. They loved him, and had a high consideration for
him.... He liked merry society, but he himself was in general reserved,
and never noisy. He picked out the gifted and highly learned students,
and would not waste his time in ordinary conversation. Often, when he
saw a number of students going off on some empty pleasure-trip, he said
to me, 'There they go with the other fellows.... I will go my own way,
Mr. Dinkel,--and not alone. I will be a leader of others.'"
Agassiz writes to his brother Auguste: "It will interest you to know
that I am working with a young Dr. Born upon an anatomy and natural
history of the fresh-water fishes of Europe. We have already gathered a
great deal of material, and I think by the spring, or in the course of
the summer, we shall be able to publish the first number.... I earnestly
advise you to while away your leisure hours with study. Read much, but
only good and useful books.... Remember that statistical and political
knowledge alone distinguishes the true merchant from the mere tradesmen,
and guides him in his undertakings.... Write me about what you are
reading, and about your plans and projects, for I can hardly believe
that any one could exist without forming them; I, at least, could not."
It is not strange that the watchful mother begins to be anxious, for she
hears nothing from her son about her "project" of medicine. She writes
him that she detects in his letters "a certain sadness and discontent."
"How is it," she says, "that you look forward only with distaste to the
practice of medicine? Have you reflected seriously before setting aside
this profession? Indeed, we cannot consent to such a step; you would
lose ground in our opinion, in that of your family, and in that of the
public you would pass for an inconsiderate, fickle young fellow, and the
slightest stain on your reputation would be a mortal blow to us.... Of
course you will not gather roses without thorns. Life consists of pains
and pleasures everywhere. To do all the good you can to your
fellow-beings, to have a pure conscience, to gain an honorable
livelihood, to procure for yourself by work a little ease, to make those
around you happy, that is true happiness; all the rest but mere
accessories and chimeras."
And then the good Swiss minister adds, thus to quiet his son's restless
nature, "If it be absolutely essential to your happiness that you
should break the ice of the two poles in order to find the hairs of a
mammoth, ... at least wait till your trunk is packed and your passports
are signed before you talk with us about it. Begin by reaching your
first aim, a physician's and surgeon's diploma.... My own philosophy is
to fulfil my duties in my sphere, and even that gives me more than I can
do." Fortunately Louis Agassiz did not possess the kind of philosophy
that brings content in a small parish on a Swiss lake; his sphere was to
be the world, and two continents were to be proud of him.
In 1817, the King of Bavaria had sent two naturalists, M. Martius and M.
Spix, on an exploring expedition to Brazil. They returned in four years,
laden with treasures. M. Martius issued colored illustrations of all the
unknown plants he had collected, and M. Spix several volumes on the
monkeys, birds, and reptiles of Brazil. He had intended to give a
complete natural history of Brazil, but died before his work was
finished. Martius asked Agassiz to continue the work of Spix, in the
line of fishes.
Agassiz writes to his sister Cecile: "I hesitated for a long time to
accept this honorable offer, fearing that the occupation might withdraw
me too much from my studies; but, on the other hand, the opportunity for
laying the foundation of a reputation by a large undertaking seemed too
favorable to be refused. The first volume is already finished, and the
printing was begun some weeks ago.... Already forty colored folio plates
are completed. Will it not seem strange when the largest and finest book
in papa's library is one written by his Louis? Will it not be as good
as to see his prescription at the apothecary's? It is true that this
first effort will bring me in but little; nothing at all, in fact,
because M. de Martius has assumed all the expenses, and will, of course,
receive the profits. My share will be a few copies of the book, and
these I shall give to the friends who have the first claim."
He writes to his father, as though half apologizing for the fact that he
is writing a book on natural history, at the same time showing the real
purpose of his life: "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 of those who 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."
Thus early in life he had fixed the mark to which he would attain, "the
first naturalist of his time." No wonder he succeeded, when he felt
within himself "the strength of a whole generation to work toward this
In the summer of 1829, when he was twenty-two, the first part of the
"Brazilian Fishes" was published, and a copy sent to the fond parents.
Good M. Agassiz wrote back: "I have no terms in which to express the
pleasure it has given me. In two words, for I have only a moment to
myself, I repeat my urgent entreaty that you would hasten your return as
much as possible.... The old father, who waits for you with open heart
and arms, sends you the most tender greeting." He had been devoting his
time to science--just what they feared,--but how proud they were to have
Cuvier, the great leader in zooelogy, to whom the book was dedicated,
wrote back: "You and M. de Martius have done me honor in placing my name
at the head of a work so admirable as the one you have just published.
The importance and the rarity of the species therein described, as well
as the beauty of the figures, will make the work an important one in
ichthyology, and nothing could heighten its value more than the accuracy
of your descriptions. It will be of the greatest use to me in my
'History of Fishes.'... I shall do all in my power to accelerate the
sale among amateurs, either by showing it to such as meet at my house,
or by calling attention to it in scientific journals."
