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Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence by Louis Agassiz

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In the summer of 1848 Agassiz organized an expedition entirely
after his own heart, inasmuch as it combined education with
observation in the field. The younger portion of the party
consisted of several of his special pupils, and a few other Harvard
students who joined the expedition from general interest. Beside
these, there were several volunteer members, who were either
naturalists or had been attracted to the undertaking by their love
of nature and travel. Their object was the examination of the
eastern and northern shores of Lake Superior from Sault Ste. Marie
to Fort William, a region then little known to science or to
tourists. Agassiz taught along the road. At evening, around the
camp-fire, or when delayed by weather or untoward circumstances, he
would give to his companions short and informal lectures, it might
be on the forest about them, or on the erratic phenomena in the
immediate neighborhood,--on the terraces of the lake shore, or on
the fish of its waters. His lecture-room, in short, was everywhere;
his apparatus a traveling blackboard and a bit of chalk; while his
illustrations and specimens lay all around him, wherever the party
chanced to be.

To Agassiz himself the expedition was of the deepest interest.
Glacial phenomena had, as we have seen, met him at every turn since
his arrival in the United States, but nowhere had he found them in
greater distinctness than on the shores of Lake Superior. As the
evidence accumulated about him, he became more than ever satisfied
that the power which had modeled and grooved the rocks all over the
country, and clothed it with a sheet of loose material reaching to
the sea, must have been the same which had left like traces in
Europe. In a continent of wide plains and unbroken surfaces, and,
therefore, with few centres of glacial action, the phenomena were
more widely and uniformly scattered than in Europe. But their
special details, down to the closest minutiae, were the same, while
their definite circumscription and evenness of distribution forbade
the idea of currents or floods as the moving cause. Here, as
elsewhere, Agassiz recognized at once the comprehensive scope of
the phenomena. The whole history reconstructed itself in his mind,
to the time when a sheet of ice clothed the land, reaching the
Atlantic sea-board, as it now does the coast of Spitzbergen and the
Arctic shores.

He made also a careful survey of the local geology of Lake
Superior, and especially of the system of dykes, by the action of
which he found that its bed had been excavated, and the outline of
its shores determined. But perhaps the inhabitants of the lake
itself occupied him even more than its conformation or its
surrounding features. Not only for its own novelty and variety, but
for its bearing on the geographical distribution of animals, the
fauna of this great sheet of fresh water interested him deeply. On
this journey he saw at Niagara for the first time a living
gar-pike, the only representative among modern fishes of the fossil
type of Lepidosteus. From this type he had learned more perhaps
than from any other, of the relations between the past and the
present fishes. When a student of nineteen years of age, his first
sight of a stuffed skin of a gar-pike in the Museum of Carlsruhe
told him that it stood alone among living fishes. Its true alliance
with the Lepidosteus of the early geological ages became clear to
him only later in his study of the fossil fishes. He then detected
the reptilian character of the type, and saw that from the
articulation of the vertebrae the head must have moved more freely
on the trunk than that of any fish of our days. To his great
delight, when the first living specimen of the gar-pike, or modern
Lepidosteus, was brought to him, it moved its head to the right and
left and upward, as a Saurian does and as no other fish can.

The result of this expedition was a valuable collection of fishes
and a report upon the fauna and the geology of Lake Superior,
comprising the erratic phenomena. A narrative written by James
Elliot Cabot formed the introduction to the report, and it was also
accompanied by two or three shorter contributions on special
subjects from other members of the party. The volume was
illustrated by a number of plates exquisitely drawn and colored on
stone by A. Sonrel.

This was not Agassiz's first publication in America. His
"Principles of Zoology" (Agassiz and Gould) was published in 1848.
The book had a large sale, especially for schools. Edition followed
edition, but the sale of the first part was checked by the want of
the second, which was never printed. Agassiz was always swept along
so rapidly by the current of his own activity that he was sometimes
forced to leave behind him unfinished work. Before the time came
for the completion of the second part of the zoology, his own
knowledge had matured so much, that to be true to the facts, he
must have remodeled the whole of the first part, and for this he
never found the time. Apropos of these publications the following
letters are in place.


BELGRAVE SQUARE, October 3, 1849.

. . .I thank you very sincerely for your most captivating general
work on the "Principles of Zoology." I am quite in love with it. I
was glad to find that you had arranged the nummulites with the
tertiary rocks, so that the broad generalization I attempted in my
last work on the Alps, Apennines, and Carpathians is completely
sustained zoologically, and you will not be sorry to see the
stratigraphical truth vindicated (versus E. de Beaumont and--). I
beseech you to look at my memoir, and especially at my reasoning
about the miocene and pliocene divisions of the Alps and Italy. It
seems to me manifest that the percentage system derived from marine
life can never be applied to tertiary TERRESTRIAL successions. . .

My friends have congratulated me much on this my last effort, and
as Lyell and others most interested in opposing me have been
forward in approval, I begin to hope that I am not yet quite done
up; and that unlike the Bishop of Oviedo, my last sermon "ne sent
pas de l'apoplexie." I have, nevertheless, been desperately out of
sorts and full of gout and liver and all kinds of irritation this
summer, which is the first for many a long year in which I have
been unable to take the field. The meeting at Birmingham, however,
revived me. Professor W. Rogers will have told you all about our
doings. Buckland is up to his neck in "sewage," and wishes to
change all underground London into a fossil cloaca of pseudo
coprolites. This does not quite suit the chemists charged with
sanitary responsibilities; for they fear the Dean will poison half
the population in preparing his choice manures! But in this as in
everything he undertakes there is a grand sweeping view.

When are we to meet again? And when are we to have a "stand-up
fight" on the erratics of the Alps? You will see by the abstract of
my memoir appended to my Alpine affair that I have taken the field
against the extension of the Jura! In a word, I do not believe that
great trunk glaciers ever filled the valleys of the Rhone, etc.
Perhaps you will be present at our next meeting of the British
Association at Edinburgh, August, 1850. Olim meminisse juvabit! and
then, my dear and valued and most enlightened friend, we may study
once more together the surface of my native rocks for "auld lang
syne.". . .


DOWN, FARNBOROUGH, KENT, June 15 [1850, probably].


I have seldom been more deeply gratified than by receiving your
most kind present of "Lake Superior." I had heard of it, and had
much wished to read it, but I confess it was the very great honor
of having in my possession a work with your autograph, as a
presentation copy, that has given me such lively and sincere
pleasure. I cordially thank you for it. I have begun to read it
with uncommon interest, which I see will increase as I go on.

The Cirripedia, which you and Dr. Gould were so good as to send me,
have proved of great service to me. The sessile species from
Massachusetts consist of five species. . .Of the genus Balanus, on
the shores of Britain, we have ONE species (B. perforata
Bruguiere), which you have not in the United States, in the same
way as you exclusively have B. eburneus. All the above species
attain a somewhat larger average size on the shores of the United
States than on those of Britain, but the specimens from the glacial
beds of Uddevalla, Scotland, and Canada, are larger even than those
of the United States.

Once again allow me to thank you with cordiality for the pleasure
you have given me.

Believe me, with the highest respect, your truly obliged,


The following letter from Hugh Miller concerning Agassiz's
intention of introducing "The Footprints of the Creator" to the
American public by a slight memoir of Miller is of interest here.
It is to be regretted that with this exception no letters have been
found from him among Agassiz's papers, though he must have been in
frequent correspondence with him, and they had, beside their
scientific sympathy, a very cordial personal relation.



I was out of town when your kind letter reached here, and found
such an accumulation of employment on my return that it is only now
I find myself able to devote half an hour to the work of reply, and
to say how thoroughly sensible I am of the honor you propose doing
me. It never once crossed my mind when, in writing my little
volume, the "Footprints," I had such frequent occasion to refer to
my master, our great authority in ichthyic history, that he himself
would have associated his name with it on the other side of the
Atlantic, and referred in turn to its humble writer.

In the accompanying parcel I send you two of my volumes, which you
may not yet have seen, and in which you may find some materials for
your proposed introductory memoir. At all events they may furnish
you with amusement in a leisure hour. The bulkier of the two,
"Scenes and Legends," of which a new edition has just appeared, and
of which the first edition was published, after lying several years
beside me, in 1835, is the earliest of my works to which I attached
my name. It forms a sort of traditionary history of a district of
Scotland, about two hundred miles distant from the capital, in
which the character of the people has been scarce at all affected
by the cosmopolitanism which has been gradually modifying and
altering it in the larger towns; and as it has been frequently
remarked,--I know not with what degree of truth,--that there is a
closer resemblance between the Scotch and Swiss than between any
other two peoples of Europe, you may have some interest in
determining whether the features of your own country-folk are not
sometimes to be seen in those of mine, as exhibited in my legendary
history. Certainly both countries had for many ages nearly the same
sort of work to do; both had to maintain a long and ultimately
successful war of independence against nations greatly more
powerful than themselves; and as their hills produced little else
than the "soldier and his sword," both had to make a trade abroad
of that art of war which they were compelled in self-defense to
acquire at home. Even in the laws of some nations we find them
curiously enough associated together. In France, under the old
regime, the personal property of all strangers dying in the
country, SWISS AND SCOTS EXCEPTED, was forfeited to the king.

The other volume, "First Impressions of England and its People,"
contains some personal anecdotes and some geology. But the
necessary materials you will chiefly find in the article from the
"North British Review" which I also inclose. It is from the pen of
Sir David Brewster, with whom for the last ten years I have spent a
few very agreeable days every year at Christmas, under the roof of
a common friend,--one of the landed proprietors of Fifeshire. Sir
David's estimate of the writer is, I fear, greatly too high, but
his statement of facts regarding him is correct; and I think you
will find it quite full enough for the purposes of a brief memoir.
With his article I send you one of my own, written about six years
ago for the same periodical, as the subject is one in which, from
its connection with your master study,--the natural history of
fishes,--you may take more interest than most men. It embodies,
from observation, what may be regarded as THE NATURAL HISTORY OF
THE FISHERMAN, and describes some curious scenes and appearances
which I witnessed many years ago when engaged, during a truant
boyhood, in prosecuting the herring fishery as an amateur. Many of
my observations of natural phenomena date from this idle, and yet
not wholly wasted, period of my life.

