Part 3 out of 10
have seen the handsome public building in process of construction
at Neuchatel. It will be finished this year, and I am told that the
Museum will be placed there. I believe the collections are very
incomplete, and the city of Neuchatel is rich enough to expend
something in filling the blanks. It has occurred to me, my dear,
that this would be an excellent opportunity for disposing of your
alcoholic specimens. They form, at present, a capital yielding no
interest, requiring care, and to be enjoyed only at the cost of
endless outlay in glass jars, alcohol, and transportation, to say
nothing of the rent of a room in which to keep them. All this,
beside attracting many visitors, is too heavy a burden for you,
from which you may free yourself by taking advantage of this rare
chance. To this end you must have an immediate understanding with
M. Coulon, lest he should make a choice elsewhere. Your brother,
being on the spot, might negotiate for you. . .Finally, my last
topic is Mr. Dinkel. You are very fortunate to have found in your
artist such a thoroughly nice fellow; nevertheless, in view of the
expense, you must make it possible to do without him. I see you
look at me aghast; but where a sacrifice is to be made we must not
do it by halves; we must pull up the tree by the roots. It is a
great evil to be spending more than one earns. . .
TO HIS MOTHER.
PARIS, March 25, 1832.
. . .It is true, dear mother, that I am greatly straitened; that I
have much less money to spend than I could wish, or even than I
need; on the other hand, this makes me work the harder, and keeps
me away from distractions which might otherwise tempt me. . .With
reference to my work, however, things are not quite as you suppose,
as regards either my stay here or my relations with M. Cuvier.
Certainly, I hope that I should lose neither his good-will nor his
protection on leaving here; on the contrary, I am sure that he
would be the first to advise me to accept any professorship, or any
place which might be advantageous for me, however removed from my
present occupations, and that his counsels would follow me there.
But what cannot follow me, and what I owe quite as much to him, is
the privilege of examining all the collections. These I can have
nowhere but in Paris, since even if he would consent to it I could
not carry away with me a hundred quintals of fossil fish, which,
for the sake of comparison, I must have before my eyes, nor
thousands of fish-skeletons, which would alone fill some fifty
great cases. It is this which compels me to stay here till I have
finished my work. I should add that M. Elie de Beaumont has also
been kind enough to place at my disposition the fossil fishes from
the collection at the Mining School, and that M. Brongniart has
made me the same offer regarding his collection, which is one of
the finest among those owned by individuals in Paris. . .
As to my collections, I had already thought of asking either the
Vaudois government or the city of Neuchatel to receive them into
the Museum, merely on condition that they should provide for the
expenses of exhibition and preservation, making use of them,
meanwhile, for the instruction of the public. I should be sorry to
lose all right to them, because I hope they may have another final
destination. I do not despair of seeing the different parts of
Switzerland united at some future day by a closer tie, and in case
of such a union a truly Helvetic university would become a
necessity; then, my aim would be to make my collection the basis of
that which they would be obliged to found for their courses of
lectures. It is really a shame that Switzerland, richer and more
extensive than many a small kingdom, should have no university,
when some states of not half its size have even two; for instance,
the grand duchy of Baden, one of whose universities, that of
Heidelberg, ranks among the first in all Germany. If ever I attain
a position allowing me so to do, I shall make every effort in my
power to procure for my country the greatest of benefits: namely,
that of an intellectual unity, which can arise only from a high
degree of civilization, and from the radiation of knowledge from
one central point.
I, too, have considered the question about Dinkel, and if, when I
have finished my work here, my position is not changed, and I have
no definite prospect, such as would justify me in keeping him with
me,--well! then we must part! I have long been preparing myself for
this, by employing him only upon what is indispensable to the
publication of my first numbers, hoping that these may procure me
the means of paying for such illustrations as I shall further need.
As my justification for having engaged him in the first instance,
and continued this expense till now, I can truly say that it is in
a great degree through his drawings that M. Cuvier has been able to
judge of my work, and so has been led to make a surrender of all
his materials in my favor. I foresaw clearly that this was my only
chance of competing with him, and it was not without reason that I
insisted so strongly on having Dinkel with me in passing through
Strasbourg and subsequently at Carlsruhe. Had I not done so, M.
Cuvier might still be in advance of me. Now my mind is at rest on
this score; I have already written you all about his kindness in
offering me the work. Could I only be equally fortunate in its
M. Cuvier urges me strongly to present my book to the Academy, in
order to obtain a report upon its contents. I must first finish it,
however, and the task is not a light one. For this reason, above
all, I regret my want of means; but for that I could have the
drawings made at once, and the Academy report, considered as a
recommendation, would certainly help on the publication greatly.
But in this respect I have long been straitened; Auguste knows that
I had at Munich an artist who was to complete what I had left there
for execution, and that I stopped his work on leaving Concise. If
the stagnation of the book-trade continues I shall, perhaps, be
forced to give up Dinkel also; for if I cannot begin the
publication, which will, I hope, bring me some return, I must cease
to accumulate material in advance. Should business revive soon,
however, I may yet have the pleasure of seeing all completed before
I leave Paris.
I think I forgot to mention the arrival of Braun six weeks after
me. I had a double pleasure in his coming, for he brought with him
his younger brother, a charming fellow, and a distinguished pupil
of the polytechnic school of Carlsruhe. He means to be a mining
engineer, and comes to study such collections at Paris as are
connected with this branch. You cannot imagine what happiness and
comfort I have in my relations with Alexander; he is so good, so
cultivated and high-minded, that his friendship is a real blessing
to me. We both feel very much our separation from the elder
Schimper, who, spite of his great desire to join us at Carlsruhe
and accompany us to Paris, was not able to leave Munich. . .
P.S. My love to Auguste. To-day (Sunday) I went again to see M.
Humboldt about Auguste's* (* Concerning a business undertaking in
Mexico.) plan, but did not find him.
Then follow several pages, addressed to his father, in answer to
the request contained in one of his last letters that Louis would
tell him as much as he thinks he can understand of his work. There
is something touching in this little lesson given by the son to the
father, as showing with what delight Louis responded to the least
touch of parental affection respecting his favorite studies, so
long looked upon at home with a certain doubt and suspicion. The
whole letter is not given here, as it is simply an elementary
treatise on geology; but the close is not without interest as
relating to the special investigations on which he was now
"The aim of our researches upon fossil animals is to ascertain what
beings have lived at each one of these (geological) epochs of
creation, and to trace their characters and their relations with
those now living; in one word, to make them live again in our
thought. It is especially the fishes that I try to restore for the
eyes of the curious, by showing them which ones have lived in each
epoch, what were their forms, and, if possible, by drawing some
conclusions as to their probable modes of life. You will better
understand the difficulty of my work when I tell you that in many
species I have only a single tooth, a scale, a spine, as my guide
in the reconstruction of all these characters, although sometimes
we are fortunate enough to find species with the fins and the
skeletons complete. . .
"I ask pardon if I have tired you with my long talk, but you know
how pleasant it is to ramble on about what interests us, and the
pleasure of being questioned by you upon subjects of this kind has
been such a rare one for me, that I have wished to present the
matter in its full light, that you may understand the zeal and the
enthusiasm which such researches can excite."
To this period belongs a curious dream mentioned by Agassiz in his
work on the fossil fishes.* (* "Recherches sur les Poissons
Fossiles". Cyclopoma spinosum Agassiz. Volume 4 tab 1, pages 20,
21.) It is interesting both as a psychological fact and as showing
how, sleeping and waking, his work was ever present with him. He
had been for two weeks striving to decipher the somewhat obscure
impression of a fossil fish on the stone slab in which it was
preserved. Weary and perplexed he put his work aside at last, and
tried to dismiss it from his mind. Shortly after, he waked one
night persuaded that while asleep he had seen his fish with all the
missing features perfectly restored. But when he tried to hold and
make fast the image, it escaped him. Nevertheless, he went early to
the Jardin des Plantes, thinking that on looking anew at the
impression he should see something which would put him on the track
of his vision. In vain,--the blurred record was as blank as ever.
The next night he saw the fish again, but with no more satisfactory
result. When he awoke it disappeared from his memory as before.
Hoping that the same experience might be repeated, on the third
night he placed a pencil and paper beside his bed before going to
sleep. Accordingly toward morning the fish reappeared in his dream,
confusedly at first, but at last with such distinctness that he had
no longer any doubt as to its zoological characters. Still half
dreaming, in perfect darkness, he traced these characters on the
sheet of paper at the bedside. In the morning he was surprised to
see in his nocturnal sketch features which he thought it impossible
the fossil itself should reveal. He hastened to the Jardin des
Plantes, and, with his drawing as a guide, succeeded in chiseling
away the surface of the stone under which portions of the fish
proved to be hidden. When wholly exposed it corresponded with his
dream and his drawing, and he succeeded in classifying it with
ease. He often spoke of this as a good illustration of the
well-known fact, that when the body is at rest the tired brain will
do the work it refused before.
1832: AGE 25.
Unexpected Relief from Difficulties.
Correspondence with Humboldt.
Excursion to the Coast of Normandy.
First Sight of the Sea.
Correspondence concerning Professorship at Neuchatel.
Invitation to Chair of Natural History at Neuchatel.
Letter to Humboldt.
AGASSIZ was not called upon to make the sacrifice of giving up his
artist and leaving Paris, although he was, or at least thought
himself, prepared for it. The darkest hour is before the dawn, and
the letter next given announces an unexpected relief from pressing
distress and anxiety.
TO HIS FATHER AND MOTHER.
PARIS, March, 1832.
. . .I am still so agitated and so surprised at what has just
happened that I scarcely believe what my eyes tell me.
I mentioned in a postscript to my last letter that I had called
yesterday on M. de Humboldt, whom I had not seen for a long time,
in order to speak to him concerning Auguste's affair, but that I
did not find him. In former visits I had spoken to him about my
position, and told him that I did not well know what course to take
with my publisher. He offered to write to him, and did so more than
two months ago. Thus far, neither he nor I have had any answer.
This morning, just as I was going out, a letter came from M. de
Humboldt, who writes me that he is very uneasy at receiving no
reply from Cotta, that he fears lest the uncertainty and anxiety of
mind resulting from this may be injurious to my work, and begs me
to accept the inclosed credit of a thousand francs. . .--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. Humboldt is so good, so
indulgent, that you should not hesitate, dear mother, to write him
a few lines. He lives Rue du Colombier, Number 22; address, quite
simply, M. de Humboldt. . .
In the agitation of the moment the letter was not even signed.