Another project had now taken form in Agassiz's active brain, his great
work on "Poissons Fossiles," which a few years later placed him in the
front rank of scientific men. He wrote to Auguste: "Having, by
permission of the director of the museum, one of the finest collections
of fossils in Germany at my disposition, and being also allowed to take
the specimens home as I need them, I have undertaken to publish the
ichthyological part of the collection. Since it only makes the
difference of one or two people more to direct, I have these specimens
also drawn at the same time. Nowhere so well as here, where the Academy
of Fine Arts brings together so many draughtsmen, could I have the same
facility for completing a similar work; and as it is an entirely new
branch, in which no one has as yet done anything of importance, I feel
sure of success; the more so because Cuvier, who alone could do it (for
the single reason that every one else has till now neglected the
fishes), is not engaged upon it. Add to this that just now there is a
real need of this work for the determination of the different geological
formations." And then he urges Auguste to intercede with his uncle at
Neuchatel for one hundred louis. "At this very time, when he was keeping
two or three artists on his slender means," says his wife, "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
he recognized, either in youth or old age, was that of an expenditure as
bold as it was carefully considered."
He was now at work finishing the "Brazilian Fishes," and carrying
forward the "Fresh-Water Fishes" and the "Fossil Fishes." Besides these,
he read medical works till midnight, and wrote seventy-four theses on
anatomical, pathological, surgical, and obstetrical subjects.
He took his degree of medicine April 3, 1830. He writes to his mother:
"The whole ceremony lasted nine days. At the close, while they
considered my case, I was sent out of the room. On my return, the dean
said to me, 'The faculty have been very much' (emphasized) 'pleased
with your answers; they congratulate themselves on being able to give
the diploma to a young man who has already acquired so honorable a
reputation.' ... The rector then added that he should look upon it as
the brightest moment of his rectorship when he conferred upon me the
title I had so well merited."
And the glad mother writes back: "I cannot thank you enough, my dear
Louis, for the happiness you have given me in completing your medical
examinations, and thus securing to yourself a career as safe as it is
honorable.... You have for my sake gone through a long and arduous task;
were it in my power I would gladly reward you, but I cannot even say
that I love you the more for it, because that is impossible. My anxious
solicitude for your future is a proof of my ardent affection for you;
only one thing was wanting to make me the happiest of mothers, and this,
my Louis, you have just given me."
Agassiz had taken the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, a year earlier.
"The time had come," said he, years afterward, "when even the small
allowance I received from borrowed capital must cease. I was now
twenty-four years of age. I was Doctor of Philosophy and Medicine, and
author of a quarto volume on the fishes of Brazil. I had travelled on
foot all over Southern Germany, visited Vienna, and explored extensive
tracts of the Alps. I knew every animal, living and fossil, in the
museums of Munich, Stuttgart, Tuebingen, Erlangen, Wurzburg, Carlsruhe,
and Frankfort; but my prospects were as dark as ever, and I saw no hope
of making my way in the world, except by the practical pursuit of my
profession as physician."
December 4, 1830, Agassiz said good-by to Munich, and started with Mr.
Dinkel, his artist, for Concise, his father having moved there from
Orbe. Here he remained a year, arranging, meantime, his own valuable
collections in natural history, at the house of his grandfather Mayor,
at Cudrefin, on Lake Neuchatel, and practising a little in medicine, in
the neighboring villages.
He longed to go to Paris for study, but poverty was his constant
companion. Finally, an old friend of his father, a Swiss clergyman, M.
Christinot, having come into possession of a small amount of money,
urged his young friend to take it. His uncle also contributed a little,
and Agassiz and Dinkel left for Paris in September, 1831.
On their arrival they found inexpensive lodgings, and at once began to
work in the museums. He writes to his sister Olympe: "M. Cuvier and M.
Humboldt especially treat me on all occasions as an equal, and
facilitate for me the use of the scientific collections so that I can
work here as if I were at home.... In the morning I follow the chemical
courses at the Pitie.... At ten o'clock, or perhaps at eleven, I
breakfast, and then go to the Museum of Natural History, where I stay
till dark. Between five and six I dine, and after that turn to such
medical studies as do not require daylight.... On Saturday only, I spend
the evening at M. Cuvier's."
He writes later to his brother that there is another excellent reason
why he does not spend more evenings in society, because he has "no
presentable coat.... You can imagine that, after the fuel bill for the
winter is paid, little remains for other expenses out of my two hundred
francs a month, five louis of which are always due to my companion. Far
from having anything in advance, my month's supply is thus taken up at
once." Evidently he had no more money than when he and Auguste copied
whole volumes at the Zurich school.
Cuvier was so much drawn to the young naturalist that he gave him and
his artist a corner in one of his own laboratories, and, more than this,
his drawings of fossil fishes and notes which he had taken in the
British Museum and elsewhere. Cuvier said, three months later, with
regard to some work, "You are young; you have time enough for it, and I
have none to spare."