With the volumes I send also a few casts of my less fragile
specimens of Asterolepis. Two of the number, those of the external
and internal surfaces of the creature's cranial buckler, are really
very curious combinations of plates, and when viewed in a slant
light have a decidedly sculpturesque and not ungraceful effect. I
have seen on our rustic tombstones worse representations of angels,
winged and robed, than that formed by the central plates of the
interior surface when the light is made to fall along their higher
protuberances, leaving the hollows in the shade. You see how truly
your prediction regarding the flatness of the creature's head is
substantiated by these casts; it is really not easy to know how,
placed on so flat a surface, the eyes could have been very
available save for star-gazing; but as nature makes no mistakes in
such matters, it is possible that the creature, like the
flatfishes, may have lived much at the bottom, and that most of the
seeing it had use for may have been seeing in an upward direction.
None of my other specimens of bucklers are so entire and in so good
a state of keeping as the two from which I have taken the casts,
but they are greatly larger. One specimen, nearly complete,
exhibits an area about four times as great as the largest of these
two, and I have fragments of others which must have belonged to
fish still more gigantic. The two other casts are of specimens of
gill covers, which in the Asterolepis, as in the sturgeon,
consisted each of a single plate. In both the exterior surface of
the buckler and of the operculum the tubercles are a good deal
enveloped in the stone, which is of a consistency too hard to be
removed without injuring what it overlies; but you will find them
in the smaller cast which accompanies the others, and which, as
shown by the thickness of the plate in the original, indicates
their size and form in a large individual, very characteristically
shown. So coral-like is their aspect, that if it was from such a
cast, not a fossil (which would, of course, exhibit the
peculiarities of the bone), that Lamarck founded his genus
Monticularia, I think his apology for the error might almost be
maintained as good. I am sorry I cannot venture on taking casts
from some of my other specimens; but they are exceedingly fragile,
and as they are still without duplicates I am afraid to hazard
them. Since publishing my little volume I have got several new
plates of Asterolepis,--a broad palatal plate, covered with
tubercles, considerably larger than those of the creature's
external surface,--a key-stone shaped plate, placed, when in situ,
in advance of the little plate between the eyes, which form the
head and face of the effigy in the centre of the buckler,--and a
side-plate, into which the condyloid processes of the lower jaw
were articulated, and which exhibited the processes on which these
hinged. There are besides some two or three plates more, whose
places I have still to find. The small cast, stained yellow, is
taken from an instructive specimen of the jaws of coccosteus, and
exhibits a peculiarity which I had long suspected and referred to
in the first edition of my volume on the Old Red Sandstone in
rather incautious language, but which a set of my specimens now
fully establishes. Each of the under jaws of the fish was furnished
with two groups of teeth: one group in the place where, in
quadrupeds, we usually find the molars; and another group in the
line of the symphyses. And how these both could have acted is a
problem which our anatomists here--many of whom have carefully
examined my specimen--seem unable, and in some degree, indeed,
afraid to solve.

I have written to the Messrs. Gould, Kendall & Lincoln to say that
the third edition of the "Footprints" differs from the first and
second only by the addition of a single note and an illustrative
diagram, both of which I have inclosed to them in my communication.
I anticipate much pleasure from the perusal of your work on Lake
Superior, when it comes to hand, which, as your publishers have
intrusted it to the care of a gentleman visiting this country,
will, I think, be soon. It is not often that a region so remote and
so little known as that which surrounds the great lake of America
is visited by a naturalist of the first class. From such a terra
incognita, at length unveiled to eyes so discerning, I anticipate
strange tidings.

I am, my dear sir, with respect and admiration, very truly yours,


In the spring of 1850 Agassiz married Elizabeth Cabot Cary,
daughter of Thomas Graves Cary, of Boston. This marriage confirmed
his resolve to remain, at least for the present, in the United
States. It connected him by the closest ties with a large family
circle, of which he was henceforth a beloved and honored member,
and made him the brother-in-law of one of his most intimate friends
in Cambridge, Professor C.C. Felton. Thus secure of favorable
conditions for the care and education of his children, he called
them to this country. His son (then a lad of fifteen years of age)
had joined him the previous summer. His daughters, younger by
several years than their brother, arrived the following autumn, and
home built itself up again around him.

The various foreign members of his household had already scattered.
One or two had returned to Europe, others had settled here in
permanent homes of their own. Among the latter were Professor Guyot
and M. de Pourtales, who remained, both as scientific colleagues
and personal friends, very near and dear to him all his life. "Papa
Christinat" had also withdrawn. While Agassiz was absent on a
lecturing tour, the kind old man, knowing well the opposition he
should meet, and wishing to save both himself and his friend the
pain of parting, stole away without warning and went to New
Orleans, where he had obtained a place as pastor. This was a great
disappointment to Agassiz, who had urged him to make his home with
him, a plan in which his wife and children cordially concurred, but
which did not approve itself to the judgment of his old friend. M.
Christinat afterward returned to Switzerland, where he ended his
days. He wrote constantly until his death, and was always kept
advised of everything that passed in the family at Cambridge. Of
the old household, Mr. Burkhardt alone remained a permanent member
of the new one.


1850-1852: AGE 43-45.

Proposition from Dr. Bache.
Exploration of Florida Reefs.
Letter to Humboldt concerning Work in America.
Appointment to Professorship of Medical College in Charleston, S.C.
Life at the South.
Views concerning Races of Men.
Prix Cuvier.

THE following letter from the Superintendent of the Coast Survey
determined for Agassiz the chief events of the winter of 1851.


WEBB'S HILL, October 30, 1850.


Would it be possible for you to devote six weeks or two months to
the examination of the Florida reefs and keys in connection with
their survey? It is extremely important to ascertain what they are
and how formed. One account treats them as growing corals, another
as masses of something resembling oolite, piled together,
barrier-wise. You see that this lies at the root of the progress of
the reef, so important to navigation, of the use to be made of it
in placing our signals, of the use as a foundation for
light-houses, and of many other questions practically important and
of high scientific interest. I would place a vessel at your
disposal during the time you were on the reef, say six weeks.

The changes at or near Cape Florida, from the Atlantic coast and
its siliceous sand, to the Florida coast and its coral sand, must
be curious. You will be free to move from one end of the reef to
the other, which will be, say one hundred and fifty miles. Motion
to eastward would be slow in the windy season, though favored by
the Gulf Stream as the winds are "trade." Whatever collections you
might make would be your own. I would only ask for the survey such
information and such specimens as would be valuable to its
operations, especially to its hydrography, and some report on these
matters. As this will, if your time and engagements permit, lead to
a business arrangement, I must, though reluctantly, enter into
that. I will put aside six hundred dollars for the two months,
leaving you to pay your own expenses; or, if you prefer it, will
pay all expenses of travel, including subsistence, to and from Key
West, and furnish vessel and subsistence while there, and four
hundred dollars.

What results would flow to science from your visit to that region!
You have spoken of the advantage of using our vessels when they
were engaged in their own work. Now I offer you a vessel the
motions of which you will control, and the assistance of the
officers and crew of which you will have. You shall be at no
expense for going and coming, or while there, and shall choose your
own time. . .

Agassiz accepted this proposal with delight, and at once made
arrangements to take with him a draughtsman and an assistant, in
order to give the expedition such a character as would make it
useful to science in general, as well as to the special objects of
the Coast Survey. It will be seen that Dr. Bache gladly concurred
in all these views.


WASHINGTON, December 18, 1850.


On the basis of our former communications I have been, as the time
served, raising a superstructure. I have arranged with Lieutenant
Commander Alden to send the schooner W.A. Graham, belonging to the
Coast Survey, under charge of an officer who will take an interest
in promoting the great objects in which you will be engaged, to Key
West, in time to meet you on your arrival in the Isabel of the
15th, from Charleston to Key West. The vessel will be placed at
your absolute disposal for four to six weeks, as you may find
desirable, doing just such things as you require, and going to such
places as you direct. If you desire more than a general direction,
I will give any specific ones which you may suggest. . .

I have requested that room be made in the cabin for you and for two
aids, as you desire to take a draughtsman with you; and in
reference to your enlarged plan of operating, of which I see the
advantage, I have examined the financial question, and propose to
add two hundred dollars to the six hundred in my letter of October
30th, to enable you to execute it. I would suggest that you stop a
day in Washington on your way to Charleston, to pick up the
topographical and geographical information which you desire, and to
have all matters of a formal kind arranged to suit your convenience
and wishes, which, I am sure, will all be promotive of the objects
in view from your visit to Florida. . .You say I shall smile AT
your plans,--instead of which, they have been smiled ON; now, there
is a point for you,--a true Saxon distinction.

If you succeed (and did you ever fail!?) in developing for our
Coast Survey the nature, structure, growth, and all that, of the
Florida reefs, you will have conferred upon the country a priceless
favor. . .

The Superintendent of the Coast Survey never had cause to regret
the carte-blanche he had thus given. A few weeks, with the
facilities so liberally afforded, gave Agassiz a clew to all the
phenomena he had been commissioned to examine, and enabled him to
explain the relation between the keys and the outer and inner
reefs, and the mud swamps, or more open channels, dividing them,
and to connect these again with the hummocks and everglades of the
main-land. It remains to be seen whether his theory will hold good,
that the whole or the greater part of the Florida peninsula has,
like its southern portion, been built up of concentric reefs. But
his explanation of the present reefs, their structure, laws of
growth, relations to each other and to the main-land, as well as to
the Gulf Stream and its prevailing currents, was of great practical
service to the Coast Survey. It was especially valuable in
determining how far the soil now building up from accumulations of
mud and coral debris was likely to remain for a long time shifting
and uncertain, and how far and in what localities it might be
relied upon as affording a stable foundation. When, at the meeting
of the American Association in the following spring, Agassiz gave
an account of his late exploration, Dr. Bache, who was present,
said that for the first time he understood the bearing of the whole
subject, though he had so long been trying to unravel it.

The following letter was written immediately after Agassiz's


CAMBRIDGE, April 26, 1851.

. . .I have spent a large part of the winter in Florida, with a
view of studying the coral reefs. I have found that they constitute
a new class of reefs, distinct from those described by Darwin and
Dana under the name of fringing reefs, barrier reefs, and atolls. I
have lately read a paper upon that subject before the American
Academy, which I shall send you as soon as it is printed. The case
is this. There are several concentric reefs separated by deep
channels; the peninsula of Florida itself is a succession of such
reefs, the everglades being the filled-up channels, while the
hummocks were formerly little intervening islands, like the
mangrove islands in the present channels. But what is quite
remarkable, all these concentric reefs are upon one level, above
that of the sea, and there is no indication whatever of upheaval.
You will find some observations upon upheavals, etc., in Silliman,
by Tuomey; it is a great mistake, as I shall show. The Tortugas are
a real atoll, but formed without the remotest indication of

Of course this does not interfere in the least with the views of
Darwin, for the whole ground presents peculiar features. I wish you
would tell him something about this. One of the most remarkable
peculiarities of the rocks in the reefs of the Tortugas consists in
their composition; they are chiefly made up of CORALLINES,
limestone algae, and, to a small extent only, of real corals. . .

Agassiz's report to the Coast Survey upon the results of this first
investigation made by him upon the reefs of Florida was not
published in full at the time. The parts practically most important
to the Coast Survey were incorporated in their subsequent charts;
the more general scientific results, as touching the physical
history of the peninsula as a whole, appeared in various forms,
were embodied in Agassiz's lectures, and were printed some years
after in his volume entitled "Methods of Study." The original
report, with all the plates prepared for it, was published in the
"Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology," under the
supervision of Alexander Agassiz, after the death of his father. It
forms a quarto volume, containing some sixty pages of text, with
twenty-two plates, illustrative of corals and coral structure, and
a map of Southern Florida with its reefs and keys.