The following note from Humboldt to Mme. Agassiz, kept by her as a
precious possession, shows that in answer to her son's appeal his
mother took her courage, as the French saying is, "with both
hands," and wrote as she was desired.
FROM HUMBOLDT TO MME. AGASSIZ.
PARIS, April 11, 1832.
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. How happy you are to have a son so distinguished by
his talents, by the variety and solidity of his acquirements, and,
withal, as modest as if he knew nothing,--in these days, too, when
youth is generally characterized by a cold and scornful
amour-propre. 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 his way. I approve highly the
Neuchatel plan, and hope, in case of need, to contribute to its
success. One must aim at a settled position in life.
Pray excuse, Madame, the brevity of these lines, and accept the
assurance of my respectful regard.
The letter which lifted such a load of care from Louis and his
parents was as follows:--
HUMBOLDT TO LOUIS AGASSIZ.
PARIS, March 27, 1832.
I am very uneasy, my dearest M. Agassiz, at being still without any
letter from Cotta. Has he been prevented from writing by business,
or illness perhaps? You know how tardy he always is about writing.
Yesterday (Monday) I wrote him earnestly again concerning your
affair (an undertaking of such moment for science), and urged upon
him the issuing of the fossil and fresh-water fishes in alternate
numbers. In the mean time, I fear that the protracted delay may
weigh heavily on you and your friends. A man so laborious, so
gifted, and so deserving of affection as you are should not be left
in a position where lack of serenity disturbs his power of work.
You will then surely pardon my friendly goodwill toward you, my
dear M. Agassiz, if I entreat you to make use of the accompanying
small credit. You would do more for me I am sure. Consider it 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,
With this letter was found the following note of acknowledgment,
scrawled in almost illegible pencil marks. Whether sent exactly as
it stands or not, it is evidently the first outburst of Agassiz's
My benefactor and friend,--it is too much; I cannot find words to
tell you how deeply your letter of to-day has moved me. I have just
been at your house that I might thank you in person with all my
heart; but now I must wait to do so until I have the good fortune
to meet you. At what a moment does your help come to me! I inclose
a letter from my dear mother that you may understand my whole
position. My parents will now readily consent that I should devote
myself entirely to science, and I am freed from the distressing
thought that I may be acting contrary to their wishes and their
will. But they have not the means to help me, and had proposed that
I should return to Switzerland and give lessons either in Geneva or
Lausanne. I had already resolved to follow this suggestion in the
course of next summer, and had also decided to part with Mr.
Dinkel, my faithful companion, as soon as he should have finished
the most indispensable drawings of the fossils on which he is now
engaged here. I meant to tell you of this on Sunday, and now to-day
comes your letter. Imagine what must have been my feeling, after
having resolved on renouncing what till now had seemed to me
noblest and most desirable in life, to find myself unexpectedly
rescued by a kind, helpful hand, and to have again the hope of
devoting my whole powers to science,--you can judge of the state
into which your letter has thrown me. . .
Soon after this event Agassiz made a short excursion with Braun and
Dinkel to the coast of Normandy; worth noting, because he now saw
the sea for the first time. He wrote home: "For five days we
skirted the coast from Havre to Dieppe; at last I have looked upon
the sea and its riches. From this excursion of a few days, which I
had almost despaired of making, I bring back new ideas, more
comprehensive views, and a more accurate knowledge of the great
phenomena presented by the ocean in its vast expanse."
Meanwhile the hope he had always entertained of finding a
professorship of natural history in his own country was ripening
into a definite project. His first letter on this subject to M.
Louis Coulon, himself a well-known naturalist, and afterward one of
his warmest friends in Neuchatel, must have been written just
before he received from Humboldt the note of the same date, which
extricated him from his pecuniary embarrassment.
AGASSIZ TO LOUIS COULON.
PARIS, March 27, 1832.
. . .When I had the pleasure of seeing you last summer I several
times expressed my strong desire to establish myself near you, and
my intention of taking some steps toward obtaining the
professorship of natural history to be founded in your Lyceum. The
matter must be more advanced now than it was last year, and you
would oblige me greatly by giving me some information concerning
it. I have spoken of my project to M. de Humboldt, whom I often
see, and who kindly interests himself about my prospects and helps
me with his advice. He thinks that under the circumstances, and
especially in my position, measures should be taken in advance.
There is another point of great importance for me about which I
wished also to speak to you. Though you have seen but a small part
of it, you nevertheless know that in my different journeys, partly
through my relations with other naturalists, partly by exchange, I
have made a very fair collection of natural history, especially
rich in just those classes which are less fully represented in your
museum. My collection might, therefore, fill the gaps in that of
the city of Neuchatel, and make the latter more than adequate for
the illustration of a full course of natural history. Should an
increase of your zoological collection make part of your plans for
the Lyceum, I venture to believe that mine would fully answer your
purpose. In that case I would offer it to you, since the expense of
arranging it, the rent of a room in which to keep it, and, in
short, its support in general, is beyond my means. I must find some
way of relieving myself from this burden, although it will be hard
to part with these companions of my study, upon which I have based
almost all my investigations. I have spoken of this also to M. de
Humboldt, who is good enough to show an interest in the matter, and
will even take all necessary steps with the government to
facilitate this purchase. You would render me the greatest service
by giving me your directions about all this, and especially by
telling me: 1. On whom the nomination to the professorship depends?
2. With whom the purchase of the collection would rest? 3. What you
think I should do with reference to both? Of course you will easily
understand that I cannot give up my collections except under the
condition that I should be allowed the free use of them. . .
The answer was not only courteous, but kind, although some time
elapsed before the final arrangements were made. Meanwhile the
following letter shows us the doubts and temptations which for a
moment embarrassed Agassiz in his decision. The death of Cuvier had
AGASSIZ TO HUMBOLDT.
PARIS, May, 1832.
. . .I would not write you until I had definite news from
Neuchatel. Two days ago I received a very delightful letter from M.
Coulon, which I hasten to share with you. I will not copy the
whole, but extract the essential part. He tells me that he has
proposed to the Board of Education the establishment of a
professorship of natural history, to be offered to me. The
proposition met with a cordial hearing. The need of such a
professorship was unanimously recognized, but the President
explained that neither would the condition of the treasury allow
its establishment in the present year, nor could the proposition be
brought before the Council of State until the opening of the new
Monsieur Coulon was commissioned to thank me, and to request me in
the name of the board to keep the place in mind; should I prefer
it, however, he doubts not that whatever the city could not do
might be made good by subscription before next autumn, in which
case I could enter upon office at once. He requests a prompt answer
in order that he may make all needful preparations. Only too gladly
would I have consulted you about various propositions made to me
here in the last few days, and have submitted my course to your
approval, had it not been that here, as in Neuchatel, a prompt
answer was urged. Although guided rather by instinct than by
anything else, I think, nevertheless, that I have chosen rightly.
In such moments, when one cannot see far enough in advance to form
an accurate judgment upon deliberation, feeling is, after all, the
best adviser; that inner impulse, which is a safe guide if other
considerations do not confuse the judgment. This says to me, "Go to
Neuchatel; do not stay in Paris." But I speak in riddles; I must
explain myself more clearly. Last Monday Levrault sent for me in
order to propose that Valenciennes and I should jointly undertake
the publication of the Cuvierian fishes. . .I was to give a
positive answer this week. I have carefully considered it, and have
decided that an unconditional engagement would lead me away from my
nearest aim, and from what I look upon as the task of my life. The
already published volumes of the System of Ichthyology lie too far
from the road on which I intend to pursue my researches. Finally,
it seems to me that in a quiet retired place like Neuchatel,
whatever may be growing up within me will have a more independent
and individual development than in this restless Paris, where
obstacles or difficulties may not perhaps divert me from a given
purpose, but may disturb or delay its accomplishment. I will
therefore so shape my answer to Levrault as to undertake only
single portions of the work, the choice of these, on account of my
interest in the fossil and the fresh-water fishes, being allowed
me, with the understanding, also, that I should be permitted to
have these collections in Switzerland and work them up there. From
Paris, also, it would not be so easy to transfer myself to Germany,
whereas I could consider Neuchatel as a provisional position from
which I might be called to a German university. . .
In the mean time, while waiting hopefully the result of his
negotiations with Neuchatel, Agassiz had organized with his
friends, the two Brauns, a bachelor life very like the one he and
Alexander had led with their classmates in Munich. The little hotel
where they lodged had filled up with young German doctors, who had
come to visit the hospitals in Paris and study the cholera. Some of
these young men had been their fellow-students at the university,
and at their request Agassiz and Braun resumed the practice of
giving private lectures on zoology and botany, the whole being
conducted in the most informal manner, admitting absolute freedom
of discussion, as among intimate companions of the same age. Such
an interchange naturally led to very genial relations between the
amateur professors and their class, and on the eve of Agassiz's
birthday (28th of May) his usual audience prepared for him a very
pleasant surprise. Returning from a walk after dusk he found Braun
in his room. Continuing his stroll within four walls, he and his
friend paced the floor together in earnest talk, when, at a signal,
Braun suddenly drew him to the window, threw it open, and on the
pavement below stood their companions, singing a part song,
composed in honor of Agassiz. Deeply moved, he withdrew from the
window in time to receive them as they trooped up the stairway to
offer their good wishes. They presently led the way to another room
which they had dressed with flowers, Agassiz's name, among other
decorations, being braided in roses beneath two federal flags
crossed on the wall. Here supper was laid, and the rest of the
evening passed gayly with songs and toasts, not only for the hero
of the feast and for friends far and near, but for the progress of
science, the liberty of the people, and the independence of
nations. There could be no meeting of ardent young Germans and
Swiss in those days without some mingling of patriotic aspirations
with the sentiment of the hour.
The friendly correspondence between Agassiz and M. Coulon regarding
the professorship at Neuchatel was now rapidly bringing the matter
to a happy conclusion.
AGASSIZ TO LOUIS COULON.
PARIS, June 4, 1832.
