Louis Agassiz

Biography

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Louis Agassiz
Louis Agassiz

sand dollar
Sand dollar (From Agassiz's Monographies d'Échinodermes vivants et fossiles)

glyptolepis
Glyptolepis elegans - A fossil fish. From: Poissons fossiles du Vieux Grès Rouge

Louis Agassiz (May 28, 1807 – December 14, 1873). Swiss-born American zoologist, geologist, and paleontologist, with a special expertise in ichthyology. Founder and director of Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. One of the most famous scientists of his day.


Louis Agassiz was born in the western, French-speaking part of Switzerland. After earning an MD and PhD in Germany, he worked closely with Georges Cuvier in Paris. He was also befriended there by Alexander von Humboldt.

When Cuvier died in 1832, von Humboldt helped Agassiz obtain a professorship back in Switzerland at the University of Neuchâtel, not far from Môtier where Agassiz was born. It was there at Neuchâtel that Agassiz completed his monumental, exquisitely illustrated Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (1833-1843), a book that brought together much of what was then known about fossil fishes and that did much to stimulate future research into extinct life of all kinds. During his years at Neuchâtel , he also completed the Nomenclator Zoologicus (1842-1846), a vast annotated list of all generic names that had been used in zoological nomenclature from the time of Linnaeus.

swiss glacier
Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland

Raised in the Swiss Alps, his study of glacial erratics and other traces of past glaciation led Agassiz to propose the occurrence of past ice ages. On July 24, 1837, Agassiz stunned attendees of the annual meeting of the Swiss Society of Natural Sciences by passionately arguing for this idea. In his Études sur les glaciers ("Glacier Studies"), he asserted that all of central Europe had once been buried beneath a massive sheet of ice. What he called the Eiszeit (German for Ice Age) is now called the Pleistocene. His realization that past ice ages had actually occurred, placed him in the forefront of geological and paleontological thought. For example, he was the first scientist to realize that the immense prehistoric North American lake now known as Lake Agassiz, was created by glacial dams.

Contemporaries
of Louis Agassiz:

Alfred Wallace >>

Adam Sedgwick >>

John Xantus >>

Karl Ernst von Baer >>

Gregor Mendel >>

Mary Anning >>

Charles Darwin >>

Having traveled to the United States in 1846 to study the natural history of North America, he was offered a professorship at Harvard and decided to settle in Boston. Agassiz became one of the first American biologists of international standing. Through his Harvard years of teaching future prominent scientists, Agassiz had perhaps the greatest influence of any single individual in the 19th century on the future course of American zoology and geology. But he is now remembered primarily for his ice age theories and for his opposition to the theory of natural selection.

Alfred Russel Wallace
Alfred Wallace

In recent literature Agassiz has been criticized for his racist attitudes, but one must remember that racism was more the rule than the exception in the 19th century (in fact, it seems that the amiable Alfred Wallace was the only prominent naturalist of that era that did not express such views). Even Darwin, who is widely revered by biologists today, expressed opinions that would be utterly reprehensible if judged by modern standards. For example, in The Descent of Man (1871, vol. 1), he makes the now outrageous suggestion that blacks are somehow intermediate between civilized human beings and apes: "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the

world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break [i.e., between human beings and other forms of life] will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

There seems, then, to be no reason to single out Louis Agassiz for reproach in this regard.

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Read about Lake Agassiz >>

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Read about Alexander von Humboldt >>

Notes:

  • Full name: Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (pronounced AWG-uh-see).
  • A poem about Louis Agassiz
  • Louis Agassiz's major works: Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (1833-1843); Études sur les glaciers (1840); Études critiques sur les mollusques fossiles (1841-1842); Nomenclator Zoologicus (1842-1846): Monographies d'Échinodermes vivants et fossiles (1838-1841); Natural History of the United States (1857-1862).


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