Agassiz now studied fifteen hours daily, sometimes seventeen. Cuvier
commended his devotion, but said one evening as he left him, "Be
careful, and remember that work kills." The next day he was paralyzed
and died soon after, Agassiz never seeing him again.
It became evident that Paris, with her scientific treasures, could not
be enjoyed longer. He must go back to Switzerland, and find a place to
teach, as his sympathetic mother urged him to do. Just when the sky was
darkest, a letter came from Humboldt, enclosing a check for one thousand
francs! "Consider it," he said, "an advance which need not be paid for
years, and which I will gladly increase when I go away or even earlier.
It would pain me deeply should the urgency of my request, made in the
closest confidence,--in short, a transaction as between two friends of
unequal age,--be disagreeable to you. I should wish to be pleasantly
remembered by a young man of your character. Yours, with the most
affectionate respect, Alexander Humboldt."
How delicately offered was this charity in the guise of a loan! To give
is blessed; to give without wounding the recipient is more blessed
The tender heart of Agassiz was deeply moved. He wrote his mother: "Oh!
if my mother would forget for one moment that this is the celebrated M.
de Humboldt, and find courage to write him only a few lines, how
grateful I should be to her. I think it would come better from her than
from papa, who would do it more correctly, no doubt, but perhaps not
quite as I should like."
She wrote a thankful letter, and the great man replied: "I should scold
your son, madame, for having spoken to you of the slight mark of
interest I have been able to show him; and yet, how can I complain of a
letter so touching, so noble in sentiment, as the one I have just
received from your hand? Accept my warmest thanks for it.... One might
well despair of the world if a person like your son, with information so
substantial and manners so sweet and prepossessing, should fail to make
This money made it possible for Agassiz to work in Paris, until a
professorship of Natural History was created for him at Neuchatel,
through the influence of Humboldt and others. Humboldt wrote: "Agassiz
is distinguished by his talents, by the variety and substantial
character of his attainments, and by that which has a special value in
these troubled times, his natural sweetness of disposition."
This "sweetness of disposition" was worth more to Agassiz, all through
life, than a fortune. It drew everybody to him. It opened the pockets of
the wealthy to carry forward his great projects. It won the hearts of
his pupils on two hemispheres. It made his home a delight, and his
presence a constant blessing.
He assumed the duties of his professorship at Neuchatel in the autumn of
1832, giving his first lecture, "Upon the Relations between the
different branches of Natural History and the then prevailing tendencies
of all the Sciences," November 12, at the Hotel de Ville. A society for
the study of the natural sciences was soon formed, and Agassiz became
its secretary. So natural, so enthusiastic, so full of his subject, was
he, that everybody became interested. To little companies of his friends
and neighbors he lectured on botany, on zooelogy, and the philosophy of
nature. Even the children were delighted to gather and be told how
lakes, springs, rivers, and valleys are formed.
"When it was impossible to give the lessons out-of-doors, the children
were gathered around a large table, where each one had before him or her
the specimens of the day, sometimes stones and fossils, sometimes
flowers, fruits, or dried plants.... When the talk was of tropical or
distant countries, pains were taken to procure characteristic specimens,
and the children were introduced to dates, bananas, cocoa-nuts, and
other fruits, not to be easily obtained in those days in a small inland
town. They, of course, concluded the lesson by eating the specimen, a
practical illustration which they greatly enjoyed."
Three months after his settlement at Neuchatel, where eighty louis had
been guaranteed to him for three years, he was invited to Heidelberg, to
succeed his former professor, Leuckart, in zooelogy. He would receive a
salary of five hundred florins, besides about fifteen hundred gulden for
lectures and literary work. He declined the honor, because he wished
more time to devote to his writing. The following year Neuchatel
purchased his collections in natural history, thus affording him some
pecuniary aid in his work.
A serious misfortune now threatened him in the loss of sight. Having
injured his eyes by microscopic work, for several months he was shut up
in a dark room, practising the study of his fossils by touch alone; by
the tongue when the fingers were not sufficiently sensitive to feel out
the impression. With great care his eyes improved, so that he was able
to use them through life more constantly than most persons.
In October, 1833, when he was twenty-six, Agassiz married Cecile Braun
of Carlsruhe, the sister of his life-long friend Alexander. They began
housekeeping in a small apartment at Neuchatel, both practising the
closest economy that the books might be carried on; the "Fresh-Water
Fishes," and the "Fossil Fishes." She was a skilful artist, had done
much work for her brother in botany, and now helped her young husband in
drawing and coloring his fishes.
The first number of the "Fossil Fishes" had already appeared, with the
following title, which shows the plan of the great work, to which he
devoted ten years, from 1833 to 1843:--
"Researches on the Fossil Fishes: comprising an Introduction to the
Study of these Animals; the Comparative Anatomy of Organic Systems which
may contribute to facilitate the Determination of Fossil Species; a New
Classification of Fishes, expressing their relations to the Series of
Formations; the Explanation of the Laws of their Succession and
Development during all the Changes of the Terrestrial Globe, accompanied
by General Geological Considerations; finally, the Description of about
a thousand Species which no longer exist, and whose Characters have
been restored from Remains contained in the Strata of the Earth."
