Agassiz, Louis

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Agassiz, Louis

Agassiz, Louis (Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz) (zhäN lwē rôdôlfˈ) (ăgˈəsē), 1807–73, Swiss-American zoologist and geologist, b. Môtiers-en-Vuly, Switzerland. He studied at the universities of Zürich, Erlangen (Ph.D., 1829), Heidelberg, and Munich (M.D., 1830). Agassiz practiced medicine briefly, but his real interest lay in scientific research. In 1831 he went to Paris, where he became a close friend of Alexander von Humboldt and studied fossil fishes under the guidance of Cuvier. In 1832 he became a professor of natural history at the Univ. of Neuchâtel, which he made a noted center for scientific study. Among his publications during this period were Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (5 vol. and atlas, 1833–44), a work of historic importance in the field (although his system of classification by scales has been discarded); studies of fossil echinoderms and mollusks; and Étude sur les glaciers (1840), one of the first expositions of glacial movements and deposits, based on his own observations and measurements.

Agassiz came to the United States in 1846 and two years later accepted the professorship of zoology and geology at Harvard. His first wife died in Germany in 1848, and in 1850 in Cambridge he married Elizabeth Cabot Cary (see Agassiz, Elizabeth Cabot Cary). In the United States he was primarily a teacher and very popular lecturer. His influence extended to the fields of zoology, paleontology, geology, anatomy, and glaciology. Emphasizing advanced and original work, he gave major impetus to the study of science directly from nature and influenced a generation of American scientists. His extensive research expeditions included one along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Americas from Boston to California (1871–72). His Contributions to the Natural History of the United States (4 vol., 1857–62) includes his famous “Essay on Classification,” an extension of the theory of recapitulation to geologic time. Despite his own evidences for evolution, Agassiz opposed Darwinism and believed that new species could arise only through the intervention of God.


See biographies by J. Marcou (including letters, 1896), J. D. Teller (1947), E. Lurie (1960, repr. 1967), and C. Irmscher (2013); L. Cooper, Louis Agassiz as a Teacher (rev. ed. 1945).

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Agassiz, (Jean) Louis (Rodolphe)

(1807–73) geologist; born in Motier-en-Vuly, Switzerland. He received an M.D. in Erlangen, Germany (1830), but preferred his early interest in natural science. He became professor of natural history at Neuchâtel, Switzerland (1832), and combined ichthyology, geology, and paleontology in his five-volume classic, Récherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (1833–44). His studies of Alpine glaciers and glacial boulders led to his monumental works, Études sur les Glaciers (1840) and Système Glaciaire (1847), which demonstrated the existence of a geologically recent ice age. In 1846 Agassiz came to the U.S.A. on a lecture tour, and was appointed professor of natural history at Harvard (1847–73). He founded Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1859. With his second wife, Elizabeth Cabot Cary (1822–1907), he conducted a young ladies school in Cambridge; a naturalist and educator herself, she later became president of the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women and its successor, Radcliffe College (1894). A popular lecturer who opposed Darwin's theories on religious grounds, Agassiz continued to teach, publish, and make zoological expeditions until his death.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.