This expedition was also of great importance to Agassiz's
collections, and to the embryo museum in Cambridge. It laid the
foundation of a very complete collection of corals of all varieties
and in all stages of growth. All the specimens, from huge coral
heads and branching fans down to the most minute single corals,
were given up to him, the value of the whole being greatly enhanced
by the drawings taken on the spot from the living animals.

To this period belongs also the following fragment of a letter to


[Probably 1852,--date not given.]

. . .What a time has passed since my last letter! Had you not been
constantly in my thoughts, and your counsels always before me as my
guide, I should reproach myself for my silence. I hope my two
papers on the medusae, forwarded this year, have reached you, and
also one upon the classification of insects, as based upon their
development. I have devoted myself especially to the organization
of the invertebrate animals, and to the facts bearing upon the
perfecting of their classification. I have succeeded in tracing the
same identity of structure between the three classes of radiates,
and also between those of mollusks, as has already been recognized
in the vertebrates, and partially in the articulates. It is truly a
pleasure for me now to be able to demonstrate in my lectures the
insensible gradations existing between polyps, medusae, and
echinoderms, and to designate by the same name organs seemingly so
different. Especially has the minute examination of the thickness
of the test in echinoderms revealed to me unexpected relations
between the sea-urchin and the medusa. No one suspects, I fancy, at
this moment, that the solid envelope of the Scutellae and the
Clypeasters is traversed by a net-work of radiating tubes,
corresponding to those of the medusae, so well presented by
Ehrenberg in Aurelia aurita. If the Berlin zoologists will take the
trouble to file off the surface of the test of an Echinarachnius
parma, they will find a circular canal as large and as continuous
as that of the medusae. The aquiferous tubes specified above open
into this canal. But the same thing may be found under various
modifications in other genera of the family. Since I have succeeded
in injecting colored liquid into the beroids, for instance, and
keeping them alive with it circulating in their transparent mass, I
am able to show the identity of their zones of locomotive fringes
(combs), from which they take their name of Ctenophorae, with the
ambulacral (locomotive) apparatus of the echinoderms. Furnished
with these facts, it is not difficult to recognize true beroidal
forms in the embryos of sea-urchins and star-fishes, published by
Muller in his beautiful plates, and thus to trace the medusoid
origin of the echinoderms, as the polypoid origin of the medusae
has already been recognized. I do not here allude to their
primitive origin, but simply to the general fact that among
radiates the embryos of the higher classes represent, in miniature,
types of the lower classes, as, for instance, those of the
echinoderms resemble the medusae, those of the medusae the polyps.
Having passed the greater part of last winter in Florida, where I
was especially occupied in studying the coral reefs, I had the best
opportunity in the world for prosecuting my embryological
researches upon the stony corals. I detected relations among them
which now enable me to determine the classification of these
animals according to their mode of development with greater
completeness than ever before, and even to assign a superior or
inferior rank to their different types, agreeing with their
geological succession, as I have already done for the fishes. I am
on the road to the same results for the mollusks and the
articulates, and can even now say in general terms, that the most
ancient representatives of all the families belonging to these
great groups, strikingly recall the first phases in the embryonic
development of their successors in more recent formations, and even
that the embryos of comparatively recent families recall families
belonging to ancient epochs. You will find some allusion to these
results in my Lectures on Embryology, given in my "Lake Superior,"
of which I have twice sent you a copy, that it might reach you the
more surely; but these first impressions have assumed greater
coherence now, and I constantly find myself recurring to my fossils
for light upon the embryonic forms I am studying and vice versa,
consulting my embryological drawings in order to decipher the
fossils with greater certainty.

The proximity of the sea and the ease with which I can visit any
part of the coast within a range of some twenty degrees give me
inexhaustible resources for the whole year, which, as time goes on,
I turn more and more to the best account. On the other hand, the
abundance and admirable state of preservation of the fossils found
in our ancient deposits, as well as the regular succession of the
beds containing them, contribute admirable material for this kind
of comparative study. . .

In the summer of 1851 Agassiz was invited to a professorship at the
Medical College in Charleston, S.C. This was especially acceptable
to him, because it substituted a regular course of instruction to
students, for the disconnected lectures given to miscellaneous
audiences, in various parts of the country, by which he was obliged
to eke out his small salary and provide for his scientific
expenses. While more fatiguing than class-room work, these
scattered lectures had a less educational value, though, on the
other hand, they awakened a very wide-spread interest in the study
of nature. The strain of constant traveling for this purpose, the
more harassing because so unfavorable to his habits of continuous
work, had already told severely upon his health; and from this
point of view also the new professorship was attractive, as
promising a more quiet, though no less occupied, life. The lectures
were to be given during the three winter months, thus occupying the
interval between his autumn and spring courses at Cambridge.

He assumed his new duties at Charleston in December, 1851, and by
the kindness of his friend Mrs. Rutledge, who offered him the use
of her cottage for the purpose, he soon established a laboratory on
Sullivan's Island, where the two or three assistants he had brought
with him could work conveniently. The cottage stood within hearing
of the wash of the waves, at the head of the long, hard sand beach
which fringed the island shore for some three or four miles. There
could hardly be a more favorable position for a naturalist, and
there, in the midst of their specimens, Agassiz and his band of
workers might constantly be found. His studies here were of the
greater interest to him because they connected themselves with his
previous researches, not only upon the fishes, but also upon the
lower marine animals of the coast of New England and of the Florida
reefs; so that he had now a basis for comparison of the fauna
scattered along the whole Atlantic coast of the United States. The
following letter gives some idea of his work at this time.


CHARLESTON, January 26, 1852.


You should at least know that I think of you often on these shores.
And how could I do otherwise when I daily find new small crustacea,
which remind me of the important work you are now preparing on that

Of course, of the larger ones there is nothing to be found after
Professor Gibbes has gone over the ground, but among the lower
orders there are a great many in store for a microscopic observer.
I have only to regret that I cannot apply myself more steadily. I
find my nervous system so over-excited that any continuous exertion
makes me feverish. So I go about as much as the weather allows, and
gather materials for better times.

Several interesting medusae have been already observed; among
others, the entire metamorphosis and alternate generation of a new
species of my genus tiaropsis. You will be pleased to know that
here, as well as at the North, tiaropsis is the medusa of a
campanularia. Mr. Clark, one of my assistants, has made very good
drawings of all its stages of growth, and of various other hydroid
medusae peculiar to this coast. Mr. Stimpson, another very
promising young naturalist, who has been connected with me for some
time in the same capacity, draws the crustacea and bryozoa, of
which there are also a good many new ones here. My son and my old
friend Burkhardt are also with me (upon Sullivan's Island), and
they look after the larger species, so that I shall probably have
greatly increased my information upon the fauna of the Atlantic
coast by the time I return to Cambridge.

In town, where I go three times a week to deliver lectures at the
Medical College (beside a course just now in the evening also
before a mixed audience), I have the rest of my family, so that
nothing would be wanting to my happiness if my health were only
better. . .What a pity that a man cannot work as much as he would
like; or at least accomplish what he aims at. But no doubt it is
best it should be so; there is no harm in being compelled by
natural necessities to limit our ambition,--on the contrary, the
better sides of our nature are thus not allowed to go to sleep.
However, I cannot but regret that I am unable at this time to trace
more extensively subjects for which I should have ample
opportunities here, as for instance the anatomy of the echinoderms,
and also the embryology of the lower animals in general. . .

This winter, notwithstanding the limitations imposed upon his work
by the state of his health, was a very happy one to Agassiz. As
mentioned in the above letter his wife and daughters had
accompanied him to Charleston, and were established there in
lodgings. Their holidays and occasional vacations were passed at
the house of Dr. John E. Holbrook (the "Hollow Tree"), an
exquisitely pretty and picturesque country place in the
neighborhood of Charleston. Here Agassiz had been received almost
as one of the family on his first visit to Charleston, shortly
after his arrival in the United States. Dr. Holbrook's name, as the
author of the "Herpetology of South Carolina," had long been
familiar to him, and he now found a congenial and affectionate
friend in the colleague and fellow-worker, whose personal
acquaintance he had been anxious to make. Dr. Holbrook's wife, a
direct descendant of John Rutledge of our revolutionary history,
not only shared her husband's intellectual life, but had herself
rare mental qualities, which had been developed by an unusually
complete and efficient education. The wide and various range of her
reading, the accuracy of her knowledge in matters of history and
literature, and the charm of her conversation, made her a
delightful companion. She exercised the most beneficent influence
upon her large circle of young people, and without any effort to
attract, she drew to herself whatever was most bright and clever in
the society about her. The "Hollow Tree," presided over by its
hospitable host and hostess was, therefore, the centre of a
stimulating and cultivated social intercourse, free from all gene
or formality. Here Agassiz and his family spent many happy days
during their southern sojourn of 1852. The woods were yellow with
jessamine, and the low, deep piazza was shut in by vines and roses;
the open windows and the soft air full of sweet, out-of-door
fragrance made one forget, spite of the wood fire on the hearth,
that it was winter by the calendar. The days, passed almost wholly
in the woods or on the veranda, closed with evenings spent not
infrequently in discussions upon the scientific ideas and theories
of the day, carried often beyond the region of demonstrated facts
into that of speculative thought. An ever-recurring topic was that
of the origin of the human race. It was Agassiz's declared belief
that man had sprung not from a common stock, but from various
centres, and that the original circumscription of these primordial
groups of the human family corresponded in a large and general way
with the distribution of animals and their combination into faunae.
* (* See "Sketch of the Natural Provinces of the Animal World and
their Relation to the Different Types of Man" included in Nott &
Gliddon's "Types of Mankind".) His special zoological studies were
too engrossing to allow him to follow this line of investigation
closely, but it was never absent from his view of the animal
kingdom as a whole. He valued extremely Mrs. Holbrook's thoughtful
sympathy, and as the following letter connects itself with the
winter evening talks by the "Hollow Tree" fireside, and was
suggested by them, it may be given here, though in date it is a
little in advance of the present chapter.


CAMBRIDGE, July, 1852.