The work was inscribed to Humboldt. "These pages owe to you their
existence; accept their dedication." It met everywhere the most
favorable reception. Elie de Beaumont wrote to Agassiz: "It promises a
work as important for science as it is remarkable in execution. Do not
let yourself be discouraged by obstacles of any kind; they will give way
before the concert of approbation which so excellent a work will
Agassiz had become known to scholars throughout Europe, as an
indefatigable worker, but he was still poor. Now and then there came a
gleam of sunshine into the straitened life. In 1834, he was greatly
surprised to receive from the London Geological Society, through Sir
Charles Lyell, the Wollaston prize, of about one hundred and fifty
dollars, conferred upon him for his work on fishes.
He writes back to Lyell: "You cannot imagine the joy your letter has
given me. The prize awarded me is at once so unexpected an honor and so
welcome an aid that I could hardly believe my eyes when, with tears of
relief and gratitude, I read your letter. In the presence of a savant, I
need not be ashamed of my penury, since I have spent the little I had
wholly in scientific researches. I do not, therefore, hesitate to
confess to you that at no time could your gift have given me greater
pleasure. Generous friends have helped me to bring out the first number
of my 'Fossil Fishes;' the plates of the second are finished, but I was
greatly embarrassed to know how to print a sufficient number of copies
before the returns from the first should be paid in. The text is ready
also, so that now, in a fortnight, I can begin the distribution, and,
the rotation once established, I hope that preceding numbers will always
enable me to publish the next in succession without interruption. I even
count upon this resource as affording me the means of making a journey
to England before long."
In August, 1834, Agassiz went to England, and there formed delightful
friendships with such men as Lyell, Murchison, Buckland, and others. He
was allowed to cull, from sixty or more collections, some two thousand
fossil fishes, and deposit them in the Somerset House in London, where
Mr. Dinkel, the artist, remained for several years at work, copying.
In the summer of 1836, he began his remarkable study of the glaciers. He
was so cramped for means to carry forward his "Fossil Fishes," that it
seemed probable that he must discontinue it, when opportunely his
original drawings were purchased by Lord Francis Egerton and given to
the British Museum. The financial condition was thus bettered for a
His investigation of the slopes of the Jura led to an address before the
Helvetic Association assembled at Neuchatel in 1837, in which he said:
"Siberian winter established itself for a time over a world previously
covered with a rich vegetation and peopled with large mammalia, similar
to those now inhabiting the warm regions of India and Africa. Death
enveloped all nature in a shroud, and the cold, having reached its
highest degree, gave to this mass of ice, at the maximum of tension, the
greatest possible hardness." He showed how huge boulders had been
distributed over the continent.
His views excited much opposition, from most of the older geologists.
Even Humboldt said, "Your ice frightens me." But the discussion
convinced the scientific world that Agassiz was both original and
brilliant. He was soon called to a professorship of geology and
mineralogy at Geneva, with a salary of three thousand francs, and also
to Lausanne; but he refused both offers. So pleased were the people of
Neuchatel that they made him accept a present of six thousand francs,
payable during three years.
In 1838, Agassiz founded a lithographic printing establishment in
Neuchatel, where his work could be done under his own direction instead
of in Munich. He was now, besides his duties as professor, at work on
"Living and Fossil Echinoderms and Mollusks," as well as "Fresh-Water
and Fossil Fishes," and soon after upon the "Etudes sur les Glaciers,"
with an atlas of thirty-two plates. The book gave an account of all
previous glacial study, and the observations of himself and companions.
"Agassiz displayed during these years," said one of his co-workers, "an
incredible energy, of which the history of science offers, perhaps, no
other example." He worked always till midnight, often till two or three
o'clock, sitting for hours at his microscope, troubled much with
congestion of the head and eyes. The expense involved in his work was
enormous, and he was burdening himself with debts, which are more
wearing and destructive to health and happiness than any amount of work
can ever be.
Still he struggled on, through these dark days of poverty. He was only
thirty-three, so young-looking that, on seeing him, people asked if he
were "the son of the celebrated professor of Neuchatel." He had already
been chosen a member of the Royal Society of London.
In 1840 he made his first permanent station on the Alps, taking with him
barometers, thermometers, hygrometers, psychometers, boring apparatus,
and microscopes, making the Hospice of the Grimsel his base of supplies,
and the lower Aar glacier the scene of his work. A huge boulder, its
upper surface forming a roof, with a stone wall constructed on one side,
became the sleeping-room of Agassiz and five friends. This abode was
called the Hotel des Neuchatelois. Jacob Leuthold, an intrepid Swiss,
was their chief guide. He died at thirty-seven, sincerely mourned by
all. They made dangerous ascents of snow-covered peaks, measured the
depth and forward movement of glaciers, Agassiz even being lowered by
ropes one hundred and twenty-five feet into a glacial well, to
investigate its formation.
