Louis Agassiz, a student once complained, would “lock a student up in a room full of turtle-shells, or lobster-shells, or oyster-shells, without a book or a word to help him, and not let him out till he had discovered all the truths which the objects contained.”
Agassiz was a demanding teacher of geology and zoology for generations of prominent scientists. Born on May 28, 1807 in Switzerland, he argued scientifically for the existence of ice ages. He also discovered evidence of glacial movement in the Scottish Highlands and created a new way to classify fish.
He came to the United States in 1846 to investigate the natural history of the continent. He also delivered a Lowell Institute lecture, The Plan of Creation as shown in the Animal Kingdom. That lecture led to his appointment to the faculty at Harvard, where he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Louis Agassiz, Natural Historian
Despite his student’s complaints, his teaching methods made him famous. They also revolutionized the teaching of natural sciences. Fascinated by extinct fishes, he discovered hundreds of fish fossils. He then wrote an epic work, Recherches sur les poissons fossiles, which inspired others to study extinct life forms.
He then moved on to the study of glaciers, concluding that “great sheets of ice, resembling those now existing in Greenland, once covered all the countries in which unstratified gravel (boulder drift) is found.”
Agassiz studied the natural history of the United States and continued to lecture at the Lowell Institute. He taught many prominent scientists, including William James, Joel Asaph Allen and his own son, Alexander Emanuel Agassiz.
But he left a controversial legacy. First, he rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution, and second, he concluded that humans descended separately from different races. The Caucasian race, he argued, was superior to the others.
In 1873 he was given $50,000 and the island of Penikese in Buzzard’s Bay by a philanthropist. Agassiz established a school there, but it failed after his death. It is, however, considered a precursor to the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory.
Louis Agassiz died on Dec. 14, 1873, in Cambridge, Mass. Mount Agassiz in Bethlehem, N.H., in the White Mountains bears his name.
This story last updated in 2022.