. . .I am again working at the human races, and have opened another
line of investigation in that direction. The method followed by
former investigators does not seem to me to have been altogether
the best, since there is so little agreement between them. The
difficulty has, no doubt, arisen on one side from the circumstance
that the inquirer sought for evidence of the unity of all races,
expecting the result to agree with the prevailing interpretation of
Genesis; and on the other from too zoological a point of view in
weighing the differences observed. Again, both have almost set
aside all evidence not directly derived from the examination of the
races themselves. It has occurred to me that as a preliminary
inquiry we ought to consider the propriety of applying to man the
same rules as to animals, examining the limits within which they
obtain, and paying due attention to all circumstances bearing upon
the differences observed among men, from whatever quarter in the
study of nature they may be gathered. What do the monkeys say to
this? or, rather, what have they to tell in reference to it? There
are among them as great, and, indeed, even greater, differences
than among men, for they are acknowledged to constitute different
genera, and are referred to many, indeed to more than a hundred,
species; but they are the nearest approach to the human family, and
we may at least derive some hints from them. How much mixture there
is among these species, if any, is not at all ascertained; indeed,
we have not the least information respecting their intercourse; but
one point is certain,--zoologists agree as little among themselves
respecting the limits of these species as they do respecting the
affinities of the races of men. What some consider as distinct
species, others consider as mere varieties, and these varieties or
species differ in particulars neither more constant nor more
important than those which distinguish the human races. The fact
that they are arranged in different genera, species, and varieties
does not lessen the value of the comparison; for the point in
question is just to know whether nations, races, and what have also
been called families of men, such as the Indo-Germanic, the
Semitic, etc., do not in reality correspond to the families,
genera, and species of monkeys. Now the first great subdivisions
among the true monkeys (excluding Makis and Arctopitheci) are
founded upon the form of the nose, those of the new world having a
broad partition between the nostrils, while those of the old world
have it narrow. How curious that this fact, which has been known to
naturalists for half a century, as presenting a leading feature
among monkeys, should have been overlooked in man, when, in
reality, the negroes and Australians differ in precisely the same
manner from the other races; they having a broad partition, and
nostrils opening sideways, like the monkeys of South America, while
the other types of the human family have a narrow partition and
nostrils opening downward, like the monkeys of Asia and Africa.
Again, the minor differences, such as the obliquity of the anterior
teeth, the thickness of the lips, the projection of the
cheek-bones, the position of the eyes, the characteristic hair, or
wool, afford as constant differences as those by which the
chimpanzees, orangs, and gibbons are separated into distinct
genera; and their respective species differ no more than do the
Greeks, Germans, and Arabs,--or the Chinese, Tartars, and Finns,
--or the New Zealanders and Malays, which are respectively referred
to the same race. The truth is, that the different SPECIES admitted
by some among the orangs are in reality RACES among monkeys, or
else the races among men are nothing more than what are called
species among certain monkeys. . .Listen for a moment to the
following facts, and when you read this place a map of the world
before you. Upon a narrow strip of land along the Gulf of Guinea,
from Cape Palmas to the Gaboon, live two so-called species of
chimpanzee; upon the islands of Sumatra and Borneo live three or
four orangs; upon the shores of the Gulf of Bengal, including the
neighborhood of Calcutta, Burmah, Malacca, Sumatra, Borneo, and
Java together, ten or eleven species of gibbons, all of which are
the nearest relatives to the human family, some being as large as
certain races of men; altogether, fifteen species of anthropoid
monkeys playing their part in the animal population of the world
upon an area not equaling by any means the surface of Europe. Some
of these species are limited to Borneo, others to Sumatra, others
to Java alone, others to the peninsula of Malacca; that is to say
to tracts of land similar in extent to Spain, France, Italy, and
even to Ireland; distinct animals, considered by most naturalists
as distinct species, approaching man most closely in structural
eminence and size, limited to areas not larger than Spain or Italy.
Why, then, should not the primitive theatre of a nation of men have
been circumscribed within similar boundaries, and from the
beginning have been as independent as the chimpanzee of Guinea, or
the orangs of Borneo and Sumatra? Of course, the superior powers of
man have enabled him to undertake migrations, but how limited are
these, and how slight the traces they have left behind them. . .
Unfortunately for natural history, history so-called has recorded
more faithfully the doings of handfuls of adventurers than the real
history of the primitive nations with whom the migrating tribes
came into contact. But I hope it will yet be possible to dive under
these waves of migration, to remove, as it were, the trace of their
passage, and to read the true history of the past inhabitants of
the different parts of the world, when it will be found, if all
analogies are not deceptive, that every country equaling in extent
those within the limits of which distinct nationalities are known
to have played their part in history, has had its distinct
aborigines, the character of which it is now the duty of
naturalists to restore, if it be not too late, in the same manner
as paleontologists restore fossil remains. I have already made some
attempts, by studying ancient geography, and I hope the task may
yet be accomplished. . .Look, for instance, at Spain. The Iberians
are known as the first inhabitants, never extending much beyond the
Pyrenees to the Garonne, and along the gulfs of Lyons and Genoa. As
early as during the period of Phoenician prosperity they raised
wool from their native sheep, derived from the Mouflon, still found
wild in Spain, Corsica, and Sardinia; they had a peculiar breed of
horses, to this day differing from all other horses in the world.
Is this not better evidence of their independent origin, than is
the fancied lineage with the Indo-Germanic family of their Oriental
descent? For we must not forget, in connection with this, that the
Basque language was once the language of all Spain, that which the
Iberian spoke, and which has no direct relation to Sanskrit.

I have alluded but slightly to the negro race, and not at all to
the Indians. I would only add with reference to these that I begin
to perceive the possibility of distinguishing different centres of
growth in these two continents. If we leave out of consideration
fancied migrations, what connection can be traced, for instance,
between the Eskimos, along the whole northern districts of this
continent, and the Indians of the United States, those of Mexico,
those of Peru, and those of Brazil? Is there any real connection
between the coast tribes of the northwest coast, the mound
builders, the Aztec civilization, the Inca, and the Gueranis? It
seems to me no more than between the Assyrian and Egyptian
civilization. And as to negroes, there is, perhaps, a still greater
difference between those of Senegal, of Guinea, and the Caffres and
Hottentots, when compared with the Gallahs and Mandingoes. But
where is the time to be taken for the necessary investigations
involved in these inquiries? Pray write to me soon what you say to
all this, and believe me always your true friend,


In the spring of 1852, while still in Charleston, Agassiz heard
that the Prix Cuvier, now given for the first time, was awarded to
him for the "Poissons Fossiles." This gratified him the more
because the work had been so directly bequeathed to him by Cuvier
himself. To his mother, through whom he received the news in
advance of the official papers, it also gave great pleasure. "Your
fossil fishes," she says, "which have cost you so much anxiety, so
much toil, so many sacrifices, have now been estimated at their
true value by the most eminent judges. . .This has given me such
happiness, dear Louis, that the tears are in my eyes as I write it
to you." She had followed the difficulties of his task too closely
not to share also its success.


1852-1855: AGE 45-48.

Return to Cambridge.
Anxiety about Collections.
Purchase of Collections.
Second Winter in Charleston.
Letter to James D. Dana concerning Geographical Distribution
and Geological Succession of Animals.
Resignation of Charleston Professorship.
Propositions from Zurich.
Letter to Oswald Heer.
Decision to remain in Cambridge.
Letters to James D. Dana, S.S. Haldeman, and Others respecting
Collections illustrative of the Distribution of Fishes, Shells,
etc., in our Rivers.
Establishment of School for Girls.

Agassiz returned from Charleston to Cambridge in the early spring,
pausing in Washington to deliver a course of lectures before the
Smithsonian Institution. By this time he had become intimate with
Professor Henry, at whose hospitable house he and his family were
staying during their visit at Washington. He had the warmest
sympathy not only with Professor Henry's scientific work and
character, but also with his views regarding the Smithsonian
Institution, of which he had become the Superintendent shortly
after Agassiz arrived in this country. Agassiz himself was soon
appointed one of the Regents of the Institution and remained upon
the Board until his death.

Agassiz now began to feel an increased anxiety about his
collections. During the six years of his stay in the United States
he had explored the whole Atlantic sea-board as well as the lake
and river system of the Eastern and Middle States, and had amassed
such materials in natural history as already gave his collections,
in certain departments at least, a marked importance. In the lower
animals, and as illustrating the embryology of the marine
invertebrates, they were especially valuable. It had long been a
favorite idea with him to build up an embryological department in
his prospective museum; the more so because such a provision on any
large scale had never been included in the plan of the great
zoological institutions, and he believed it would have a direct and
powerful influence on the progress of modern science. The
collections now in his possession included ample means for this
kind of research, beside a fair representation of almost all
classes of the animal kingdom. Packed together, however, in the
narrowest quarters, they were hardly within his own reach, much
less could they be made available for others. His own resources
were strained to the utmost, merely to save these precious
materials from destruction. It is true that in 1850 the sum of four
hundred dollars, to be renewed annually, was allowed him by the
University for their preservation, and a barrack-like wooden
building on the college grounds, far preferable to the bath-house
by the river, was provided for their storage. But the cost of
keeping them was counted by thousands, not by hundreds, and the
greater part of what Agassiz could make by his lectures outside of
Cambridge was swallowed up in this way. It was, perhaps, the
knowledge of this which induced certain friends, interested in him
and in science, to subscribe twelve thousand dollars for the
purchase of his collections, to be thus permanently secured to
Cambridge. This gave him back, in part, the sum he had already
spent upon them, and which he was more than ready to spend again in
their maintenance and increase.

The next year showed that his over-burdened life was beginning to
tell upon his health. Scarcely had he arrived in Charleston and
begun his course at the Medical College when he was attacked by a
violent fever, and his life was in danger for many days.
Fortunately for him his illness occurred at the "Hollow Tree,"
where he was passing the Christmas holidays. Dr. and Mrs. Holbrook
were like a brother and sister to him, and nothing could exceed the
kindness he received under their roof. One young friend who had
been his pupil, and to whom he was much attached, Dr. St. Julian
Ravenel, was constantly at his bedside. His care was invaluable,
for he combined the qualities of physician and nurse. Under such
watchful tending, Agassiz could hardly fail to mend if cure were
humanly possible. The solicitude of these nearer friends seemed to
be shared by the whole community, and his recovery gave general
relief. He was able to resume his lectures toward the end of
February. Spite of the languor of convalescence his elastic mind
was at once ready for work, as may be seen by the following extract
from one of his first letters.