I have received your kind letter with great pleasure and hasten to
reply. What you write gives me the more satisfaction because it
opens to me in the near future the hope of establishing myself in
your neighborhood and devoting to my country the fruits of my
labor. It is true, as you suppose, that the death of M. Cuvier has
sensibly changed my position; indeed, I have already been asked to
continue his work on fishes in connection with M. Valenciennes, who
made me this proposition the day after your letter reached me. The
conditions offered me are, indeed, very tempting, but I am too
little French by character, and too anxious to live in Switzerland,
not to prefer the place you can offer me, however small the
appointments, if they do but keep me above actual embarrassment. I
say thus much only in order to answer that clause in your letter
where you touch upon this question. I would add that I leave the
field quite free in this respect, and that I am yours without
reserve, if, indeed, within the fortnight, the urgency of the
Parisians does not carry the day, or, rather, as soon as I write
you that I have been able finally to withdraw. You easily
understand that I cannot bluntly decline offers which seem to those
who make them so brilliant. But I shall hold out against them to
the utmost. My course with reference to my own publications will
have shown you that I do not care for a lucrative position from
personal interest; that, on the contrary, I should always be ready
to use such means as I may have at my disposition for the
advancement of the institution confided to my care.
My work will still detain me for four or five months at Paris,--my
time being after that completely at my disposal. The period at
which I should like to begin my lectures is therefore very near,
and I think if your people are favorably disposed toward the
creation of a new professorship we must not let them grow cold. But
you have shown me so much kindness that I may well leave to your
care, in concert with your friends, the decision of this point; the
more so since you are willing to take charge of my interests, until
you see the success of what you are pleased to look upon as an
advantage to your institution, while for me it is the realization
of a sincere desire to do what I can for the advancement of
science, and the instruction of our youth. . .
The next letter from M. Coulon (June 18, 1832) announces that the
sum of eighty louis having been guaranteed for three years, chiefly
by private individuals, but partly also by the city, they were now
able to offer a chair of natural history at once to their young
countryman. In conclusion, he adds:--
"I can easily understand that the brilliant offers made you in
Paris strongly counterbalance a poor little professorship of
natural history at Neuchatel, and may well cause you to hesitate;
especially since your scientific career there is so well begun. On
the other hand, you cannot doubt our pleasure in the prospect of
having you at Neuchatel, not only because of the friendship felt
for you by many persons here, but also on account of the lustre
which a chair of natural history so filled would shed upon our
institution. Of this our subscribers are well aware, and it
accounts for the rapid filling of the list. I am very anxious, as
are all these gentlemen, to know your decision, and beg you
therefore to let us hear from you as soon as possible."
A letter from Humboldt to M. Coulon, about this time, is an earnest
of his watchful care over the interests of Agassiz.
HUMBOLDT TO LOUIS COULON.
POTSDAM, July 25, 1832.
. . .I do not write to ask a favor, but only to express my warm
gratitude for your noble and generous dealings with the young
savant, M. Agassiz, who is well worthy your encouragement and the
protection of your government. He 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.
Through our common friend, M. von Buch, I have known for many years
that you study natural history with a success equal to your zeal,
and that you have brought together fine collections, which you
place at the disposal of others with a noble liberality. It
gratifies me to see your kindness toward a young man to whom I am
so warmly attached; whom the illustrious Cuvier, also, whose loss
we must ever deplore, would have recommended with the same
heartiness, for his faith, like mine, was based on those admirable
works of Agassiz which are now nearly completed. . .
I have strongly advised M. Agassiz not to accept the offers made to
him at Paris since M. Cuvier's death, and his decision has
anticipated my advice. How happy it would be for him, and for the
completion of the excellent works on which he is engaged, could he
this very year be established on the shores of your lake! I have no
doubt that he will receive the powerful protection of your worthy
governor, to whom I shall repeat my requests, and who honors me, as
well as my brother, with a friendship I warmly appreciate. M. von
Buch also has promised me, before leaving Berlin for Bonn and
Vienna, to add his entreaty to mine. . .He is almost as much
interested as myself in M. Agassiz and his work on fossil fishes,
the most important ever undertaken, and equally exact in its
relation to zoological characters and to geological deposits. . .
The next letter from Agassiz to his influential friend is written
after his final acceptance of the Neuchatel professorship.
AGASSIZ TO HUMBOLDT.
PARIS, July, 1832.
. . .I would most gladly have answered your delightful letter at
once, and have told you how smoothly all has gone at Neuchatel.
Your letters to M. de Coulon and to General von Pfuel have wrought
marvels; but they are now inclined to look upon me there as a
wonder from the deep,* (* Ein blaues Meerwunder.) and I must exert
myself to the utmost lest my actual presence should give the lie to
fame. It is all right. I shall be the less likely to relax in
devotion to my work.
The real reason of my silence has been that I was unwilling to
acknowledge so many evidences of efficient sympathy and friendly
encouragement by an empty letter. I wished especially to share with
you the final result of my investigations on the fossil fishes, and
for that purpose it was necessary to revise my manuscripts and take
an account of my tables in order to condense the whole in a few
phrases. I have already told you that the investigation of the
living fishes had suggested to me a new classification, in which
families as at present circumscribed respectively received new, and
to my thinking more natural positions, based upon other
considerations than those hitherto brought forward. I did not at
first lay any special stress on my classification. . .My object was
only to utilize certain structural characters which frequently
recur among fossil forms, and which might therefore enable me to
determine remains hitherto considered of little value. . .Absorbed
in the special investigation, I paid no heed to the edifice which
was meanwhile unconsciously building itself up. Having however
completed the comparison of the fossil species in Paris, I wanted,
for the sake of an easy revision of the same, to make a list
according to their succession in geological formations, with a view
of determining the characteristics more exactly and bringing them
by their enumeration into bolder relief. What was my joy and
surprise to find that the simplest enumeration of the fossil fishes
according to their geological succession was also a complete
statement of the natural relations of the families among
themselves; that one might therefore read the genetic development
of the whole class in the history of creation, the representation
of the genera and species in the several families being therein
determined; in one word, that the genetic succession of the fishes
corresponds perfectly with their zoological classification, and
with just that classification proposed by me. The question
therefore in characterizing formations is no longer that of the
numerical preponderance of certain genera and species, but of
distinct structural relations, carried through all these formations
according to a definite direction, following each other in an
appointed order, and recognizable in the organisms as they are
brought forth. . .If my conclusions are not overturned or modified
through some later discovery, they will form a new basis for the
study of fossils. Should you communicate my discovery to others I
shall be especially pleased, because it may be long before I can
begin to publish it myself, and many may be interested in it. This
seems to me the most important of my results, though I have also,
partly from perfect specimens, partly from fragments, identified
some five hundred extinct species, and more than fifty extinct
genera, beside reestablishing three families no longer represented.
Cotta has written me in very polite terms that he could not
undertake anything new at present; he would rather pay, without regard
to profit, for what has been done thus far, and lets me have fifteen
hundred francs. This makes it possible for me to leave Dinkel in Paris
to complete the drawings. Although it often seems to me hard, I must
reconcile myself to the thought of leaving investigations which are
actually completed, locked up in my desk. . .
1832-1834: AGE 25-27.
Enters upon his Professorship at Neuchatel.
Success as a Teacher.
Love of Teaching.
Influence upon the Scientific Life of Neuchatel.
Proposal from University of Heidelberg.
Correspondence with Humboldt.
Invitation from Charpentier.
Invitation to visit England.
First Number of "Poissons Fossiles."
Review of the Work.
THE following autumn Agassiz assumed the duties of his
professorship at Neuchatel. His opening lecture "Upon the Relations
between the different branches of Natural History and the then
prevailing tendencies of all the Sciences" was given on the 12th of
November, 1832, at the Hotel de Ville. Judged by the impression
made upon the listeners as recorded at the time, this introductory
discourse must have been characterized by the same broad spirit of
generalization which marked Agassiz's later teaching. Facts in his
hands fell into their orderly relation as parts of a connected
whole, and were never presented merely as special or isolated
phenomena. From the beginning his success as an instructor was
undoubted. He had, indeed, now entered upon the occupation which
was to be from youth to old age the delight of his life. 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 road-side, 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 structure 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 untrained, to the highest truths of
nature, was contagious, and he created or developed that in which
In Neuchatel the presence of the young professor was felt at once
as a new and stimulating influence. The little town suddenly became
a centre of scientific activity. A society for the pursuit of the
natural sciences, of which he was the first secretary, sprang into
life. The scientific collections, which had already attained, under
the care of M. Louis Coulon, considerable value, presently assumed
the character and proportions of a well-ordered museum. In M.
Coulon Agassiz found a generous friend and a scientific colleague
who sympathized with his noblest aspirations, and was ever ready to
sustain all his efforts in behalf of scientific progress. Together
they worked in arranging, enlarging, and building up a museum of
natural history which soon became known as one of the best local
institutions of the kind in Europe.
Beside his classes at the gymnasium, Agassiz collected about him,
by invitation, a small audience of friends and neighbors, to whom
he lectured during the winter on botany, on zoology, on the
philosophy of nature. The instruction was of the most familiar and
informal character, and was continued in later years for his own
children and the children of his friends. In the latter case the
subjects were chiefly geology and geography in connection with
botany, and in favorable weather the lessons were usually given in
the open air. One can easily imagine what joy it must have been for
a party of little playmates, boys and girls, to be taken out for
long walks in the country over the hills about Neuchatel, and
especially to Chaumont, the mountain which rises behind it, and
thus to have their lessons, for which the facts and scenes about
them furnished subject and illustration, combined with pleasant
rambles. From some high ground affording a wide panoramic view
Agassiz would explain to them the formation of lakes, islands,
rivers, springs, water-sheds, hills, and valleys. He always
insisted that physical geography could be better taught to children
in the vicinity of their own homes than by books or maps, or even
globes. Nor did he think a varied landscape essential to such
instruction. Undulations of the ground, some contrast of hill and
plain, some sheet of water with the streams that feed it, some
ridge of rocky soil acting as a water-shed, may be found
everywhere, and the relation of facts shown perhaps as well on a
small as on a large scale.
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. To each child
in succession was explained separately what had first been told to
all collectively. 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 easily to be obtained in those days in a small
inland town. They, of course, concluded the lesson by eating the
specimens, a practical illustration which they greatly enjoyed. A
very large wooden globe, on the surface of which the various
features of the earth as they came up for discussion could be
shown, served to make them more clear and vivid. The children took
their own share in the instruction, and were themselves made to
point out and describe that which had just been explained to them.
They took home their collections, and as a preparation for the next
lesson were often called upon to classify and describe some unusual
specimen by their own unaided efforts. There was no tedium in the
class. Agassiz's lively, clear, and attractive method of teaching
awakened their own powers of observation in his little pupils, and
to some at least opened permanent sources of enjoyment.
His instructions to his older pupils were based on the same
methods, and were no less acceptable to them than to the children.