All Europe was becoming interested in glaciers. Edward Forbes wrote from
Edinburgh: "You have made all the geologists glacier-mad here, and they
are turning Great Britain into an ice-house." Darwin was deeply
interested. He wrote from North Wales: "The valley about here and the
site of the inn at which I am now writing must once have been covered by
at least eight hundred or one thousand feet in thickness of solid ice!
Eleven years ago I spent a whole day in the valley where yesterday
everything but the ice of the glaciers was palpably clear to me, and I
then saw nothing but plain water and bare rock."
Agassiz now began work on his "Nomenclator Zooelogicus," and his
"Bibliographia Zooelogiae et Geologiae," the former comprising "an
enumeration of all the genera of the animal kingdom, with the etymology
of their names, the names of those who had first proposed them, and the
date of their publication." The latter contained a list of all the
authors named in the Nomenclator, with notices of their works. This was
published by the Royal Society in England, in 1848, the expense being
too great for one person.
In 1843 the "Fossil Fishes," in five large volumes, was completed, and
the following year his "Monograph on the Fossil Fishes of the Old Red
Sandstone, or the Devonian System of Great Britain and Russia," was
published, a large volume accompanied by forty-one plates. The
discovery of these fossils was due to Hugh Miller, whose interesting
life and pathetic death will always be associated with the study of the
Old Red Sandstone.
In the spring of 1846, a great change took place in the life of the
overworked naturalist. He had long hoped to visit the United States for
scientific investigation, and now the time had come. The King of
Prussia, at the request of Humboldt, granted him fifteen thousand francs
for this purpose--he had previously given Agassiz one thousand dollars
for his glacial researches.... Leaving his wife and daughters with
Alexander Braun, her brother, at Carlsruhe, and his son Alexander at
school at Neuchatel, Agassiz said good-by to his students, who came at
two o'clock at night, in procession with torchlights. Going to Paris, he
spent some time in bringing out his second work upon the glaciers,
"Systeme Glaciaire," receiving the Monthyon Prize of Physiology from the
Academy, and sailed for America in September, 1846.
Humboldt wrote him from Sans-Souci: "Be happy in this new undertaking,
and preserve for me the first place under the head of friendship in your
heart. When you return, I shall be here no more, but the king and queen
will receive you on this historic hill with the affection which, for so
many reasons, you merit. Your illegible but much attached friend."
Sir Charles Lyell, of England, who had given a successful course of
lectures before the Lowell Institute, Boston, arranged a similar course
with Mr. Lowell for his friend Agassiz. Perhaps money has never been
given more wisely in our country than by the refined John Lowell, Jr.,
of Boston, who, dying in a foreign country at thirty-seven, bereft of
wife and children, left a quarter of a million dollars to "provide for
regular courses of free public lectures upon the most important
branches of natural and moral science, to be annually delivered in the
city of Boston." None of the bequest could be used for buildings, and
ten per cent. of the accumulation of the fund was to be set aside
annually to continue it. Since December 1, 1839, from six to ten courses
have been given yearly to large audiences, by some of the most
distinguished persons in Europe and America.
"Natural and moral science!" How broad the subject, and how incalculable
the benefit to any city, great or small! What a means for the best
general education; what an uplifting of the whole mental and social life
of a community!
Agassiz came to Boston and gave twelve lectures on the "Plan of the
Creation, especially in the Animal Kingdom." His speech had a foreign
accent; but his enthusiastic love of his subject, his skill in drawing
on the blackboard, and his eloquent but simple language soon won all
He was as pleased with the Americans as they were with him. He wrote to
his beloved mother (his father had died ten years before): "I can only
say that the educated Americans are very accessible and very pleasant.
They are obliging to the utmost degree; indeed, their cordiality toward
strangers exceeds any that I have met elsewhere.... The liberality of
the American naturalists toward me is unparalleled.... The government
(of the State of New York) has just completed the publication of a work
unique of its kind, a natural history of the State in sixteen volumes,
quarto, with plates. Twenty-five hundred copies have been printed, only
five hundred of which are for sale, the rest being distributed
throughout the State. Four volumes are devoted to geology and mining
alone; the others, to zooelogy, botany, and agriculture. Yes, twenty-five
hundred copies of a work in sixteen volumes, quarto, scattered
throughout the State of New York alone!
"When I think that I began my studies in natural history by copying
hundreds of pages from a Lamarck which some one had lent me, and that
to-day there is a state in which the smallest farmer may have access to
a costly work, worth a library to him in itself, I bless the efforts of
those who devote themselves to public instruction."