. . .It seems, indeed, to me as if in the study of the geographical
distribution of animals the present condition of the animal kingdom
was too exclusively taken into consideration. Whenever it can be
done, and I hope before long it may be done for all classes, it
will be desirable to take into account the relations of the living
to the fossil species. Since you are as fully satisfied as I am
that the location of animals, with all their peculiarities, is not
the result of physical influences, but lies within the plans and
intentions of the Creator, it must be obvious that the successive
introduction of all the diversity of forms which have existed from
the first appearance of any given division of the animal kingdom up
to the present creation, must have reference to the location of
those now in existence. For instance, if it be true among mammalia
that the highest types, such as quadrumana, are essentially
tropical, may it not be that the prevailing distribution of the
inferior pachyderms within the same geographical limits is owing to
the circumstance that their type was introduced upon earth during a
warmer period in the history of our globe, and that their present
location is in accordance with that fact, rather than related to
their degree of organization? The pentacrinites, the lowest of the
echinoderms, have only one living representative in tropical
America, where we find at the same time the highest and largest
spatangi and holothuridae. Is this not quite a parallel case with
the monkeys and pachyderms? for once crinoids were the only
representatives of the class of echinoderms. May we not say the
same of crocodiles when compared with the ancient gigantic
saurians? or are the crocodiles, as an order, distinct from the
other saurians, and really higher than the turtles? Innumerable
questions of this kind, of great importance for zoology, are
suggested at every step, as soon as we compare the present
distribution of animals with that of the inhabitants of former
geological periods. Among crustacea, it is very remarkable that
trilobites and limulus-like forms are the only representatives of
the class during the paleozoic ages; that macrourans prevailed in
the same manner during the secondary period; and that brachyurans
make their appearance only in the tertiary period. Do you discover
in your results any connection between such facts and the present
distribution of crustacea? There is certainly one feature in their
classification which must appear very striking,--that, taken on a
large scale, the organic rank of these animals agrees in the main
with their order of succession in geological times; and this fact
is of no small importance when it is found that the same
correspondence between rank and succession obtains through all
classes of the animal kingdom, and that similar features are
displayed in the embryonic growth of all types so far as now known.

But I feel my head is growing dull, and I will stop here. Let me
conclude by congratulating you on having completed your great work
on crustacea. . .

Agassiz returned to the North in the spring of 1853 by way of the
Mississippi, stopping to lecture at Mobile, New Orleans, and St.
Louis. On leaving Charleston he proffered his resignation with deep
regret, for, beside the close personal ties he had formed, he was
attached to the place, the people, and to his work there. He had
hoped to establish a permanent station for sustained observations
in South Carolina, and thus to carry on a series of researches
which, taken in connection with his studies on the New England
coast and its vicinity, and on the Florida reefs and shores, would
afford a wide field of comparison. This was not to be, however. The
Medical College refused, indeed, to accept his resignation,
granting him, at the same time, a year of absence. But it soon
became evident that his health was seriously shaken, and that he
needed the tonic of the northern winter. He was, indeed, never
afterward as strong as he had been before this illness.

The winter of 1854 was passed in Cambridge with such quiet and rest
as the conditions of his life would allow. In May of that year he
received an invitation to the recently established University of
Zurich, in Switzerland. His acceptance was urged upon the ground of
patriotism as well as on that of a liberal endowment both for the
professor, and for the museum of which he was to have charge. The
offer was tempting, but Agassiz was in love (the word is not too
strong) with the work he had undertaken and the hopes he had formed
in America. He believed that by his own efforts, combined with the
enthusiasm for science which he had aroused and constantly strove
to keep alive and foster in the community, he should at last
succeed in founding a museum after his own heart in the United
States,--a museum which should not be a mere accumulation, however
vast or extensive, of objects of natural history, but should have a
well-combined and clearly expressed educational value. As we shall
see, neither the associations of his early life nor the most
tempting scientific prizes in the gift of the old world could
divert him from this settled purpose. The proposition from Zurich
was not official, but came through a friend and colleague, for whom
he had the deepest sympathy and admiration,--Oswald Heer. To work
in his immediate neighborhood would have been in itself a


CAMBRIDGE, January 9, 1855.


How shall I make you understand why your kind letter, though it
reached me some months ago, has remained till now unanswered. It
concerns a decision of vital importance to my whole life, and in
such a case one must not decide hastily, nor even with too
exclusive regard for one's own preference in the matter. You cannot
doubt that the thought of joining an institution of my native
country, and thus helping to stimulate scientific progress in the
land of my birth, my home, and my early friends, appeals to all I
hold dear and honorable in life. On the other side I have now been
eight years in America, have learned to understand the advantages
of my position here, and have begun undertakings which are not yet
brought to a conclusion. I am aware also how wide an influence I
already exert upon this land of the future,--an influence which
gains in extent and intensity with every year,--so that it becomes
very difficult for me to discern clearly where I can be most useful
to science. Among my privileges I must not overlook that of passing
much of my time on the immediate sea-shore, where the resources for
the zoologist and embryologist are inexhaustible. I have now a
house distant only a few steps from an admirable locality for these
studies, and can therefore pursue them uninterruptedly throughout
the whole year, instead of being limited, like most naturalists, to
the short summer vacations. It is true I miss the larger museums,
libraries, etc., as well as the stimulus to be derived from
association with a number of like-minded co-workers, all striving
toward the same end. With every year, however, the number of able
and influential investigators increases here, and among them are
some who might justly claim a prominent place anywhere. . .

Neither are means for publication lacking. The larger treatises
with costly illustrations appear in the Smithsonian Contributions,
in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, in those
of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and in the Memoirs of the
American Academy; while the smaller communications find a place in
Silliman's Journal, in the Journal of the Boston Natural History
Society, and in the proceedings of other scientific societies.
Museums also are already founded;. . .and beside these there are a
number of private collections in single departments of zoology. . .
Better than all this, however, is the lively and general interest
taken in the exploration of the country itself. Every scientific
expedition sent out by the government to the interior, or to the
Western States of Oregon and California, is accompanied by a
scientific commission,--zoologists, geologists, and botanists. By
this means magnificent collections, awaiting only able
investigators to work them up, have been brought together. Indeed,
I do not believe that as many new things are accumulated anywhere
as just here, and it is my hope to contribute hereafter to the more
critical and careful examination of these treasures. Under these
circumstances I have asked myself for months past how I ought to
decide; not what were my inclinations, for that is not the
question,--but what was my duty toward science? After the most
careful consideration I am no longer in doubt, and though it
grieves me to do so, I write to beg that you will withdraw from any
action which might bring me a direct call to the professorship in
Zurich. I have decided to remain here for an indefinite time, under
the conviction that I shall exert a more advantageous and more
extensive influence on the progress of science in this country than
in Europe.

I regret that I cannot accept your offer of the Oeningen fossils.
In the last two years I have spent more than 20,000 francs on my
collection, and must not incur any farther expense of that kind at
present. As soon, however, as I have new means at my command such a
collection would be most welcome, and should it remain in your
hands I may be very glad to take it. Neither can I make any
exchange of duplicates just now, as I have not yet been able to
sort my collections and set aside the specimens which may be
considered only as materials for exchange. Can you procure for me
Glarus fishes in any considerable number? I should like to purchase
them for my collection, and do not care for single specimens of
every species, but would prefer whole suites that I may revise my
former identifications in the light of a larger insight.

Remember me kindly to all my Zurich friends, and especially to
Arnold Escher. . .

Agassiz's increasing and at last wholly unmanageable correspondence
attests the general sympathy for and cooperation with his
scientific aims in the United States. In 1853, for instance, he had
issued a circular, asking for collections of fishes from various
fresh-water systems of the United States, in order that he might
obtain certain data respecting the laws of their distribution and
localization. To this he had hundreds of answers coming from all
parts of the country, many of them very shrewd and observing,
giving facts respecting the habits of fishes, as well as concerning
their habitat, and offering aid in the general object. Nor were
these empty promises. A great number and variety of collections,
now making part of the ichthyological treasures of the Museum at
Cambridge, were forwarded to him in answer to this appeal. Indeed,
he now began to reap, in a new form, the harvest of his wandering
lecture tours. In this part of his American experience he had come
into contact with all classes of people, and had found some of his
most intelligent and sympathetic listeners in the working class.
Now that he needed their assistance he often found his co-laborers
among farmers, stock-raisers, sea-faring men, fishermen, and
sailors. Many a New England captain, when he started on a cruise,
had on board collecting cans, furnished by Agassiz, to be filled in
distant ports or nearer home, as the case might be, and returned to
the Museum at Cambridge. One or two letters, written to scientific
friends at the time the above-mentioned circular was issued, will
give an idea of the way in which Agassiz laid out such


CAMBRIDGE, July 8, 1853.

. . .I have been lately devising some method of learning how far
animals are truly autochthones, and how far they have extended
their primitive boundaries. I will attempt to test that question
with Long Island, the largest of all the islands along our coast.
For this purpose I will for the present limit myself to the
fresh-water fishes and shells, and for the sake of comparison I
will try to collect carefully all the species living in the rivers
of Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, and see whether they are
identical with those of the island. Whatever may come out of such
an investigation it will, at all events, furnish interesting data
upon the local distribution of the species. . .I am almost
confident that it will lead to something interesting, for there is
one feature of importance in the case; the present surface of Long
Island is not older than the drift period; all its inhabitants
must, therefore, have been introduced since that time. I shall see
that I obtain similar collections from the upper course of the
Connecticut, so as to ascertain whether there, as in the
Mississippi, the species differ at different heights of the river
basin. . .


CAMBRIDGE, July 9, 1853.

. . .While ascending the great Mississippi last spring I was struck
with the remarkable fact that the fishes differ essentially in the
different parts of that long water-course,--a fact I had already
noticed in the Rhine, Rhone, and Danube, though there the
difference arises chiefly from the occurrence, in the higher Alpine
regions, of representatives of the trout family which are not found
in the main river course. In the Mississippi, however, the case is
otherwise and very striking, inasmuch as we find here, at separate
latitudes, distinct species of the same genera, somewhat like the
differences observed in distinct water-basins; and yet the river is
ever flowing on past these animals, which remain, as it were,
spell-bound to the regions most genial to them. The question at
once arises, do our smaller rivers present similar differences? I
have already taken steps to obtain complete collections of fishes,
shells, and crayfishes from various stations on the Connecticut and
the Hudson, and their tributaries; and I should be very happy if I
could include the Susquehanna, Delaware, and Ohio in my
comparisons. My object in writing now is to inquire whether you
could assist me in making separate collections, as complete as
possible, of all these animals from the north and west branches of
the Susquehanna, from the main river either at Harrisburg or
Columbia, and from the Juniata, also from the Schuylkill, Lehigh,
and Delaware, and from the Allegheny and Monongahela. I have Swiss
friends in the State of New York who have promised me to collect
the fishes from the head-waters of the Delaware and Susquehanna
within the limits of the State of New York. I cannot, of course,
expect you to survey your State for me, but among your acquaintance
in various parts of your State are there not those who, with proper
directions, could do the work for me? I would, of course, gladly
repay all their expenses. The subject seems to me so important as
to justify any effort in that direction. Little may be added to the
knowledge of the fishes themselves, for I suppose most of the
species have been described either by De Kay, Kirtland, or Storer;
but a careful study of their special geographical distribution may
furnish results as important to zoology as the knowledge of the
species themselves. If you cannot write yourself, will you give me
the names of such persons as might be persuaded to aid in the
matter. I know from your own observations in former times that you
have already collected similar facts for the Unios, so that you
will at once understand and appreciate my object. . .