In winter his professional courses to the students were chiefly
upon zoology and kindred topics; in the summer he taught them
botany and geology, availing himself of the fine days for
excursions and practical instruction in the field. Professor Louis
Favre, speaking of these excursions, which led them sometimes into
the gorges of the Seyon, sometimes into the forests of Chaumont,
says: "They were fete days for the young people, who found in their
professor an active companion, full of spirits, vigor, and gayety,
whose enthusiasm kindled in them the sacred fire of science."
It was not long before his growing reputation brought him
invitations from elsewhere. One of the first of these was from
PROFESSOR TIEDEMANN TO LOUIS AGASSIZ.
HEIDELBERG, December 4, 1832.
. . .Last autumn, when I had the pleasure of meeting you in
Carlsruhe, I proposed to you to give some lectures on Natural
History at this university. Professor Leuckart, who till now
represented zoology here, is called to Freiburg, and you would
therefore be the only teacher in that department. The university
being so frequented, a numerous audience may be counted upon. The
zoological collection, by no means an insignificant one, is open to
your use. Professor Leuckart received a salary of five hundred
florins. This is now unappropriated, and I do not doubt that the
government, conformably to the proposition of the medical faculty,
would give you the appointment on the same terms. By your knowledge
you are prepared for the work of an able academical teacher. My
advice is, therefore, that you should not bind yourself to any
lyceum or gymnasium, as a permanent position; such a place would
not suit a cultivated scientific man, nor does it offer a field for
an accomplished scholar. Consider carefully, therefore, a question
which concerns the efficiency of your life, and give me the result
of your deliberation as soon as possible. Should it be favorable to
the acceptance of my proposition, I hope you will find yourself
here at Easter as full professor, with a salary of five hundred
florins, and a fitting field of activity for your knowledge. The
fees for lectures and literary work might bring you in an
additional fifteen hundred gulden yearly. If you accede to this
offer send me your inaugural dissertation, and make me acquainted
with your literary work, that I may take the necessary steps with
the Curatorio. Consider this proposition as a proof of my high
appreciation of your literary efforts and of my regard for you
Agassiz's next letter to Humboldt is to consult him with respect to
the call from Heidelberg, while it is also full of pleasure at the
warm welcome extended to him in Neuchatel.
AGASSIZ TO HUMBOLDT.
. . .At last I am in Neuchatel, having, indeed, begun my lectures
some weeks ago. I have been received in a way I could never have
anticipated, and which can only be due to your good-will on my
behalf and your friendly recommendation. You have my warmest thanks
for the trouble you have taken about me, and for your continued
sympathy. Let me show you by my work in the years to come, rather
than by words, that I am in earnest about science, and that my
spirit is not irresponsive to a noble encouragement such as you
have given me.
You will have received my letter from Carlsruhe. Could I only tell
you all that I have since thought and observed about the history of
our earth's development, the succession of the animal populations,
and their genetic classification! It cannot easily be compressed
within letter limits; I will, nevertheless, attempt it when my
lectures make less urgent claim upon me, and my eyes are less
fatigued. I should defer writing till then were it not that to-day
I have something of at least outside interest to announce. It
concerns the inclosed letter received to-day. (The offer of a
professorship at Heidelberg.) Should you think that I need not take
it into consideration, and you have no time to answer me, let me
know your opinion by your silence. I will tell you the reasons
which would induce me to remain for the present in Neuchatel, and I
think you will approve them. First, as my lectures do not claim a
great part of my time I shall have the more to bestow on other
work; add to this the position of Neuchatel, so favorable for
observations such as I propose making on the history of development
in several classes of animals; then the hope of freeing myself from
the burden of my collections; and next, the quiet of my life here
with reference to my somewhat overstrained health. Beside my wish
to remain, these favorable circumstances furnish a powerful motive,
and then I am satisfied that people here would assist me with the
greatest readiness should my publications not succeed otherwise. As
to the publication of my fishes, I can, after all, better direct
the lithographing of the plates here. I have just written to Cotta
concerning this, proposing also that he should advance the cost of
the lithographs. I shall attend to it all carefully, and be content
for the present with my small means. From the gradual sale he can,
little by little, repay my expenses, and I shall ask no profit
until the success of the work warrants it. I await his answer. This
proposal seems to me the best and the most likely to advance the
publication of this work.
Since I arrived here some scientific efforts have been made with
the help of M. Coulon. We have already founded a society of Natural
History,* (* Societe des Sciences Naturelles de Neuchatel.) and I
hope, should you make your promised visit next year, you will find
this germ between foliage and flower at least, though perhaps not
yet ripened into seed. . .
M. Coulon told me the day before yesterday that he had spoken with
M. de Montmollin, the Treasurer, who would write to M. Ancillon
concerning the purchase of my collection. . .Will you have the
kindness, when occasion offers, to say a word to M. Ancillon about
it?. . .Not only would this collection be of the greatest value to
the museum here, but its sale would also advance my farther
investigations. With the sum of eighty louis, which is all that is
subscribed for my professorship, I cannot continue them on any
I await now with anxiety Cotta's answer to my last proposition; but
whatever it be, I shall begin the lithographing of the plates
immediately after the New Year, as they must be carried on under my
own eye and direction. This I can well do since my uncle, Dr. Mayor
in Lausanne, gives me fifty louis toward it, the amount of one
year's pay to Weber, my former lithographer in Munich. I have
therefore written him to come, and expect him after New Year. With
my salary I can also henceforth keep Dinkel, who is now in Paris,
drawing the last fossils which I described. . .
No answer to this letter has been found beyond such as is implied
in the following to M. Coulon.
HUMBOLDT TO M. COULON, FILS.
BERLIN, January 21, 1833.
. . .It gives me great pleasure to acknowledge the flattering
welcome offered by you and your fellow-citizens to M. Agassiz, who
stands so high in science, and whose intellectual qualities are
enhanced by his amiable character. They write me from Heidelberg
that they intend the place of M. Leuckart in zoology for my young
friend. The choice is proposed by M. Tiedemann, and certainly
nothing could be more honorable to M. Agassiz. Nevertheless, I hope
that he will refuse it. He should remain for some years in your
country, where a generous encouragement facilitates the publication
of his work, which is of equal importance to zoology and geology.
I have spoken with M. Ancillon, and have left with him an official
notice respecting the purchase of the Agassiz collection. The
difficulty will be found, as in all human affairs, in the prose of
life, in money. M. Ancillon writes me this morning: "Your paper in
favor of M. Agassiz is a scientific letter of credit which we shall
try to honor. The acquisition of a superior man and a superior
collection at the same time would be a double conquest for the
principality of Neuchatel. I have requested a report from the
Council of State on the means of accomplishing this, and I hope
that private individuals may do something toward it." Thus you see
the affair is at least on the right road. I do not think, however,
that the royal treasury will give at present more than a thousand
Prussian crowns toward it. . .
Regarding the invitation to Heidelberg, Agassiz's decision was
already made. A letter to his brother toward the close of December
mentions that he is offered a professorship at the University of
Heidelberg, but that, although his answer has not actually gone, he
has resolved to decline it; adding that the larger salary is
counterbalanced in his mind by the hope of selling his collection
at Neuchatel, and thus freeing himself from a heavy burden.
Agassiz was now threatened with a great misfortune. Already, in
Paris, his eyes had begun to suffer from the strain of microscopic
work. They now became seriously impaired; and for some months he
was obliged to abate his activity, and to refrain even from writing
a letter. During this time, while he was shut up in a darkened
room, he practiced the study of fossils by touch alone, using even
the tip of the tongue to feel out the impression, when the fingers
were not sufficiently sensitive. He said he was sure at the time
that he could bring himself in this way to such delicacy of touch
that the loss of sight would not oblige him to abandon his work.
After some months his eyes improved, and though at times threatened
with a return of the same malady, he was able, throughout life, to
use his eyes more uninterruptedly than most persons. His lectures,
always delivered extemporaneously, do not seem to have been
suspended for any length of time.
The following letter from Agassiz to Humboldt is taken from a rough
and incomplete draught, which was evidently put aside (perhaps on
account of the trouble in his eyes), and only completed in the
following May. Although imperfect, it explains Humboldt's answer,
which is not only interesting in itself, but throws light on
Agassiz's work at this period.
AGASSIZ TO HUMBOLDT.
NEUCHATEL, January 27, 1833.
. . .A thousand thanks for your last most welcome letter. I can
hardly tell you what pleasure it gave me, or how I am cheered and
stimulated to new activity by intercourse with you on so intimate a
footing. Since I wrote you, some things have become more clear to
me, as, for instance, my purpose of publishing the "Fossil Fishes"
here. Certain doubts remain in my mind, however, about which, as
well as about other matters, I would ask your advice. Now that
Cotta is dead, I cannot wait till I have made an arrangement with
his successor. I therefore allow the "Fresh-Water Fishes" to lie by
and drive on the others. Upon careful examination I have found, to
my astonishment, that all necessary means for the publication of
such a work are to be had here: two good lithographers and two
printing establishments, both of which have excellent type. I have
sent for Weber to engrave the plates, or draw them on stone; he
will be here at the end of the month. Then I shall begin at once,
and hope in May to send out the first number. The great difficulty
remains now in the distribution of the numbers, and in finding a
sufficient sale so that they may follow each other with regularity.
I think it better to begin the publication as a whole than to send
out an abridgment in advance. The species can be characterized only
by good illustrations. A summary always requires farther
demonstration, whereas, if I give the plates at once I can shorten
the text and present the general results as an introduction to the
first number. With twelve numbers, of twenty plates each, followed
by about ten pages of text, I can tell all that I have to say. The
cost of one hundred and fifty copies printed here would, according
to careful inquiry, be covered by seventy subscriptions if the
price were put at one louis-d'or the number.
Now comes the question whether I should print more than one hundred
and fifty copies. On account of the expense I shall not preserve
the stones. For the distribution of the copies and the collecting
of the money could you, perhaps, recommend me to some house in
Berlin or Leipzig, who would take the work for sale in Germany on
commission under reasonable conditions? For England, I wrote
yesterday to Lyell, and to-morrow I shall write to Levrault and
Both the magistrates and private individuals here are now much
interested in public instruction, and I am satisfied that sooner or
later my collection will be purchased, though nothing has been said
about it lately.* (* His collection was finally purchased by the
city of Neuchatel in the spring of 1833.)
For a closer description of my family of Lepidostei, to which
belong all the ante-chalk bony fishes, I am anxious to have for
dissection a Polypterus Bichir and a Lepidosteus osseus, or any
other species belonging exclusively to the present creation.
