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Louis Agassiz

expert on living and fossil fishes

Louis Agassiz

Louis Agassiz was born on May 28, 1807, in Môtier, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. The son of a Protestant minister, he was educated at home, then spent four years at the gymnasium of Bienne, and completed his elementary studies at the academy of Lausanne. He went on to study at the universities of Zurich (1824), Heidelberg (1826), and Munich (1827-1830), earned his PhD from the University of Erlangen, Germany, in 1829, and his MD from the University of Munich in 1830.

Originally intending to become a medical doctor, Agassiz was drawn into the natural sciences when, about 1826, he was selected by C.F.P. von Martius to describe and work out the history of freshwater fishes collected by himself and J.B. Spix in Brazil. Agassiz took the project on with gusto, and published his results in The Fishes of Brazil in 1929. With his interest in ichthyology (the study of fishes) now piqued, Agassiz next researched the history of fishes found in the Lake of Neuchâtel, the results of which were published in History of the Freshwater Fishes of Central Europe between 1839 and 1842.

Agassiz's studies of living fishes led him naturally into a study of fossil fishes, which was further spurred by a meeting with Georges Cuvier in 1831. In 1832 he was appointed professor of natural history at the University of Neuchâtel, and it was there that he completed his monumental Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (Research on Fossil Fish), which was published in six volumes between 1833 and 1843. Magnificently illustrated, the work contained almost everything then known about fossil fishes. In it, Agassiz divided the fishes into four groups -- Ganoids, Placoids, Cycloids, and Ctenoids -- based on the nature of their scales and other dermal appendages. In 1836, the Geological Society of London awarded its Wollaston Medal to Agassiz in recognition for his work in fossil ichthyology. In 1838, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society. Agassiz also studied fossil invertebrates, and his Études critiques sur les mollusques fossiles (Critical Studies of Fossil Molluscs) was published between 1840 and 1845. His Nomenclator Zoologicus, an annotated list of all generic names used in zoological nomenclature since Linnaeus, was published between 1842 and 1846.

In addition to fossil fishes, Agassiz was also interested in ancient glaciers, especially the many geological features and traces they left as they retreated. In 1837, after having studied the geological "remains" of glaciers in the Swiss Alps, Agassiz presented his Études sur les glaciers (Studies on Glaciers) at the annual meeting of the Swiss Society of Natural Sciences. In it, Agassiz asserted that all of central Europe had once been buried beneath a massive sheet of ice, during what he called the Eiszeit (Ice Age); that period of geologic time is now called the Pleistocene Era. Agassiz was among the first scientists to determine that the prehistoric North American Lake Agassiz was created by glacial dams. In Système glaciare (1847), he insisted that glaciers were one of the major forces that shaped geology worldwide.

In 1846, Agassiz travelled to the United States to both study the natural history and geology of North America and deliver a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute at Boston. In 1848, he accepted a professorship in zoology and geology at Harvard University, and he spent the rest of his life there. The change of "scenery" provided Agassiz with a whole new realm of potential study, and the volume of his written work increased dramatically. Most of his writings from this time on dealt with the higher departments of scientific research and were not meant for the general public, with his four-volume Contributions to the Natural History of the United States (1857-1862) being a notable exception; A Journey to Brazil (1868), an account of his 1865 expedition to Brazil, was also fairly popular with the general public.

In addition to all of his scientific studies, writings, and teaching, Agassiz also found time to push for establishment of a Museum of Natural History at Harvard, which opened in 1860, and to be a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863, the same year he was appointed a regent of the Smithsonian Institution.

Throughout his career, Agassiz was very loyal to Cuvier's classification of the animal kingdom into four kingdoms -- Vertebrata, Insecta, Vermes, and Radiata -- ranked in descending order from "highest to lowest form of life." Each kingdom was subdivided into classes, orders, families, and then genera and species, with each subclassification being successively more exclusive. Agassiz used Cuvier's classification scheme as the basis for his proposition that the "lowest form" of any given species would be found at the bottom of its fossil record and the "highest form" at the top. He also believed that the embryonic development of any given animal mirrored the development of its species. His theories were summed up in his Essay on Classification (1851).

Despite believing that individual species could, and did, change over time, he absolutely rejected anything connected with the theory of evolution, believing instead that God created each and every species individually. To explain the presence of fossils with no living representatives, he subscribed to the theory of "catastrophism," which said that God-sent catastrophes had periodically purged the planet of most animal life, after each of which God had created new species to replace the ones He had eliminated.

Agassiz's refusal to accept evolution was not unique in the scientific community of his day, but it did make him part of a rapidly shrinking minority. His belief that "whites" were superior to all other "races" of humans was one that he shared with many contemporaries, but his extension of that belief to include an assertion that "whites" actually represented a "higher species" of humans was fairly unique for his time; most scientists of his day acknowledged that all humans belonged to the same species, but that "whites" had simply developed superior qualities due to their superior environments.

Louis Agassiz died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 14, 1873, and is buried in that city's Mount Auburn Cemetery. He was survived by his only son, Alexander (from his first wife, who had died in 1848), who became a well-known naturalist in his own right, and by his second wife, Elizabeth, who became a well-known writer and active promoter of educational work in connection with Radcliffe College.

University of California Museum of Paleontology

See Also

Georges Cuvier
Carolus Linnaeus

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This page was last updated on 09/15/2018.