He writes in the same strain and for the same object to Professor
Yandell, of Kentucky, adding: "In this respect the State of
Kentucky is one of the most important of the Union, not only on
account of the many rivers which pass through its territory, but
also because it is one of the few States the fishes of which have
been described by former observers, especially by Rafinesque in his
"Ichthyologia Ohioensis," so that a special knowledge of all his
original types is a matter of primary importance for any one who
would compare the fishes of the different rivers of the West. . .Do
you know whether there is anything left of Rafinesque's collection
of fishes in Lexington, and if so, whether the specimens are
labeled, as it would be very important to identify his species from
his own collection and his own labels? I never regretted more than
now that circumstances have not yet allowed me to visit your State
and make a stay in Louisville."

In 1854 Agassiz moved to a larger house, built for him by the
college. Though very simple, it was on a liberal scale with respect
to space; partly in order to accommodate his library, consisting of
several thousand volumes, now for the first time collected and
arranged in one room. He became very fond of this Cambridge home,
where, with few absences, he spent the remainder of his life. The
architect, Mr. Henry Greenough, was his personal friend, and from
the beginning the house adapted itself with a kindly readiness to
whatever plans developed under its roof. As will be seen, these
were not few, and were sometimes of considerable moment. For his
work also the house was extremely convenient. His habits in this
respect were, however, singularly independent of place and
circumstance. Unlike most studious men, he had no fixed spot in the
house for writing. Although the library, with the usual outfit of
well-filled shelves, maps, large tables, etc., held his materials,
he brought what he needed for the evening by preference to the
drawing-room, and there, with his paper on his knee, and his books
for reference on a chair beside him, he wrote and read as busily as
if he were quite alone. Sometimes when dancing and music were going
on among the young people of the family and their guests, he drew a
little table into the corner of the room, and continued his
occupations as undisturbed and engrossed as if he had been in
complete solitude,--only looking up from time to time with a
pleased smile or an apt remark, which showed that he did not lose
but rather enjoyed what was going on about him.

His children's friends were his friends. As his daughters grew up,
he had the habit of inviting their more intimate companions to his
library for an afternoon weekly. On these occasions there was
always some subject connected with the study of nature under
discussion, but the talk was so easy and so fully illustrated that
it did not seem like a lesson. It is pleasant to remember that in
later years Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson revived this custom for his own
daughters; and their friends (being, indeed, with few changes, the
same set of young people as had formerly met in Agassiz's library)
used to meet in Mr. Emerson's study at Concord for a similar
object. He talked to them of poetry and literature and philosophy
as Agassiz had talked to them of nature. Those were golden days,
not to be forgotten by any who shared their happy privilege.

In the winter of 1855 Agassiz endeavored to resume his public
lectures as a means of increasing his resources. He was again,
however, much exhausted when spring came, and it seemed necessary
to seek some other means of support, for without considering
scientific expenses, his salary of fifteen hundred dollars did not
suffice for the maintenance of his family. Under these
circumstances it occurred to his wife and his two older children,
now of an age to assist her in such a scheme, that a school for
young ladies might be established in the upper part of the new and
larger house. By the removal of one or two partitions, ample room
could be obtained for the accommodation of a sufficient number of
pupils, and if successful such a school would perhaps make good in
a pecuniary sense the lecturing tours which were not only a great
fatigue to Agassiz, but an interruption also to all consecutive
scientific work. In consultation with friends these plans were
partly matured before they were confided to Agassiz himself. When
the domestic conspirators revealed their plot, his surprise and
pleasure knew no bounds. The first idea had been simply to
establish a private school on the usual plan, only referring to his
greater experience for advice and direction in its general
organization. But he claimed at once an active share in the work.
Under his inspiring influence the outline enlarged, and when the
circular announcing the school was issued, it appeared under his
name, and contained these words in addition to the programme of
studies: "I shall myself superintend the methods of instruction and
tuition, and while maintaining that regularity and precision in the
studies so important to mental training shall endeavor to prevent
the necessary discipline from falling into a lifeless routine,
alike deadening to the spirit of teacher and pupil. It is farther
my intention to take the immediate charge of the instruction in
Physical Geography, Natural History, and Botany, giving a lecture
daily, Saturdays excepted, on one or other of these subjects,
illustrated by specimens, models, maps, and drawings."

In order not to interrupt the course of the narrative, the history
of this undertaking in its sequence and general bearing on his life
and work may be completed here in a few words. This school secured
to him many happy and comparatively tranquil years. It enabled him
to meet both domestic and scientific expenses, and to pay the heavy
debt he had brought from Europe as the penalty of his "Fossil
Fishes" and his investigations on the glaciers. When the school
closed after eight years he was again a free man. With an increased
salary from the college, and with such provision for the Museum
(thanks to the generosity of the State and of individuals) as
rendered it in a great degree independent, he was never again
involved in the pecuniary anxieties of his earlier career. The
occupation of teaching was so congenial to him that his part in the
instruction of the school did not at any time weigh heavily upon
him. He never had an audience more responsive and more eager to
learn than the sixty or seventy girls who gathered every day at the
close of the morning to hear his daily lecture; nor did he ever
give to any audience lectures more carefully prepared, more
comprehensive in their range of subjects, more lofty in their tone
of thought. As a teacher he always discriminated between the
special student, and the one to whom he cared to impart only such a
knowledge of the facts of nature, as would make the world at least
partially intelligible to him. To a school of young girls he did
not think of teaching technical science, and yet the subjects of
his lectures comprised very abstruse and comprehensive questions.
It was the simplicity and clearness of his method which made them
so interesting to his young listeners. "What I wish for you," he
would say, "is a culture that is alive, active, susceptible of
farther development. Do not think that I care to teach you this or
the other special science. My instruction is only intended to show
you the thoughts in nature which science reveals, and the facts I
give you are useful only, or chiefly, for this object."

Running over the titles of his courses during several consecutive
years of this school instruction they read: Physical Geography and
Paleontology; Zoology; Botany; Coral Reefs; Glaciers; Structure and
Formation of Mountains; Geographical Distribution of Animals;
Geological Succession of Animals; Growth and Development of
Animals; Philosophy of Nature, etc. With the help of drawings,
maps, bas-reliefs, specimens, and countless illustrations on the
blackboard, these subjects were made clear to the pupils, and the
lecture hour was anticipated as the brightest of the whole morning.
It soon became a habit with friends and neighbors, and especially
with the mothers of the scholars, to drop in for the lectures, and
thus the school audience was increased by a small circle of older
listeners. The corps of teachers was also gradually enlarged. The
neighborhood of the university was a great advantage in this
respect, and Agassiz had the cooperation not only of his
brother-in-law, Professor Felton, but of others among his
colleagues, who took classes in special departments, or gave
lectures in history and literature.

This school opened in 1855 and closed in 1863. The civil war then
engrossed all thoughts, and interfered somewhat also with the
success of private undertakings. Partly on this account, partly
also because it had ceased to be a pecuniary necessity, it seemed
wise to give up the school at this time. The friendly relations
formed there did not, however, cease with it. For years afterward
on the last Thursday of June (the day of the annual closing of the
school) a meeting of the old pupils was held at the Museum, which
did not exist when the school began, but was fully established
before its close. There Agassiz showed them the progress of his
scientific work, told them of his future plans for the institution,
and closed with a lecture such as he used to give them in their
school-days. The last of these meetings took place in 1873, the
last year of his own life. The memory of it is connected with a
gift to the Museum of four thousand and fifty dollars from a number
of the scholars, now no longer girls, but women with their own
cares and responsibilities. Hearing that there was especial need of
means for the care of the more recent collections, they had
subscribed this sum among themselves to express their affection for
their old teacher, as well as their interest in his work, and in
the institution he had founded. His letter of acknowledgment to the
one among them who had acted as their treasurer makes a fitting
close to this chapter.

. . .Hardly anything in my life has touched me more deeply than the
gift I received this week from my school-girls. From no source in
the world could sympathy be more genial to me. The money I shall
appropriate to a long-cherished scheme of mine, a special work in
the Museum which must be exclusively my own,--the arrangement of a
special collection illustrating in a nutshell, as it were, all the
relations existing among animals,--which I have deferred because
other things were more pressing, and our means have been
insufficient. The feeling that you are all working with me will be
even more cheering than the material help, much needed as that is.
I wish I could write to each individually. I shall try to find some
means of expressing my thanks more widely. Meantime I write to you
as treasurer, and beg you, as far as you can do so without too much
trouble, to express my gratitude to others. Will you also say to
those whom you chance to meet that I shall be at the Museum on the
last Thursday of June, at half-past eleven o'clock. I shall be
delighted to see all to whom it is convenient to come. The Museum
has grown not only in magnitude, but in scientific significance,
and I like from time to time to give you an account of its
progress, and of my own work and aims. How much thought and care
and effort this kind plan of yours must have involved, scattered as
you all are! It cannot have been easy to collect the names and
addresses of all those whose signatures it was delightful to me to
see again. Words seem to me very poor, but you will accept for
yourself and your school-mates the warm thanks and affectionate
regards of your old friend and teacher.



1855-1860: AGE 48-53.

"Contributions to Natural History of the United States."
Remarkable Subscription.
Review of the Work.
Its Reception in Europe and America.
Letters from Humboldt and Owen concerning it.
Longfellow's Verses.
Laboratory at Nahant.
Invitation to the Museum of Natural History in Paris.
Founding of Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge.
Summer Vacation in Europe.

A few months earlier than the school circular Agassiz issued
another prospectus, which had an even more important bearing upon
his future work. This was the prospectus for his "Contributions to
the Natural History of the United States." It was originally
planned in ten volumes, every volume to be, however, absolutely
independent, so that the completeness of each part should not be
impaired by any possible interruption of the sequence. The mass of
original material accumulated upon his hands ever since his arrival
in America made such a publication almost imperative, but the
costliness of a large illustrated work deterred him. The "Poissons
Fossiles" had shown him the peril of entering upon such an
enterprise without capital. Perhaps he would never have dared to
undertake it but for a friendly suggestion which opened a way out
of his perplexities. Mr. Francis C. Gray, of Boston, who felt not
only the interest of a personal friend in the matter, but also that
of one who was himself a lover of letters and science, proposed an
appeal to the public spirit of the country in behalf of a work
devoted entirely to the Natural History of the United States. Mr.
Gray assumed the direction of the business details, set the
subscription afloat, stimulated its success by his own liberal
contributions, by letters, by private and public appeals. The
result far exceeded the most sanguine expectations of those
interested in its success. Indeed, considering the purely
scientific character of the work, the number of subscribers for it
was extraordinary, and showed again the hold Agassiz had taken upon
the minds and affections of the people in general. The contributors
were by no means confined to Boston and Cambridge, although the
Massachusetts list was naturally the largest, nor were they found
exclusively among literary and scientific circles. On the contrary,
the subscription list, to the astonishment of the publishers, was
increased daily by unsolicited names, sent in from all sections of
the country, and from various grades of life and occupation. In
reference to the character of this subscription Agassiz says in his
Preface: "I must beg my European readers to remember that this work
is written in America, and more especially for Americans; and that
the community to which it is particularly addressed has very
different wants from those of the reading public in Europe. There
is not a class of learned men here distinct from the other
cultivated members of the community. On the contrary, so general is
the desire for knowledge, that I expect to see my book read by
operatives, by fishermen, by farmers, quite as extensively as by
the students in our colleges or by the learned professions, and it
is but proper that I should endeavor to make myself understood by
all." If Agassiz, perhaps, overestimated in this statement the
appreciation of the reading public in the United States for pure
scientific research, it was because the number and variety of his
subscribers gave evidence of a cordiality toward his work which
surprised as much as it gratified him. On the list there were also
some of his old European subscribers to the "Poissons Fossiles,"
among them the King of Prussia, who still continued, under the
influence of Humboldt, to feel an interest in his work.