Hitherto, I have only been able to examine and describe the
skeleton and external parts. If you could obtain a specimen of both
for me you would do me the greatest service. If necessary, I will
engage to return the preparations. I beg for this most earnestly.
Forgive the many requests contained in this letter, and see in it
only my ardent desire to reach my aim, in which you have already
helped me so often and so kindly.
HUMBOLDT TO AGASSIZ.
SANS SOUCI, July 4, 1833.
. . .I am happy in your success, my dear Agassiz, happy in your
charming letter of May 22nd, happy in the hope of having been able
to do something that may be useful to you for the subscription. The
Prince Royal's name seemed to me rather important for you. I have
delayed writing, not because I am one of the most persecuted men in
Europe (the persecution goes on crescendo; there is not a scholar
in Prussia or Germany having anything to ask of the King, or of M.
d'Altenstein, who does not think it necessary to make me his agent,
with power of attorney), but because it was necessary to await the
Prince Royal's return from his military circuit, and the
opportunity of speaking to him alone, which does not occur when I
am with the King.
Your prospectus is full of interest, and does ample justice to
those who have provided you with materials. To name me among them
was an affectionate deceit, the ruse of a noble soul like yours; I
am a little vexed with you about it.* (* The few words which called
forth this protest from Humboldt were as follows. After naming all
those from whom he had received help in specimens or otherwise,
Agassiz concludes:--"Finally, I owe to M. de Humboldt not only
important notes on fossil fishes, but so many kindnesses in
connection with my work that in enumerating them I should fear to
wound the delicacy of the giver." This will hardly seem an
exaggeration to those who know the facts of the case.)
Here is the beginning of a list. I think the Department of the
Mines de Province will take three or four more copies. We have not
their answer yet. Do not be frightened at the brevity of the list
. . .I am, however, the least apt of all men in collecting
subscriptions, seeing no one but the court, and forced to be out of
town three or four days in the week. On account of this same
inaptitude, I beg you to send me, through the publisher, only my
own three copies, and to address the others, through the publisher
also, to the individuals named on the list, merely writing on each
copy that the person has subscribed on the list of M. de Humboldt.
With all my affection for you, my dear friend, it would be
impossible for me to take charge of the distribution of your
numbers or the returns. The publishing houses of Dummler or of
Humblot and Dunker would be useful to you at Berlin. I find it
difficult to believe that you will navigate successfully among
these literary corsairs! I have had a short eulogium of your work
inserted in the Berliner Staats-Zeitung. You see that I do not
neglect your interests, and that, for love of you, I even turn
journalist. You have omitted to state in your prospectus whether
your plates are lithographed, as I fear they are, and also whether
they are colored, which seems to me unnecessary. Have your superb
original drawings remained in your possession, or are they included
in the sale of your collection?. . .
I could not make use of your letter to the King, and I have
suppressed it. You have been ill-advised as to the forms.
"Erhabener Konig" has too poetical a turn; we have here the most
prosaic and the most degrading official expressions. M. de Pfuel
must have some Arch-Prussian with him, who would arrange the
formula of a letter for you. At the head there must be "Most
enlightened, most powerful King,--all gracious sovereign and lord."
Then you begin, "Your Royal Majesty, deeply moved, I venture to lay
at your feet most humbly my warmest thanks for the support so
graciously granted to the purchase of my collection for the
Gymnasium in Neuchatel. Did I know how to write," etc. The rest of
your letter was very good; put only "so much grace as to answer"
instead of "so much kindness." You should end with the words, "I
remain till death, in deepest reverence, the most humble and
faithful servant of your Royal Majesty." The whole on small folio,
sealed, addressed outside, "To the King's Majesty, Berlin." Send
the letter, not through me, but officially, through M. de Pfuel.*
(* At the head there must be "Allerdurchlauchtigster,
grossmachtigster Konig,--allergnadigster Konig und Herr." Then you
begin, "Euer koniglichen Majestat, wage ich meinen lebhaftesten
Dank fur die allergnadigst bewilligte Unterstutzung zum Ankauf
meiner Sammlung fur das Gymnasium in Neuchatel tief geruhrt
allerunterthanigst zu Fussen zu legen. Wusste ich zu schreiben,"
etc. The rest of your letter was very good,--put only, "so vieler
Gnade zu entsprechen" instead of "so vieler Gute." You should end
with the words, "Ich ersterbe in tiefster Ehrfurcht Euer
koniglicher Majestat aller onter thanigsten getreuester." The whole
in small folio, sealed, addressed outside, "An des Konig's
Majestat, Berlin." These forms are no longer in use. They belong to
a past generation.)
The letter to the King is not absolutely necessary, but it will
give pleasure, for the King likes any affectionate demonstration
from the country that has now become yours.* (* It may not be known
to all readers that Neuchatel was then under Prussian sovereignty.)
It will be useful, also, with reference to our request for the
purchase of some copies, which we will make to the King as soon as
the first number has appeared. Had I obtained the King's name for
you to-day (which would have been difficult, since the King detests
subscriptions), we should have spoiled the sequence. It seems to me
that a letter of acknowledgment from you to M. Ancillon would be
very suitable also. Do not think it is too late. One addresses him
as "Monsieur et plus votre Excellence." I am writing the most
pedantic letter in the world in answer to yours, so full of charm.
It must seem to you absurd that I write you in French, when you,
French by origin, or rather by language, prefer to write me in
German. Pray tell me, did you learn German, which you write with
such purity, as a child?
I am happy to see that you publish the whole together. The
parceling out of such a work would have led to endless delays; but,
for mercy's sake, take care of your eyes; they are OURS. I have not
neglected the subscriptions in Russia, but I have, as yet, no
answer. At a venture, I have placed the name of M. von Buch on my
list. He is absent; it is said that he will go to Greece this
summer. Pray make it a rule not to give away copies of your work.
If you follow that inclination you will be pecuniarily ruined.
I wish I could have been present at your course of lectures. What
you tell me of them delights me, though I am ready to do battle
with you about those metamorphoses of our globe which have even
slipped into your title. I see by your letter that you cling to the
idea of internal vital processes of the earth, that you regard the
successive formations as different phases of life, the rocks as
products of metamorphosis. I think this symbolical language should
be employed with great reserve, I know that point of view of the
old "Naturphilosophie;" I have examined it without prejudice, but
nothing seems to me more dissimilar than the vital action of the
metamorphosis of a plant in order to form the calyx or the flower,
and the successive formation of beds of conglomerate. There is
order, it is true, in the superposed beds, sometimes an alternation
of the same substance, an interior cause,--sometimes even a
successive development, starting from a central heat; but can the
term "life" be applied to this kind of movement? Limestone does not
generate sandstone. I do not know that there exists what
physiologists call a vital force, different from, or opposed to,
the physical forces which we recognize in all matter; I think the
vital process is only a particular mode of action, of limitation of
those physical forces; action, the nature of which we have not yet
fully sounded. I believe there are nervous storms (electric) like
those which set fire to the atmosphere, but that special action
which we call organic, in which every part becomes cause or effect,
seems to me distinct from the changes which our planet has
undergone. I pause here, for I feel that I must annoy you, and I
care for you too much to run that risk. Moreover, a superior man
like yourself, my dear friend, floats above material things and
leaves a margin for philosophic doubt.
Farewell; count on the little of life that remains to me, and on my
affectionate devotion. At twenty-six years of age, and possessed of
so much knowledge, you are only entering upon life, while I am
preparing to depart; leaving this world far different from what I
hoped it would be in my youth. I will not forget the Bichir and the
Lepidosteus. Remember always that your letters give me the greatest
pleasure. . .
[P.S.] Look carefully at the new number of Poggendorf, in which you
will find beautiful discoveries of Ehrenberg (microscopical) on the
difference of structure between the brain and the nerves of motion,
also upon the crystals forming the silvered portion of the
peritoneum of Esox lucius.
In October, 1833, Agassiz's marriage to Cecile Braun, the sister of
his life-long friend, Alexander Braun, took place. He brought his
wife home to a small apartment in Neuchatel, where they began their
housekeeping after the simplest fashion, with such economy as their
very limited means enforced. Her rare artistic talent, hitherto
devoted to her brother's botanical pursuits, now found a new field.
Trained to accuracy in drawing objects of Natural History, she had
an artist's eye for form and color. Some of the best drawings in
the Fossil Fishes and the Fresh-Water Fishes are from her hand.
Throughout the summer, notwithstanding the trouble in his eyes,
Agassiz had been still pressing on these works. His two artists,
Mr. Dinkel and Mr. Weber, the former in Paris, the latter in
Neuchatel, were constantly busy on his plates.
Although Agassiz was at this time only twenty-six years of age, his
correspondence already shows that the interest of scientific men,
all over Europe, was attracted to him and to his work. From
investigators of note in his own country, from those of France,
Italy, and Germany, from England, and even from America, the
distant El Dorado of naturalists in those days, came offers of
cooperation, accompanied by fossil fishes or by the drawings of
rare or unique specimens. He was known in all the museums of Europe
as an indefatigable worker and collector, seeking everywhere
materials for comparison.
Among the letters of this date is one from Charpentier, one of the
pioneers of glacial investigation, under whose auspices, two years
later, Agassiz began his inquiries into glacial phenomena. He
writes him from the neighborhood of Bex, his home in the valley of
the Rhone, the classic land of glacial work; but he writes of
Agassiz's special subjects, inviting him to come and see such
fossils as were to be found in his neighborhood, and to investigate
certain phenomena of upheaval and of plutonic action in the same
region, little dreaming that the young zoologist was presently to
join him in his own chosen field of research.
Agassiz now began also to receive pressing invitations from the
English naturalists, from Buckland, Lyell, Murchison, and others,
to visit England, and examine their wonderful collections of fossil
FROM PROFESSOR BUCKLAND TO AGASSIZ.
OXFORD, December 25, 1833.
. . .I should very much like to put into your hands what few
materials I possess in the Oxford Museum relating to fossil fishes,
and am also desirous that you should see the fossil fish in the
various provincial museums of England, as well as in London. Sir
Philip Egerton has a very large collection of fishes from Engi and
Oeningen, which he wishes to place at your disposition. Like
myself, he would willingly send you drawings, but drawings made
without knowledge of the anatomical details which you require,
cannot well represent what the artist himself does not perceive. I
would willingly lend you my specimens, if I could secure them
against the barbarous hands of the custom-house officials. What I
would propose to you as a means of seeing all the collections of
England, and gaining at the same time additional subscriptions for
your work, is, that you should come to England and attend the
British Association for the Advancement of Science in September
next. There you will meet all the naturalists of England, and I do
not doubt that among them you will find a good many subscribers.