Agassiz was at once asked to give a second course before the Lowell
Institute, on glaciers. This, like the first, was greatly enjoyed by the
two thousand or more persons present. Invitations now came from other
cities, but he said, "I will limit myself to what I need in order to
repay those who have helped me through a difficult crisis.... Beyond
that all must go again to science,--there lies my true mission."
He passed his fortieth birthday, May 28, 1847, with Dr. B. E. Cotting,
curator of the Lowell Institute, at whose home he had stayed through
some weeks of illness. His host, seeing him standing thoughtfully at the
window, said, "Why so sad?"
"That I am so old and have done so little," was the reply.
In the summer of 1847, Agassiz rented a small house in East Boston,
sufficiently near to the ocean to study marine animals. He also gave
lectures in New York, Philadelphia, Albany, and other eastern cities.
The next spring, the Lawrence Scientific School was organized at
Cambridge, in connection with Harvard University, and Agassiz was
offered the chair of Natural History (zooelogy and geology), with a
salary of fifteen hundred dollars. The school owed its existence to
Abbott Lawrence, formerly our minister to England.
Agassiz accepted the position, and opened his first course in April,
1848. Here he found congenial friends, Longfellow, Lowell, Prescott,
Motley, Gray, Holmes, and others. M. Christinot, who had so generously
helped to send him to Paris years before, came to the Cambridge home and
was put in charge of it. "If your old friend," he said, "can live with
his son Louis, it will be the height of his happiness."
The small plot of ground about the house became a zooelogical garden,
with its tank for turtles and an alligator, its cage for eagles, a tame
bear, and a family of opossums. Agassiz had already begun his Museum of
Comparative Zooelogy, on the banks of the Charles River, in an old
shanty. The outlook was hopeful; but he was sad at heart, for Cecile,
his wife, had died since he came to America, and his children seemed too
young to bring into a home where there was no mother.
In the summer of 1848, Agassiz organized an expedition of students and
naturalists for the examination of the eastern and northern shores of
Lake Superior. At Niagara, he saw for the first time a living garpike,
the only representative among modern fishes of the fossil type of
Lepidosteus. He made a careful study of the fauna and geology of the
lake, and the results were published in a book. Charles Darwin wrote, "I
have seldom been more deeply gratified than by receiving your most kind
present of 'Lake Superior.' ... I had heard of it, and had much wished
to read it, but I confess it was the very great honor of having in my
possession a work with your autograph as a presentation copy that has
given me such lively and sincere pleasure."
Agassiz had published another book in America, in 1848, "Principles of
Zooelogy," which had a large sale, and was much used in schools. In 1849,
his only son, fifteen years old, came to live with his father. The
following year, 1850, Agassiz married Elizabeth Cabot Gary, of Boston, a
cultivated and lovely woman. His daughters, much younger than their
brother, arrived from Europe the same year. M. Christinot, though urged
to remain, now preferred to find another home, settled in New Orleans as
pastor, and later died in Switzerland.
The winter of 1851 was spent in the examination of the Florida reefs and
keys, a work undertaken at the request of Prof. A. D. Bache, at the head
of the United States Coast Survey. The results were valuable in showing
"how far the soil now building up from accumulations of mud and coral
debris was likely to remain for a long time shifting and uncertain, and
how far and in what localities it might be relied upon as affording a
stable foundation," for building lighthouses, etc. Agassiz brought back
for his museum a fine collection of corals, of all varieties and in all
stages of growth, with drawings made on the spot, from the living
This year he accepted a professorship at the medical college in
Charleston, S. C., lecturing during the three winter months, between his
autumn and spring courses at Cambridge. The overwork finally resulted in
a dangerous illness, and he was obliged to discontinue it in 1853. The
year previous he received the Prix Cuvier for his "Fossil Fishes." His
fond mother wrote: "This has given me such happiness, dear Louis, that
the tears are in my eyes as I write it to you."
He now issued a circular asking for collections of fishes from various
fresh-water systems of the United States, and responses came from every
direction. New England captains, when they started on a cruise, took out
cans, furnished by Agassiz, for collections in distant ports. Fishermen
and farmers, indeed all classes, heartily joined in cooeperating with the
man who had said in the University at Munich, "I will be a leader of
others," and he had reached the mark which he set for himself. In 1854
he was urged to accept a professorship in the recently established
University of Zurich, Switzerland; but he declined, for he had one
definite aim in America, to found a great museum, where the best methods
of study could be adopted. He said in his "Fossil Fishes": "Possessing
no fossil fishes myself, and renouncing forever the acquisition of
collections so precious, I have been forced to seek the materials for my
work in all the collections of Europe containing such remains; I have,
therefore, made frequent journeys in Germany, in France, and in England,
in order to examine, describe, and illustrate the objects of my
researches; but, notwithstanding the cordiality with which even the most
precious specimens have been placed at my disposition, a serious
inconvenience has resulted from this mode of working, namely, that I
have rarely been able to compare directly the various specimens of the
same species from different collections, and that I have often been
obliged to make my identification from memory, or from simple notes, or,
in the more fortunate cases, from my drawings only. It is impossible to
imagine the fatigue, the exhaustion of all the faculties, involved in
such a method." He hoped to found a museum where students should have
specimens for work, ready for their use.