September 1, 1856.

. . .I hear that by some untoward circumstances, no doubt
accidental, you have never received, my dear Agassiz, the letter
expressing the pleasure which I share with all true lovers of
science respecting your important undertaking, "Contributions to
the Natural History of the United States." You must have been
astonished at my silence, remembering, not only the affectionate
relations we have held to each other ever since your first sojourn
at Paris, but also the admiration I have never ceased to feel for
the great and solid works which we owe to your sagacious mind and
your incomparable intellectual energy. . .I approve especially the
general conceptions which lie at the base of the plan you have
traced. I admire the long series of physiological investigations,
beginning with the embryology of the so-called simple and lower
organisms and ascending by degrees to the more complicated. I
admire that ever-renewed comparison of the types belonging to our
planet, in its present condition, with those now found only in a
fossil state, so abundant in the immense space lying between the
shores opposite to northern Europe and northern Asia. The
geographical distribution of organic forms in curves of equal
density of occupation represents in great degree the inflexions of
the isothermal lines. . .I am charged by the king, who knows the
value of your older works, and who still feels for you the
affectionate regard which he formerly expressed in person, to
request that you will place his name at the head of your long list
of subscribers. He wishes that an excursion across the Atlantic
valley may one day bring you, who have so courageously braved
Alpine summits, to the historic hill of Sans Souci. . .

Something of Agassiz's astonishment and pleasure at the
encouragement given to his projected work is told in his letters.
To his old friend Professor Valenciennes, in Paris, he writes: "I
have just had an evidence of what one may do here in the interest
of science. Some six months ago I formed a plan for the publication
of my researches in America, and determined to carry it out with
all possible care and beauty of finish. I estimated my materials at
ten volumes, quarto, and having fixed the price at 60 francs (12
dollars) a volume, thought I might, perhaps, dispose of five
hundred. I brought out my prospectus, and I have to-day seventeen
hundred subscribers. What do you say to that for a work which is to
cost six hundred francs a copy, and of which nothing has as yet
appeared? Nor is the list closed yet, for every day I receive new
subscriptions,--this very morning one from California! Where will
not the love of science find its niche!". . .

In the same strain he says, at a little later date, to Sir Charles
Lyell: "You will, no doubt, be pleased to learn that the first
volume of my new work, 'Contributions to the Natural History of the
United States,' which is to consist of ten volumes, quarto, is now
printing, to come out this summer. I hope it will show that I have
not been idle during ten years' silence. I am somewhat anxious
about the reception of my first chapter, headed, 'Classification,'
which contains anything but what zoologists would generally expect
under that head. The subscription is marvelous. Conceive twenty-one
hundred names before the appearance of the first pages of a work
costing one hundred and twenty dollars! It places in my hands the
means of doing henceforth for Natural History what I had never
dreamed of before.". . .

This work, as originally planned, was never completed. It was cut
short by ill-health and by the pressure of engagements arising from
the rapid development of the great Museum, which finally became, as
will be seen, the absorbing interest of his life. As it stands, the
"Contributions to the Natural History of the United States"
consists of four large quarto volumes. The first two are divided
into three parts, namely: 1st. An Essay on Classification. 2nd. The
North American Testudinata. 3rd. The Embryology of the Turtle,--the
latter two being illustrated by thirty-four plates. The third and
fourth volumes are devoted to the Radiata, and consist of five
parts, namely: 1st. Acalephs in general. 2nd. Ctenophorae. 3rd.
Discophorae. 4th. Hydroida. 5th. Homologies of the Radiates,
--illustrated by forty-six plates.* (* The plates are of rare
accuracy and beauty, and were chiefly drawn by A. Sonrel, though
many of the microscopic drawings were made by Professor H.J. Clark,
who was at that time Agassiz's private assistant. For details
respecting Professor Clark's share in this work, and also
concerning the aid of various kinds furnished to the author during
its preparation, the reader is referred to the Preface of the
volumes themselves.)

For originality of material, clearness of presentation, and beauty
of illustration, these volumes have had their full recognition as
models of scientific work. Their philosophy was, perhaps, too much
out of harmony with the current theories of the day to be
acceptable. In the "Essay on Classification" especially, Agassiz
brought out with renewed earnestness his conviction that the animal
world rests upon certain abstract conceptions, persistent and
indestructible. He insists that while physical influences maintain,
and within certain limits modify, organisms, they have never
affected typical structure,--those characters, namely, upon which
the great groups of the animal kingdom are united. From his point
of view, therefore, what environment can do serves to emphasize
what it cannot do. For the argument on which these conclusions are
based we refer to the book itself. The discussion of this question
occupies, however, only the first portion of the volume, two thirds
of which are devoted to a general consideration of classification,
and the ideas which it embodies, with a review of the modern
systems of zoology.

The following letter was one of many in the same tone received from
his European correspondents concerning this work.


December 9, 1857.

. . .I cannot permit a day to elapse without thanking you for the
two volumes of your great work on American zoology, which, from
your masterly and exhaustive style of treatment, becomes the most
important contribution to the right progress of zoological science
in all parts of the world where progress permits its cultivation.
It is worthy of the author of the classical work on fossil fishes;
and such works, like the Cyclopean structures of antiquity, are
built to endure. I feel and I beg to express a fervent hope that
you may be spared in health and vigor to see the completion of your
great plan.

I have placed in Mr. Trubner's hands a set of the numbers (6) of my
"History of British Fossil Reptiles," which have already appeared;
a seventh will soon be out, and as they will be sent to you in
succession I hope you will permit me to make a small and inadequate
return for your liberality in the gift of your work by adding your
name to the list of my subscribers. . .

Believe me always truly yours,


Agassiz had promised himself that the first volume of his new work
should be finished in time for his fiftieth birthday,--a milestone
along the road, as it were, to mark his half century. Upon this
self-appointed task he spent himself with the passion dominated by
patience, which characterized him when his whole heart was bent
toward an end. For weeks he wrote many hours of the day and a great
part of the night, going out sometimes into the darkness and the
open air to cool the fever of work, and then returning to his desk
again. He felt himself that the excitement was too great, and in
proportion to the strain was the relief when he set the seal of
finis on his last page within the appointed time.

His special students, young men who fully shared his scientific
life and rewarded his generosity by an affectionate devotion,
knowing, perhaps, that he himself associated the completion of his
book with his birthday, celebrated both events by a serenade on the
eve of his anniversary. They took into their confidence Mr. Otto
Dresel, warmly valued by Agassiz both as friend and musician, and
he arranged their midnight programme for them. Always sure of
finding their professor awake and at work at that hour, they
stationed the musicians before the house, and as the last stroke of
twelve sounded, the succeeding stillness was broken by men's voices
singing a Bach choral. When Agassiz stepped out to see whence came
this pleasant salutation, he was met by his young friends bringing
flowers and congratulations. Then followed one number after another
of the well-ordered selection, into which was admitted here and
there a German student song in memory of Agassiz's own university
life at Heidelberg and Munich. It was late, or rather early, since
the new day was already begun, before the little concert was over
and the guests had dispersed. It is difficult to reproduce with
anything like its original glow and coloring a scene of this kind.
It will no more be called back than the hour or the moonlight night
which had the warmth and softness of June. It is recorded here only
because it illustrates the intimate personal sympathy between
Agassiz and his students.

For this occasion also were written the well-known birthday verses
by Longfellow, which were read the next day at a dinner given to
Agassiz by the "Saturday Club." In speaking of Longfellow's
relation to this club, Holmes says "On one occasion he read a short
poem at the table. It was in honor of Agassiz's birthday, and I
cannot forget the very modest, delicate musical way in which he
read his charming verses." Although included in many collections of
Longfellow's Poems, they are reproduced here, because the story
seems incomplete without them.


It was fifty years ago,
In the pleasant month of May,
In the beautiful Pays de Vaud,
A child in its cradle lay.

And Nature, the old nurse, took
The child upon her knee,
Saying: "Here is a story-book
Thy Father has written for thee."

"Come wander with me," she said,
"Into regions yet untrod;
And read what is still unread
In the manuscripts of God."

And he wandered away and away
With Nature, the dear old nurse,
Who sang to him night and day
The rhymes of the universe.

And whenever the way seemed long,
Or his heart began to fail,
She would sing a more wonderful song,
Or tell a more marvelous tale.

So she keeps him still a child,
And will not let him go,
Though at times his heart beats wild
For the beautiful Pays de Vaud;

Though at times he hears in his dreams
The Ranz des Vaches of old,
And the rush of mountain streams
From glaciers clear and cold;

And the mother at home says, "Hark!
For his voice I listen and yearn;
It is growing late and dark,
And my boy does not return!"

May 28, 1857.

Longfellow had an exquisite touch for occasions of this kind,
whether serious or mirthful. Once, when some years after this
Agassiz was keeping Christmas Eve with his children and
grandchildren, there arrived a basket of wine containing six old
bottles of rare vintage. They introduced themselves in a charming
French "Noel" as pilgrims from beyond the sea who came to give
Christmas greeting to the master of the house. Gay pilgrims were
these six "gaillards," and they were accompanied by the following

"A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all the house of Agassiz!

"I send also six good wishes in the shape of bottles. Or is it

"It is both; good wine and good wishes, and kind memories of you on
this Christmas Eve."