You will likewise see a new mine of fossil fishes in the clayey
schist of the coal formation at Newhaven, on the banks of the
Forth, near Edinburgh. You can also make arrangements to visit the
museums of York, Whitby, Scarborough, and Leeds, as well as the
museum of Sir Philip Egerton, on your way to and from Edinburgh.
You may, likewise, visit the museums of London, Cambridge, and
Oxford; everywhere there are fossil fishes; and traveling by coach
in England is so rapid, easy, and cheap, that in six weeks or less
you can accomplish all that I have proposed. As I seriously hope
that you will come to England for the months of August and
September, I say nothing at present of any other means of putting
into your hands the drawings or specimens of our English fossil
fishes. I forgot to mention the very rich collection of fossil
fishes in the Museum of Mr. Mantell, at Brighton, where, I think,
you could take the weekly steam-packet for Rotterdam as easily as
in London, and thus arrive in Neuchatel from London in a very few
days. . .
AGASSIZ TO PROFESSOR BUCKLAND.
. . .I thank you most warmly for the very important information you
have so kindly given me respecting the rich collections of England;
I will, if possible, make arrangements to visit them this year, and
in that case I will beg you to let me have a few letters of
recommendation to facilitate my examination of them in detail. Not
that I question for a moment the liberality of the English
naturalists. All the continental savants who have visited your
museums have praised the kindness shown in intrusting to them the
rarest objects, and I well know that the English rival other
nations in this respect, and even leave them far behind. But one
must have merited such favors by scientific labors; to a beginner
they are always a free gift, wholly undeserved. . .
A few months later Agassiz received a very gratifying and
substantial mark of the interest felt by English naturalists in his
CHARLES LYELL TO LOUIS AGASSIZ.
SOMERSET HOUSE, LONDON, February 4, 1834.
. . .It is with the greatest pleasure that I announce to you good
news. The Geological Society of London desires me to inform you
that it has this year conferred upon you the prize bequeathed by
Dr. Wollaston. He has given us the sum of one thousand pounds
sterling, begging us to expend the interest, or about seven hundred
and fifty francs every year, for the encouragement of the science
of geology. Your work on fishes has been considered by the Council
and the officers of the Geological Society worthy of this prize,
Dr. Wollaston having said that it could be given for unfinished
works. The sum of thirty guineas, or 31 pounds 10 shillings
sterling, has been placed in my hands, but I would not send you the
money before knowing exactly where you were and learning from you
where you wish it to be paid. You will probably like an order on
some Swiss banker.
I cannot yet give you the extract from the address of the President
in which your work is mentioned, but I shall have it soon. In the
mean time I am desired to tell you that the Society declines to
receive your magnificent work as a gift, but wishes to subscribe
for it, and has already ordered a copy from the publishers. . .
AGASSIZ TO LYELL.
NEUCHATEL, March 25, 1834.
. . .You cannot imagine the joy your letter has given me. The prize
awarded to 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. If no obstacle arises I hope to accomplish
this during the coming summer, and to be present at the next
meeting of the English naturalists.
I do not live the less happily on account of my anxieties, but I am
sometimes obliged to work more than I well can, or ought in reason
to do. . .The second number of my "Fossil Fishes" contains the
beginning of the anatomy of the fishes, but only such portions as
are to be found in the fossil state. I have begun with the scales;
later, I treat of the bones and the teeth. Then comes the
continuation of the description of the Ganoids and the Scomberoids,
and an additional sheet contains a sketch of my ichthyological
classification. The plates are even more successful than those of
the first number. If all goes well the third number will appear
next July. I long to visit your rich collections; I hope that
whenever it becomes possible for me to do so, I shall have the good
fortune to find you in London. . .
I have thought a letter addressed to the President of the Society
in particular, and to the members in general, would be fitting.
Will you have the kindness to deliver it for me to Mr. Murchison?
The first number of the "Fossil Fishes" had already appeared, and
had been greeted with enthusiasm by scientific men. Elie de
Beaumont writes Agassiz in June, 1834: "I have read with great
pleasure your first number; it promises us 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 awaken. I
shall always be glad to aid in overcoming any one of them."
Perhaps it is as well to give here a slight sketch of this work,
the execution of which was carried on during the next ten years
(1833-1843). The inscription tells, in few words, the author's
reverence for Humboldt and his personal gratitude to him. "These
pages owe to you their existence; accept their dedication." The
title gives in a broad outline the comprehensive purpose of the
"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 most novel results comprised in this work were: first, the
remodeling of the classification of the whole type of fishes,
fossil and living, and especially the separation of the Ganoids
from all other fishes, under the rank of a distinct order; second,
the recognition of those combinations of reptilian and bird-like
characters in the earlier geological fishes, which led the author
to call them prophetic types; and third, his discovery of an
analogy between the embryological phases of the higher present
fishes and the gradual introduction of the whole type on earth, the
series in growth and the series in time revealing a certain mutual
correspondence. As these comprehensive laws have thrown light upon
other types of the animal kingdom beside that of fishes, their
discovery may be said to have advanced general zoology as well as
The Introduction presents, as it were, the prelude to this vast
chapter of natural history in the simultaneous appearance of the
four great types of the animal kingdom: Radiates, Mollusks,
Articulates, and Vertebrates. Then comes the orderly development of
the class by which the vertebrate plan was first expressed, namely,
the fishes. Underlying all its divisions and subdivisions, is the
average expression of the type in the past and present; the
Placoids and Ganoids, with their combination of reptilian and
fishlike features, characterizing the earlier geological epochs,
while in the later the simple bony fishes, the Cycloids and
Ctenoids, take the ascendancy. Here, for the first time, Agassiz
presents his "synthetic or prophetic types," namely, early types
embracing, as it were, in one large outline, features afterward
individualized in special groups, and never again reunited. No less
striking than these general views of structural relations are the
clearness and simplicity with which the distribution of the whole
class of fishes in relation to the geological formations, or, in
other words, to the physical history of the earth, is shown. In
reading this introductory chapter, one familiar with Agassiz as a
public teacher will almost hear his voice marshaling the long
procession of living beings, as he was wont to do, in their gradual
introduction upon the earth. Indeed, his whole future work in
ichthyology, and one might almost say in general zoology, was here
The technicalities of this work, at once so comprehensive in its
combinations and so minute in its details, could interest only the
professional reader, but its generalizations may well have a
certain attraction for every thoughtful mind. It treats of the
relations, anatomical, zoological, and geological, between the
whole class of fishes, fossil and living, illustrated by numerous
plates, while additional light is thrown on the whole by the
revelations of embryology.
"Notwithstanding these striking differences," says the author in
the opening of the fifth chapter on the relations of fishes in
general, "it is none the less evident to the attentive observer
that one single idea has presided over the development of the whole
class, and that all the deviations lead back to a primary plan, so
that even if the thread seem broken in the present creation, one
can reunite it on reaching the domain of fossil ichthyology."* (*
Volume 1 chapter 5 pages 92, 93.)
Having shown how the present creation has given him the key to past
creations, how the complete skeleton of the living fishes has
explained the scattered fragments of the ancient ones, especially
those of which the soft cartilaginous structure was liable to
decay, he presents two modes of studying the type as a whole;
either in its comparative anatomy, including in the comparison the
whole history of the type, fossil and living, or in its comparative
embryology. "The results," he adds, "of these two methods of study
complete and control each other." In all his subsequent researches
indeed, the history of the individual in its successive phases went
hand in hand with the history of the type. He constantly tested his
zoological results by his embryological investigations.
After a careful description of the dorsal chord in its
embryological development, he shows that a certain parallelism
exists between the comparative degrees of development of the
vertebral column in the different groups of fishes, and the phases
of its embryonic development in the higher fishes. Farther on he
shows a like coincidence between the development of the system of
fins in the different groups of fishes, and the gradual growth and
differentiation of the fins in the embryo of the higher living
fishes.* (* "Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles", volume 1
chapter 5 page 102.) "There is, then," he concludes, "as we have
said above, a certain analogy, or rather a certain parallelism, to
be established between the embryological development of the
Cycloids and Ctenoids, and the genetic or paleontological
development of the whole class. Considered from this point of view,
no one will dispute that the form of the caudal fin is of high
importance for zoological and paleontological considerations, since
it shows that the same thought, the same plan, which presides
to-day over the formation of the embryo, is also manifested in the
successive development of the numerous creation which have formerly
peopled the earth." Agassiz says himself in his Preface: "I have
succeeded in expressing the laws of succession and of the organic
development of fishes during all geological epochs; and science may
henceforth, in seeing the changes of this class from formation to
formation, follow the progress of organization in one great
division of the animal kingdom, through a complete series of the
ages of the earth." This is not inconsistent with his position as
the leading opponent of the development or Darwinian theories. To
him, development meant development of plan as expressed in
structure, not the change of one structure into another. To his
apprehension the change was based upon intellectual, not upon
material causes. He sums up his own conviction with reference to
this question as follows:* (* "Recherches sur les Poissons
Fossiles" volume 1 chapter 6 pages 171, 172. "Essay on the
Classification of Fishes.") "Such facts proclaim aloud principles
not yet discussed in science, but which paleontological researches
place before the eyes of the observer with an ever-increasing
persistency. I speak of the relations of the creation with the
creator. Phenomena closely allied in the order of their succession,
and yet without sufficient cause in themselves for their
appearance; an infinite diversity of species without any common
material bond, so grouping themselves as to present the most
admirable progressive development to which our own species is
linked,--are these not incontestable proofs of the existence of a
superior intelligence whose power alone could have established such
an order of things?. . ."
