Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013 - Biography & Autobiography - 434 pages

Charismatic and controversial, Louis Agassiz is our least known revolutionary—some fifty years after American independence, he became a founding father of American science.

One hundred and seventy-five years ago, a Swiss immigrant took America by storm, launching American science as we know it. The irrepressible Louis Agassiz, legendary at a young age for his work on mountain glaciers, focused his prodigious energies on the fauna of the New World. Invited to deliver a series of lectures in Boston, he never left, becoming the most famous scientist of his time. A pioneer in field research and an obsessive collector, Agassiz enlisted the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural specimens, dead or alive, for his ingeniously conceived museum of comparative zoology. As an educator of enduring impact, he trained a generation of American scientists and science teachers, men and women alike. Irmscher sheds new light on Agassiz’s fascinating partnership with his brilliant wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, a science writer in her own right who would go on to become the first president of Radcliffe College.

But there’s a dark side to the story. Irmscher adds unflinching evidence of Agassiz’s racist impulses and shows how avidly Americans looked to men of science to mediate race policy. The book’s potent, original scenes include the pitched battle between Agassiz and his student Henry James Clark as well as the merciless, often amusing exchanges between Darwin and Harvard botanist Asa Gray over Agassiz’s stubborn resistance to evolution.

A fascinating life story, both inspiring and cautionary, for anyone interested in the history of American ideas.


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LOUIS AGASSIZ: Creator of American Science

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A thoroughly satisfying biography of the almost but not quite forgotten Swiss-born Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), who moved to the United States in 1846 to become a combination of educator, media star and ... Read full review

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Elegant, compelling. From the New York Times Book Review, by Rebecca Stott: "During the California earthquake of 1906, the marble statue of Louis Agassiz toppled off the second story of Stanford University’s zoology building and plunged headfirst into the ground. The great scientist, with his head buried in concrete, his upturned body sticking up into air, became an iconic image of the earthquake. Agassiz is often remembered as a fallen man, Christoph Irmscher tells us. His rejection of Darwinian evolution and his conviction that America belonged to the whites only are an embarrassment to science. A decade ago, an eighth grader at the Agassiz School in Cambridge, Mass., came across a description of Agassiz’s racism and suggested the school change its name. It did, calling itself after the school’s first African-¬American principal, Maria L. Baldwin.
“Distinctly undelightful” is how Irmscher describes Agassiz in this evocative new biography. He confesses that he struggled to reconcile the prejudices, the authoritarianism and the brilliance of his subject, asking, “Can we love Agassiz?” It is a strange and complex question. “Do we need to love Agassiz?” we might reply. But the question, though odd, is a particular one in science biography. Agassiz and his peers stand in the shadow of Darwin’s extraordinarily liberal, kindly, generous good nature. Alongside Darwin, some of these men look selfish, mean-minded and bigoted. They are difficult to like.
But irreconcilable contradictions make for interesting biographies. And Irmscher doesn’t allow the “undelightful” aspects to disappear in the service of myth making. Instead, he draws out the complexities of his subject and helps us to see them as part of the fabric of 19th-century science. There’s no airbrushing in “Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.”
The subtitle of the book is perhaps a touch overstated, however. Scientific discoveries of that era, as we now know, weren’t made by individuals but by communities, networks, institutions and changing attitudes.
Nonetheless, there is no arguing with the claim that Agassiz, a Swiss immigrant, was pivotal to the making of American science. He was “one of the first,” Irmscher writes, “to establish science as a collective enterprise.” He was extraordinarily prolific and influential in many fields, including paleontology, zoology, geology and glaciology. He pioneered field research and was among the first to propose that the Earth had endured an ice age. A charismatic teacher whose students in natural history went on to become the teachers and scientists of the next generation, he was also an obsessive collector, enlisting the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural history specimens so he could build a remarkable museum of comparative anatomy.
The range of Agassiz’s interests and expertise seems remarkable to a modern reader, given the narrow specialties of contemporary scientific practice, but in many ways, it was this restless curiosity that made him a transitional figure. He may have forged the path for research as a profession ensconced in universities endowed with posts and chairs, but he also belonged to the older age of the -polymathic natural philosopher.
Unlike Darwin, Agassiz did not leave thousands of letters and journals and health records with which biographers have been able to piece together the intricate interior life of their subject. He was too busy. At the same time, however, he was keen to promote himself in particular ways, revealing a degree of control over his image that Irmscher describes as self-mythologizing. The dominant image he sought to promote was of a man who never stopped working, who had prodigious energy but who was also prone to bouts of nervous exhaustion from overwork.
In the absence of personal records, Irmscher draws instead on other sources, including accounts by students who depict Agassiz as an authoritarian teacher who expected his pupils to toe his line. When they took their own directions, as some famously did


1 Agassiz at Rest
2 The Ice King
3 Humboldts Gift
4 Darwins Barnacles Agassizs Jellyfish
5 Mr Clarks Headache
6 A Pint of Ink
7 A Delicate Balance
8 A Galápagos Picnic
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About the author (2013)

Christoph Irmscher, professor of English at Indiana University, is the editor of the Library of America's John James Audubon and the author of Longfellow Redux, called "one of the most important books on Longfellow ever written" (Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and editor of Dante's Inferno: The Longfellow Translation ).

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