An additional word about the "Saturday Club," the fame of which has
spread beyond the city of its origin, may not be amiss here.
Notwithstanding his close habits of work Agassiz was eminently
social, and to this club he was especially attached. Dr. Holmes
says of it in his volume on Emerson, who was one of its most
constant members: "At one end of the table sat Longfellow, florid,
quiet, benignant, soft-voiced, a most agreeable rather than a
brilliant talker, but a man upon whom it was always pleasant to
look,--whose silence was better than many another man's
conversation. At the other end sat Agassiz, robust, sanguine,
animated, full of talk, boy-like in his laughter. The stranger who
should have asked who were the men ranged along the sides of the
table would have heard in answer the names of Hawthorne, Motley,
Dana, Lowell, Whipple, Peirce, the distinguished mathematician,
Judge Hoar, eminent at the bar and in the cabinet, Dwight, the
leading musical critic of Boston for a whole generation, Sumner,
the academic champion of freedom, Andrew, 'the great War Governor'
of Massachusetts, Dr. Howe, the philanthropist, William Hunt, the
painter, with others not unworthy of such company." We may complete
the list and add the name of Holmes himself, to whose presence the
club owed so much of its wit and wisdom. In such company the guests
were tempted to linger long, and if Holmes has described the circle
around the table, Lowell has celebrated the late walk at night
across the bridge as he and Agassiz returned to Cambridge on foot
together. To break the verse by quotation would mar the quiet scene
and interrupt the rambling pleasant talk it so graphically
describes. But we may keep the parting words:

"At last, arrived at where our paths divide,'Good night!' and, ere
the distance grew too wide, 'Good night!' again; and now with
cheated ear I half hear his who mine shall never hear."

(* See Memorial poem, entitled "Agassiz", by James Russell Lowell.)

Agassiz was now the possessor of a small laboratory by the
immediate sea-coast. It was situated on the northeastern shore of
Nahant, within a stone's throw of broken and bold rocks, where the
deep pools furnished him with ever fresh specimens from natural
aquariums which were re-stocked at every rise of the tide. This
laboratory, with a small cottage adjoining, which was shared during
the summer between his own family and that of Professor Felton, was
the gift of his father-in-law, Mr. Cary. So carefully were his
wishes considered that the microscope table stood on a flat rock
sunk in the earth and detached from the floor, in order that no
footstep or accidental jarring of door or window in other parts of
the building might disturb him at his work.

There, summer after summer, he pursued his researches on the
medusae; from the smaller and more exquisite kinds, such as the
Pleurobrachyias, Idyias, and Bolinas, to the massive Cyaneas, with
their large disks and heavy tentacles, many yards in length.
Nothing can be prettier than the smaller kinds of jellyfishes.
Their structure is so delicate, yet so clearly defined, their color
so soft, yet often so brilliant, their texture so transparent, that
you seek in vain among terrestrial forms for terms of comparison,
and are tempted to say that nature has done her finest work in the
sea rather than on land. Sometimes hundreds of these smaller
medusae might be seen floating together in the deep glass bowls, or
jars, or larger vessels with which Agassiz's laboratory at Nahant
was furnished. When the supply was exhausted, new specimens were
easily to be obtained by a row in a dory a mile or two from shore,
either in the hot, still noon, when the jelly-fish rise toward the
surface, or at night, over a brilliantly phosphorescent sea, when
they are sure to be abundant, since they themselves furnish much of
the phosphorescence. In these little excursions, many new and
interesting things came to his nets beside those he was seeking.
The fishermen, also, were his friends and coadjutors. They never
failed to bring him whatever of rare or curious fell into their
hands, sometimes even turning aside from their professional calling
to give the laboratory preference over the market.

Neither was his summer work necessarily suspended during winter,
his Cambridge and Nahant homes being only about fifteen miles
distant from each other. He writes to his friends, the Holbrooks,
at this time, "You can hardly imagine what a delightful place
Nahant is for me now. I can trace the growth of my little marine
animals all the year round without interruption, by going
occasionally over there during the winter. I have at this moment
young medusae budding from their polyp nurses, which I expect to
see freeing themselves in a few weeks." In later years, when his
investigations on the medusae were concluded, so far as any
teaching from the open book of Nature can be said to be concluded,
he pursued here, during a number of years, investigations upon the
sharks and skates. For this work, which should have made one of the
series of "Contributions," he left much material, unhappily not
ready for publication.

In August, 1857, Agassiz received the following letter from M.
Rouland, Minister of Public Instruction in France.


PARIS, August 19, 1857.


By the decease of M. d'Orbigny the chair of paleontology in the
Museum of Natural History in Paris becomes vacant. You are French;
you have enriched your native country by your eminent works and
laborious researches. You are a corresponding member of the
Institute. The emperor would gladly recall to France a savant so
distinguished. In his name I offer you the vacant chair, and should
congratulate your country on the return of a son who has shown
himself capable of such devotion to science.

Accept the assurance of my highest esteem,


Had it been told to Agassiz when he left Europe that in ten years
he should be recalled to fill one of the coveted places at the
Jardin des Plantes, the great centre of scientific life and
influence in France, he would hardly have believed himself capable
of refusing it. Nor does a man reject what would once have seemed
to him a great boon without a certain regret. Such momentary regret
he felt perhaps, but not an instant of doubt. His answer expressed
his gratitude and his pleasure in finding himself so remembered in
Europe. He pleaded his work in America as his excuse for declining
a position which he nevertheless considered the most brilliant that
could be offered to a naturalist. In conclusion he adds: "Permit me
to correct an error concerning myself. I am not French, although of
French origin. My family has been Swiss for centuries, and spite of
my ten years' exile I am Swiss still."

The correspondence did not end here. A few months later the offer
was courteously renewed by M. Rouland, with the express condition
that the place should remain open for one or even two years to
allow time for the completion of the work Agassiz had now on hand.
To this second appeal he could only answer that his work here was
the work not of years, but of his life, and once more decline the
offer. That his refusal was taken in good part is evident from the
fact that the order of the Legion of Honor was sent to him soon
after, and that from time to time he received friendly letters from
the Minister of Public Instruction, who occasionally consulted him
upon general questions of scientific moment.

This invitation excited a good deal of interest among Agassiz's old
friends in Europe. Some urged him to accept it, others applauded
his resolve to remain out of the great arena of competition and
ambition. Among the latter was Humboldt. The following extract is
from a letter of his (May 9, 1858) to Mr. George Ticknor, of
Boston, who had been one of Agassiz's kindest and best friends in
America from the moment of his arrival. "Agassiz's large and
beautiful work (the first two volumes) reached me a few days since.
It will produce a great effect both by the breadth of its general
views and by the extreme sagacity of its special embryological
observations. I have never believed that this illustrious man, who
is also a man of warm heart, a noble soul, would accept the
generous offers made to him from Paris. I knew that gratitude would
keep him in the new country, where he finds such an immense
territory to explore, and such liberal aid in his work."

In writing of this offer to a friend Agassiz himself says: "On one
side, my cottage at Nahant by the sea-shore, the reef of Florida,
the vessels of the Coast Survey at my command from Nova Scotia to
Mexico, and, if I choose, all along the coast of the Pacific,--and
on the other, the Jardin des Plantes, with all its accumulated
treasures. Rightly considered, the chance of studying nature must
prevail over the attractions of the (Paris) Museum. I hope I shall
be wise enough not to be tempted even by the prospect of a new
edition of the 'Poissons Fossiles.'"

To his old friend Charles Martins, the naturalist, he writes: "The
work I have undertaken here, and the confidence shown in me by
those who have at heart the intellectual development of this
country, make my return to Europe impossible for the present; and,
as you have well understood, I prefer to build anew here rather
than to fight my way in the midst of the coteries of Paris. Were I
offered absolute power for the reorganization of the Jardin des
Plantes, with a revenue of fifty thousand francs, I should not
accept it. I like my independence better."

The fact that Agassiz had received and declined this offer from the
French government seemed to arouse anew the public interest in his
projects and prospects here. It was felt that a man who was ready
to make an alliance so uncompromising with the interests of science
in the United States should not be left in a precarious and
difficult position. His collections were still heaped together in a
slight wooden building. The fact that a great part of them were
preserved in alcohol made them especially in danger from fire. A
spark, a match carelessly thrown down, might destroy them all in
half an hour, for with material so combustible, help would be
unavailing. This fear was never out of his mind. It disturbed his
peace by day and his rest by night. That frail structure, crowded
from garret to cellar with seeming rubbish, with boxes, cases,
barrels, casks still unpacked and piled one above the other, held
for him the treasure out of which he would give form and substance
to the dream of his boyhood and the maturer purpose of his manhood.
The hope of creating a great museum intelligently related in all
its parts, reflecting nature, and illustrating the history of the
animal kingdom in the past and the present, had always tempted his
imagination. Nor was it merely as a comprehensive and orderly
collection that he thought of it. From an educational point of view
it had an even greater value for him. His love of teaching prompted
him no less than his love of science. Indeed, he hoped to make his
ideal museum a powerful auxiliary in the interests of the schools
and teachers throughout the State, and less directly throughout the
country. He hoped it would become one of the centres for the
radiation of knowledge, and that the investigations carried on
within its walls would find means of publication, and be a fresh,
original contribution to the science of the day. This hope was
fully realized. The first number of the Museum Bulletin was
published in March, 1863, the first number of the Illustrated
Catalogue in 1864, and both publications have been continued with
regularity ever since.* (* At the time of Agassiz's death nearly
three volumes of the Bulletin had been published, and the third
volume of the "Memoirs" (Illustrated Catalogue Number 7) had been

In laying out the general plan, which was rarely absent from his
thought, he distinguished between the demands which the specialist
and the general observer might make upon an institution intended to
instruct and benefit both. Here the special student should find in
the laboratories and work rooms all the needed material for his
investigations, stored in large collections, with duplicates enough
to allow for that destruction of specimens which is necessarily
involved in original research. The casual visitor meanwhile should
walk through exhibition rooms, not simply crowded with objects to
delight and interest him, but so arranged that the selection of
every specimen should have reference to its part and place in
nature; while the whole should be so combined as to explain, so far
as known, the faunal and systematic relations of animals in the
actual world, and in the geological formations; or, in other words,
their succession in time, and their distribution in space.

A favorite part of his plan was a room which he liked to call his
synoptic room. Here was to be the most compact and yet the fullest
statement in material form of the animal kingdom as a whole, an
epitome of the creation, as it were. Of course the specimens must
be few in so limited a space, but each one was to be characteristic
of one or other of the various groups included under every large
division. Thus each object would contribute to the explanation of
the general plan. On the walls there were to be large, legible
inscriptions, serving as a guide to the whole, and making this room
a simple but comprehensive lesson in natural history. It was
intended to be the entrance room for visitors, and to serve as an
introduction to the more detailed presentation of the same vast
subject, given by the faunal and systematic collections in the
other exhibition rooms.

The standard of work involved in this scheme is shown in many of
his letters to his students and assistants, to whom he looked for
aid in its execution. To one he writes: "You will get your synoptic
series only after you have worked up in detail the systematic
collection as a whole, the faunal collections in their totality,
the geological sequence of the entire group under consideration, as
well as its embryology and geographical distribution. Then alone
will you be able to know the representatives in each series which
will best throw light upon it and complete the other series."

He did not live to fill in this comprehensive outline with the
completeness which he intended, but all its details were fully
explained by him before his death, and since that time have been
carried out by his son, Alexander Agassiz. The synoptic room, and
in great part the systematic and faunal collections, are now
arranged and under exhibition, and the throngs of visitors during
all the pleasant months of the year attest the interest they

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