"More than fifteen hundred species of fossil fishes, which I have
learned to know, tell me that species do not pass insensibly one
into another, but that they appear and disappear unexpectedly,
without direct relations with their precursors; for I think no one
will seriously pretend that the numerous types of Cycloids and
Ctenoids, almost all of which are contemporaneous with one an
other, have descended from the Placoids and Ganoids. As well might
one affirm that the Mammalia, and man with them, have descended
directly from fishes. All these species have a fixed epoch of
appearance and disappearance; their existence is even limited to an
appointed time. And yet they present, as a whole, numerous
affinities more or less close, a definite coordination in a given
system of organization which has intimate relations with the mode
of existence of each type, and even of each species. An invisible
thread unwinds itself throughout all time, across this immense
diversity, and presents to us as a definite result, a continual
progress in the development of which man is the term, of which the
four classes of vertebrates are intermediate forms, and the
totality of invertebrate animals the constant accessory
The difficulty of carrying out comparisons so rigorous and
extensive as were needed in order to reconstruct the organic
relations between the fossil fishes of all geological formations
and those of the present world, is best told by the author.* (*
"Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles" volume 1. Addition a la
Preface.) "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. The hurry of
traveling, joined to the lack of the most ordinary facilities for
observation, has not rendered my task more easy. I therefore claim
indulgence for such of my identifications as a later examination,
made at leisure, may modify, and for descriptions which sometimes
bear the stamp of the precipitation with which they have been
It was, perhaps, this experience of Agassiz's earlier life which
made him so anxious to establish a museum of comparative zoology in
this country,--a museum so abundant and comprehensive in material,
that the student should not only find all classes of the animal
kingdom represented within its walls, but preserved also in such
numbers as to allow the sacrifice of many specimens for purposes of
comparison and study. He was resolved that no student should stand
there baffled at the door of knowledge, as he had often done
himself, when shown the one precious specimen, which could not be
removed, or even examined on the spot, because unique.
1834-1837: AGE 27-30.
First Visit to England.
Reception by Scientific Men.
Work on Fossil Fishes there.
Liberality of English Naturalists.
First Relations with American Science.
Farther Correspondence with Humboldt.
Second Visit to England.
Continuation of "Fossil Fishes."
Other Scientific Publications.
Attention drawn to Glacial Phenomena.
Summer at Bex with Charpentier.
Sale of Original Drawings for "Fossil Fishes."
Meeting of Helvetic Society.
Address on Ice-Period.
Letters from Humboldt and Von Buch.
In August, 1834, according to his cherished hope, Agassiz went to
England, and was received by the scientific men with a cordial
sympathy which left not a day or an hour of his short sojourn there
unoccupied. The following letter from Buckland is one of many
proffering hospitality and friendly advice on his arrival.
DR. BUCKLAND TO LOUIS AGASSIZ.
OXFORD, August 26, 1834.
. . .I am rejoiced to hear of your safe arrival in London, and
write to say that I am in Oxford, and that I shall be most happy to
receive you and give you a bed in my house if you can come here
immediately. I expect M. Arago and Mr. Pentland from Paris tomorrow
(Wednesday) afternoon. I shall be most happy to show you our Oxford
Museum on Thursday or Friday, and to proceed with you toward
Edinburgh. Sir Philip Egerton has a fine collection of fossil
fishes near Chester, which you should visit on your road. I have
partly engaged myself to be with him on Monday, September 1st, but
I think it would be desirable for you to go to him Saturday, that
you may have time to take drawings of his fossil fishes.
I cannot tell certainly what day I shall leave Oxford until I see
M. Arago, whom I hope you will meet at my house, on your arrival in
Oxford. I shall hope to see you Wednesday evening or Thursday
morning. Pray come to my house in Christ Church, with your baggage,
the moment you reach Oxford. . .
Agassiz always looked back with delight on this first visit to
Great Britain. It was the beginning of his life-long friendship
with Buckland, Sedgwick, Murchison, Lyell, and others of like
pursuits and interests. Made welcome in many homes, he could
scarcely respond to all the numerous invitations, social and
scientific, which followed the Edinburgh meeting.
Guided by Dr. Buckland, to whom not only every public and private
collection, but every rare specimen in the United Kingdom, seems to
have been known, he wandered from treasure to treasure. Every day
brought its revelation, until, under the accumulation of new facts,
he almost felt himself forced to begin afresh the work he had
believed well advanced. He might have been discouraged by a wealth
of resources which seemed to open countless paths, leading he knew
not whither, but for the generosity of the English naturalists who
allowed him to cull, out of sixty or more collections, two thousand
specimens of fossil fishes, and to send them to London, where, by
the kindness of the Geological Society, he was permitted to deposit
them in a room in Somerset House. The mass of materials once sifted
and arranged, the work of comparison and identification became
comparatively easy. He sent at once for his faithful artist, Mr.
Dinkel, who began, without delay, to copy all such specimens as
threw new light on the history of fossil fishes, a work which
detained him in England for several years.
Agassiz made at this time two friends, whose sympathy and
cooperation in his scientific work were invaluable to him for the
rest of his life. Sir Philip Egerton and Lord Cole (Earl of
Enniskillen) owned two of the most valuable collections of fossil
fishes in Great Britain.* (* Now the property of the British
Museum.) To aid him in his researches, their most precious
specimens were placed at Agassiz's disposition; his artist was
allowed to work for months on their collections, and even after
Agassiz came to America, they never failed to share with him, as
far as possible, the advantages arising from the increase of their
museums. From this time his correspondence with them, and
especially with Sir Philip Egerton, is closely connected with the
ever-growing interest as well as with the difficulties of his
scientific career. Reluctantly, and with many a backward look, he
left England in October, and returned to his lectures in Neuchatel,
taking with him such specimens as were indispensable to the
progress of his work. Every hour of the following winter which
could be spared from his lectures was devoted to his fossil fishes.
A letter of this date from Professor Silliman, of New Haven,
Connecticut, marks the beginning of his relations with his future
New England home, and announces his first New England subscribers.
YALE COLLEGE NEW HAVEN, UNITED STATES OF NORTH AMERICA, April 22,
. . .From Boston, March 6th, I had the honor to thank you for your
letter of January 5th, and for your splendid present of your great
work on fossil fishes--livraison 1-22--received, with the plates. I
also gave a notice of the work in the April number of the Journal*
(* "The American Journal of Science and Arts".) (this present
month), and republished Mr. Bakewell's account of your visit to Mr.
In Boston I made some little efforts in behalf of your work, and
have the pleasure of naming as follows:--
Harvard University, Cambridge (Cambridge is only four miles from
Boston), by Hon. Josiah Quincy, President.
Boston Athenaeum, by its Librarian.
Benjamin Green, Esquire, President of the Boston Natural History
I shall make application to some other institutions or individuals,
but do not venture to promise anything more than my best exertions
. . .
Agassiz little dreamed, as he read this letter, how familiar these
far-off localities would become to him, or how often, in after
years, he would traverse by day and by night the four miles which
lay between Boston and his home in Cambridge.
Agassiz still sought and received, as we see by the following
letter, Humboldt's sympathy in every step of his work.
HUMBOLDT TO LOUIS AGASSIZ.
BERLIN, May, 1835.
I am to blame for my neglect of you, my dear friend, but when you
consider the grief which depresses me,* (* Owing to the death of
his brother, William von Humboldt.) and renders me unfit to keep up
my scientific connections, you will not be so unkind as to bear me
any ill-will for my long silence. You are too well aware of my high
esteem for your talents and your character--you know too well the
affectionate friendship I bear you--to fear for a moment that you
could be forgotten.
I have seen the being I loved most, and who alone gave me some
interest in this arid land, slowly decline. For four long years my
brother had suffered from a weakness of all the muscles, which made
me always fear that the seat of the trouble was the medulla
oblongata. Yet his step was firm; his head was entirely clear. The
higher intellectual faculties retained all their energy. He was
engaged from twelve to thirteen hours a day on his works, reading
or rather dictating, for a nervous trembling of the hand prevented
him from using a pen. Surrounded by a numerous family; living on a
spot created, so to speak, by himself, and in a house which he had
adorned with antique statues; withdrawn also from affairs, he was
still attached to life. The illness which carried him off in ten
days--an inflammation of the chest--was but a secondary symptom of
his disease. He died without pain, with a strength of character and
a serenity of mind worthy of the greatest admiration. It is cruel
to see so noble an intelligence struggle during ten long days
against physical destruction. We are told that in great grief we
should turn with redoubled energy to the study of nature. The
advice is easy to give; but for a long time even the wish for
distraction is wanting.
My brother leaves two works which we intend to publish: one upon
the languages and ancient Indian civilization of the Asiatic
archipelago, and the other upon the structure of languages in
general, and the influence of that structure upon the intellectual
development of nations. This last work has great beauty of style.
We shall soon begin the publication of it. My brother's extensive
correspondence with all those countries over which his philological
studies extended brings upon me just at present, such a
multiplicity of occupations and duties that I can only write you
these few lines, my dear friend, as a pledge of my constant
affection, and, I may also add, my admiration of your eminent
works. It is a pleasure to watch the growing renown of those who
are dear to us; and who should merit success more than you, whose
elevation of character is proof against the temptations of literary
self-love? I thank you for the little you have told me of your home
life. It is not enough to be praised and recognized as a great and
profound naturalist; to this one must add domestic happiness as
well. . .
I am about finishing my long and wearisome work of (illegible); a
critical examinationinto the geography of the Middle Ages, of which
fifty sheets are already printed. I will send you the volumes as
soon as they appear, in octavo. I devoured your fourth number; the
plates are almost finer than the previous ones; and the text,
though I have only looked it through hastily, interested me deeply,
especially the analytical catalogue of Bolca, and the more general
and very philosophical views of fishes in general, pages 57-64. The
latter is also remarkable in point of style. . .
M. von Buch, who has just left me, sends you a warm greeting. None
the less does he consider the method of issuing your text in
fragments from different volumes, altogether diabolical. I also
complain a little, though in all humility; but I suppose it to be
connected with the difficulty of concluding any one family, when
new materials are daily accumulating on your hands. Continue then
as before. In my judgment, M. Agassiz never does wrong. . .
The above letter, though written in May, did not reach Agassiz
until the end of July, when he was again on his way to England,
where his answer is dated.
AGASSIZ TO HUMBOLDT.
(LONDON), October--, 1835.
. . .I cannot express to you my pleasure in reading your letter of
May 10th (which was, unhappily, only delivered to me on my passage
through Carlsruhe, at the end of July). . .To know that I have
occupied your thoughts a moment, especially in days of trial and
sorrow such as you have had to bear, raises me in my own eyes, and
redoubles my hope for the future. And just now such encouragement
is particularly cheering under the difficulties which I meet in
completing my task in England. I have now been here nearly two
months, and I hope before leaving to finish the description of all
that I brought together at the Geological Society last year.
Knowing that you are in Paris, however, I cannot resist the
temptation of going to see you; indeed, should your stay be
prolonged for some weeks, it would be my most direct path for home.
I should like to tell you a little of what I have done, and how the
world has gone with me since we last met. . .I have certainly
committed an imprudence in throwing myself into an enterprise so
vast in proportion to my means as my "Fossil Fishes." But, having
begun it, I have no alternative; my only safety is in success. I
have a firm conviction that I shall bring my work to a happy issue,
though often in the evening I hardly know how the mill is to be
turned to-morrow. . .