In the winter of 1855, Agassiz, resumed his public lectures, as his
salary of fifteen hundred was insufficient to support his family, but
when the spring came he found himself exhausted by the extra work.
And now his noble wife thought out a plan to aid him. She opened a
school in their house, for young ladies. Agassiz's surprise and pleasure
knew no bounds when he was informed of the project. He immediately took
charge of the classes in physical geography, natural history, and
botany, giving a lecture daily on one or other of these subjects. The
school, with sixty or seventy girls, was continued for eight years,
Agassiz having the cooeperation of his brother-in-law, Professor Felton,
the noted Greek scholar, and other distinguished men. This school was a
blessing in more ways than one. All these years, the debts incurred by
the publication of the "Fossil Fishes," and the glacial investigations,
had burdened him. The wonder was that the genial, untiring worker could
labor at all under this depressing load. Noble devotees to science! What
have they not suffered to advance the cause of knowledge! We sit by our
pleasant firesides and read what others have wrought for us, perhaps in
want and sorrow of soul, and we forget to be grateful or to help lift
This school opened by the helpful wife made Agassiz a free man--no
longer shackled by that worst form of slavery, debt. Well said John
Ruskin: "My first word to all men and boys who care to hear me is, don't
get into debt. Starve and go to heaven, but don't borrow.... Don't buy
things you can't pay for!"
Indefatigable, versatile, comprehensive in mind, Agassiz at once planned
another great work, to be published in ten volumes, though it was
finally reduced to four: "Contributions to the Natural History of the
United States." Mr. Francis C. Gray of Boston, a personal friend and a
lover of letters and science, set the subscription before the public.
Very soon, to Agassiz's great delight, he received the names of
seventeen hundred subscribers, at twelve dollars a volume.
He had now reached his fiftieth birthday, completing his first volume of
the new work on that day. His students serenaded him, and Longfellow
wrote, to be read at the "Saturday Club," composed of Hawthorne, Holmes,
Lowell, Dana, and others, this exquisite poem:--
It was fifty years ago,
In the pleasant month of May,
In the beautiful Pays de Vaud,
A child in its cradle lay.
And Nature, the old nurse, took
The child upon her knee,
Saying: "Here is a story-book
Thy Father has written for thee."
"Come wander with me," she said,
"Into regions yet untrod,
And read what is still unread
In the manuscripts of God."
And he wandered away and away
With Nature, the dear old nurse,
Who sang to him night and day
The rhymes of the universe.
And whenever the way seemed long,
Or his heart began to fail,
She would sing a more wonderful song,
Or tell a more marvellous tale.
So she keeps him still a child,
And will not let him go,
Though at times his heart beats wild
For the beautiful Pays de Vaud;
Though at times he hears in his dreams
The Ranz des Vaches of old,
And the rush of mountain streams
From glaciers clear and cold;
And the mother at home says, "Hark!
For his voice I listen and yearn;
It is growing late and dark,
And my boy does not return!"
This year, 1857, Agassiz received an unexpected honor--a call to one of
the most coveted places at the Jardin des Plantes; the chair of
palaeontology in the Museum of Natural History, Paris. Though obliged to
refuse it because he considered his life-work to be in America, he
appreciated the favor as also the bestowal of the Order of the Legion
of Honor, and the Copley medal from England. Twenty-seven years before,
he had received in Paris the aid of Humboldt in his destitution; now,
two hemispheres competed for his services.
The following year, 1858, Mr. Francis C. Gray died, leaving fifty
thousand dollars for the establishment of a Museum of Comparative
Zooelogy, to be used neither for buildings nor for salaries, but purely
for scientific needs.
"All things come round to him who will but wait," says Longfellow, in
the "Falcon of Sir Federigo." Other gifts soon followed. Harvard
University gave land for the site of the building. The Massachusetts
Legislature gave lands to the amount of one hundred thousand dollars.
Over seventy-one thousand was promptly subscribed by citizens of Boston
and Cambridge. Agassiz contributed all his collections, worth thousands
of dollars. The corner-stone of the museum was laid one sunny afternoon
in June, 1859, and then the happy Agassiz hastened across the ocean, to
rejoice with his mother, in her home near the foot of the Jura. She was
glad and proud now that he had become a naturalist.
The museum was dedicated November 13, 1860. The plan included a main
building 364 feet long, with wings 205 long, the whole enclosing a
hollow square. The lecture rooms were at once opened. Especially welcome
were teachers of schools, for whom admittance was free. His lectures
were open to women as well as to men. This would naturally be expected,
from the broad-mindedness of the man, and the respect he must have had
for the capacity of woman, from such a mother and such a wife. "He had
great sympathy," says Mrs. Agassiz, "with the desire of women for larger
and more various fields of study and work." To such men women can never
be too grateful.