By a great good fortune for me, the British Association, at the
suggestion of Buckland, Sedgwick, and Murchison, has renewed, for
the present year, its vote of one hundred guineas toward the
facilitating of researches upon the fossil fishes of England, and I
hope that a considerable part of this sum may be awarded to me, in
which case I may be able to complete the greater number of the
drawings I need. If I had obtained in France only half the
subscriptions I have had in England, I should be afloat; but thus
far M. Bailliere has only disposed of some fifteen copies. . .My
work advances fairly; I shall soon have described all the species I
know, numbering now about nine hundred. I need some weeks in Paris
for the comparison of several tertiary species with living ones in
order to satisfy myself of their specific identity, and then my
task will be accomplished. Next comes the putting in order of all
my notes. My long vacations will give me time to do this with the
greatest care. . .
His second visit to England, during which the above letter was
written, was chiefly spent in reviewing the work of his artist,
whom he now reinforced with a second draughtsman, M. Weber, the
same who had formerly worked with him in Munich. He also attended
the meeting of the British Association in Dublin, stayed a few days
at Oulton Park for another look at the collections of Sir Philip
Egerton, made a second grand tour among the other fossil fishes of
England and Ireland, and returned to Neuchatel, leaving his two
artists in London with their hands more than full.
While Agassiz thus pursued his work on fossil fishes with ardor and
an almost perilous audacity, in view of his small means, he found
also time for various other investigations. During the year 1836,
though pushing forward constantly the publication of the "Poissons
Fossiles," his "Prodromus of the Class of Echinodermata" appeared
in the Memoirs of the Natural History Society of Neuchatel, as well
as his paper on the fossil Echini belonging to the Neocomian group
of the Neuchatel Jura, accompanied by figures. Not long after, he
published in the Memoirs of the Helvetic Society his descriptions
of fossil Echini peculiar to Switzerland, and issued also the first
number of a more extensive work, "Monographie d'Echinodermes."
During this year he received a new evidence of the sympathy of the
English naturalists, in the Wollaston medal awarded to him by the
London Geological Society.
The summer of 1836 was an eventful one for Agassiz,--the opening,
indeed, of a new and brilliant chapter in his life. The attention
of the ignorant and the learned had alike been called to the
singular glacial phenomena of movement and transportation in the
Alpine valleys. The peasant had told his strange story of boulders
carried on the back of the ice, of the alternate retreat and
advance of glaciers, now shrinking to narrower limits, now plunging
forward into adjoining fields, by some unexplained power of
expansion and contraction. Scientific men were awake to the
interest of these facts, but had considered them only as local
phenomena. Venetz and Charpentier were the first to detect their
wider significance. The former traced the ancient limits of the
Alpine glaciers as defined by the frame-work of debris or loose
material they had left behind them; and Charpentier went farther,
and affirmed that all the erratic boulders scattered over the plain
of Switzerland and on the sides of the Jura had been thus
distributed by ice and not by water, as had been supposed.
Agassiz was among those who received this hypothesis as improbable
and untenable. Still, he was anxious to see the facts in place, and
Charpentier was glad to be his guide. He therefore passed his
vacation, during this summer of 1836, at the pretty town of Bex, in
the valley of the Rhone. Here he spent a number of weeks in
explorations, which served at the same time as a relaxation from
his more sedentary work. He went expecting to confirm his own
doubts, and to disabuse his friend Charpentier of his errors. But
after visiting with him the glaciers of the Diablerets, those of
the valley of Chamounix, and the moraines of the great valley of
the Rhone and its principal lateral valleys, he came away satisfied
that a too narrow interpretation of the phenomena was Charpentier's
During this otherwise delightful summer, he was not without renewed
anxiety lest he should be obliged to suspend the publication of the
Fossil Fishes for want of means to carry it on. On this account he
writes from Bex to Sir Philip Egerton in relation to the sale of
his original drawings, the only property he possessed. "It is
absolutely impossible," he says, "for me to issue even another
number until this sale is effected. . .I shall consider myself more
than repaid if I receive, in exchange for the whole collection of
drawings, simply what I have expended upon them, provided I may
keep those which have yet to be lithographed until that be done."
Sir Philip made every effort to effect a sale to the British
Museum. He failed at the moment, but the collection was finally
purchased and presented to the British Museum by a generous
relative of his own, Lord Francis Egerton. In the mean time, Sir
Philip and Lord Cole, in order to make it possible for Agassiz to
retain the services of Mr. Dinkel, proposed to pay his expenses
while he was drawing such specimens from their own collections as
were needed for the work. These drawings were, of course, finally
to remain their own property.
During his sojourn at Bex, Agassiz's intellect and imagination had
been deeply stirred by the glacial phenomena. In the winter of
1837, on his return to Neuchatel, he investigated anew the slopes
of the Jura, and found that the facts there told the same story.
Although he resumed with unabated ardor his various works on
fishes, radiates, and mollusks, a new chapter of nature was all the
while unfolding itself in his fertile brain. When the Helvetic
Association assembled at Neuchatel in the following summer, the
young president, from whom the members had expected to hear new
tidings of fossil fishes, startled them by the presentation of a
glacial theory, in which the local erratic phenomena of the Swiss
valleys assumed a cosmic significance. It is worthy of remark here
that the first large outlines in which Agassiz, when a young man,
planned his intellectual work gave the key-note to all that
followed. As the generalizations on which all his future zoological
researches were based, are sketched in the Preface to his "Poissons
Fossiles," so his opening address to the Helvetic Society in 1837
unfolds the glacial period as a whole, much as he saw it at the
close of his life, after he had studied the phenomena on three
continents. In this address he announced his conviction that a
great ice-period, due to a temporary oscillation of the temperature
of the globe, had covered the surface of the earth with a sheet of
ice, extending at least from the north pole to Central Europe and
Asia. "Siberian winter," he says, "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." In this novel presentation the distribution of erratic
boulders, instead of being classed among local phenomena, was
considered "as one of the accidents accompanying the vast change
occasioned by the fall of the temperature of our globe before the
commencement of our epoch."
This was, indeed, throwing the gauntlet down to the old expounders
of erratic phenomena upon the principle of floods, freshets, and
floating ice. Many well-known geologists were present at the
meeting, among them Leopold von Buch, who could hardly contain his
indignation, mingled with contempt, for what seemed to him the view
of a youthful and inexperienced observer. One would have liked to
hear the discussion which followed, in special section, between Von
Buch, Charpentier, and Agassiz. Elie de Beaumont, who should have
made the fourth, did not arrive till later. Difference of opinion,
however, never disturbed the cordial relation which existed between
Von Buch and his young opponent. Indeed, Agassiz's reverence and
admiration for Von Buch was then, and continued throughout his
life, deep and loyal.
Not alone from the men who had made these subjects their special
study, did Agassiz meet with discouragements. The letters of his
beloved mentor, Humboldt, in 1837, show how much he regretted that
any part of his young friend's energy should be diverted from
zoology, to a field of investigation which he then believed to be
one of theory rather than of precise demonstration. He was,
perhaps, partly influenced by the fact that he saw through the
prejudiced eyes of his friend Von Buch. "Over your and
Charpentier's moraines," he says, in one of his letters, "Leopold
von Buch rages, as you may already know, considering the subject,
as he does, his exclusive property. But I too, though by no means
so bitterly opposed to new views, and ready to believe that the
boulders have not all been moved by the same means, am yet inclined
to think the moraines due to more local causes."
The next letter shows that Humboldt was seriously anxious lest this
new field of activity, with its fascinating speculations, should
draw Agassiz away from his ichthyological researches.
HUMBOLDT TO AGASSIZ.
BERLIN, December 2, 1837.
I have this moment received, my dear friend, by the hand of M. de
Werther, the cabinet minister, your eighth and ninth numbers, with
a fine pamphlet of text. I hasten to express my warm thanks, and I
congratulate the public on your somewhat tardy resolution to give a
larger proportion of text. One should flatter neither the king, nor
the people, nor one's dearest friend. I maintain, therefore, that
no one has told you forcibly enough how the very persons who justly
admire your work, constantly complain of this fragmentary style of
publication, which is the despair of those who have not the leisure
to place your scattered sheets where they belong and disentangle
the skein.* (* Owing to the irregularity with which he received and
was forced to work up his material, Agassiz was often either in
advance or in arrears with certain parts of his subject, so that
his plates and his text did not keep pace with each other, thus
causing his readers much annoyance.)
I think you would do well to publish for a while more text than
plates. You could do this the better because your text is
excellent, full of new and important ideas, expressed with
admirable clearness. The charming letter (again without a date)
which preceded your package impressed me painfully. I see you are
ill again; you complain of congestion of the head and eyes. For
mercy's sake take care of your health which is so dear to us. I am
afraid you work too much, and (shall I say it frankly?) that you
spread your intellect over too many subjects at once. I think that
you should concentrate your moral and also your pecuniary strength
upon this beautiful work on fossil fishes. In so doing you will
render a greater service to positive geology, than by these general
considerations (a little icy withal) on the revolutions of the
primitive world; considerations which, as you well know, convince
only those who give them birth. In accepting considerable sums from
England, you have, so to speak, contracted obligations to be met
only by completing a work which will be at once a monument to your
own glory and a landmark in the history of science. Admirable and
exact as your researches on other fossils are, your contemporaries
claim from you the fishes above all. You will say that this is
making you the slave of others; perfectly true, but such is the
pleasing position of affairs here below. Have I not been driven for
thirty-three years to busy myself with that tiresome America, and
am I not, even yet, daily insulted because, after publishing
thirty-two volumes of the great edition in folio and in quarto, and
twelve hundred plates, one volume of the historical section is
wanting? We men of letters are the servants of an arbitrary master,
whom we have imprudently chosen, who flatters and pets us first,
and then tyrannizes over us if we do not work to his liking. You
see, my dear friend, I play the grumbling old man, and, at the risk
of deeply displeasing you, place myself on the side of the despotic
public. . .
With reference to the general or periodical lowering of the
temperature of the globe, I have never thought it necessary, on
account of the elephant of the Lena, to admit that sudden frost of
which Cuvier used to speak. What I have seen in Siberia, and what
has been observed in Captain Beechey's expedition on the northwest
coast of America, simply proves that there exists a layer of frozen
drift, in the fissures of which (even now) the muscular flesh of
any animal which should accidentally fall into them would be
preserved intact. It is a slight local phenomenon. To me, the