In 1863, he helped to organize the National Academy of Sciences. He
frequently gave lectures in the large cities, using the money for the
further development of the museum.
In 1865 he started, with his wife and several assistants, for sixteen
months of scientific investigation in Brazil, the expenses borne by his
friend, Mr. Nathaniel Thayer, of Boston. He writes to his mother,--
"All those who know me seem to have combined to heighten the
attraction of the journey, and facilitate it in every respect.
The Pacific Mail Steamship Company have invited me to take
passage with my whole party on their fine steamer, the Colorado.
They will take us, free of all expense, as far as Rio de
Janeiro,--an economy of fifteen thousand francs at the start....
I seem like the spoiled child of the country, and I hope God will
give me strength to repay, in devotion to her institutions and to
her scientific and intellectual development, all that her
citizens have done for me....
With all my heart,
The story of this expedition has been told, chiefly by Mrs. Agassiz, in
that most interesting volume, "A Journey in Brazil."
On Agassiz's return, he gave a course of lectures before the Lowell
Institute, and the Cooper Institute, New York, spending the summer at
his pleasant seaside home and laboratory at Nahant.
The fisherman at Nahant would pull two or three miles to bring him a
rare fish; and only for the pleasure of seeing him rush out of his
little laboratory, crying: "Oh! where did you get that? That is a
species which goes as far as Brazil. Nobody has ever seen it north of
Cape Cod. Come in, come in, and sit down!"
In 1868, Agassiz, invited by Mr. Samuel Hooper, joined a party of
friends in an excursion to the Rocky Mountains. This year he was
appointed non-resident professor at Cornell University, Ithaca, New
The Massachusetts Legislature now gave seventy-five thousand dollars,
and private individuals an equal sum, to provide for the new collections
at the museum. Later, the museum received from the Legislature
twenty-five thousand more, and a birthday gift to Agassiz, of one
hundred thousand dollars, was also used by him for his precious work.
September 15, 1869, at the Humboldt Centennial Celebration, Agassiz
delivered an eloquent address before the Boston Society of Natural
History, and the "Humboldt Scholarship" was founded at the museum. The
bread cast upon the waters by Humboldt had been found after many days.
Agassiz was now completely prostrated by overwork, and told by his
physician that for the several months in which he remained shut up in
his room he must not think. Yet he could not banish one subject from his
thoughts, and, with tears in his eyes, he would sometimes exclaim,--"Oh,
my museum! my museum! always uppermost, by day and by night, in health
and in sickness, always--always!"
The great mind rallied for one more voyage of research in his beloved
science. In the coast-survey steamer Hassler, with his wife and friends,
he sailed December 4, 1871, around Cape Horn, landing at several places
along the coast, gathering rich treasures from deep-sea dredgings,
entering the Golden Gate August 24, 1872.
In October, Agassiz returned to Cambridge. Through the gift of Mr. John
Anderson, a wealthy New York merchant, of the island of Penikese, in
Buzzard's Bay, with its buildings and an endowment of fifty thousand
dollars, a summer school of natural history was at once opened. This
year was a very busy one. A series of articles were in preparation for
the "Atlantic Monthly," in opposition to the views of Darwin on
evolution. He had already published two successful books, "Methods of
Study in Natural History," and "Geological Sketches." December 2, 1873,
a lecture was given at Fitchburg, before a meeting of the Massachusetts
Board of Agriculture. The next day Agassiz spoke of dimness of sight,
and of feeling "strangely asleep," and on December 14 he was asleep in
He was buried from the college chapel, the students who loved him laying
a wreath of laurel upon the bier, and singing his requiem. The noble
mother, fortunately, had died six years before him.
They buried him at Mount Auburn. From the glacier of the Aar, not far
from the spot where his little hut once stood, they brought a boulder
for his monument, and from his old home in Switzerland, pine trees to
grow beside his grave. He loved both countries, and both have shared in
his sacred resting-place.
His work will never cease. His museum at Cambridge now has seventy-one
rooms and twelve galleries, with invested funds of over five hundred and
eighty thousand dollars, while the buildings and collections are valued
at about seven hundred thousand dollars. It is now under the charge of
Prof. Alexander Agassiz, the son of Louis, and to his constant
generosity and devotion the museum is deeply indebted.
Agassiz said, "My hope is that there shall arise upon the grounds of
Harvard a museum of natural history which shall compete with the British
Museum and with the Jardin des Plantes. Do not say it cannot be done,
for you cannot suppose that what exists in England and France cannot be
reached in America. I hope even that we shall found a museum which will
be based upon a more suitable foundation, and better qualified to
advance the highest interests of science than these institutions of the
Agassiz not only wrote books and built museums. He gave to the world a
high ideal of a seeker after truth. He stimulated the intellectual
activity of two continents, and blessed both of them by his own
brilliant mind and his noble character.