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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 82

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This is the grave of Louis Agassiz.

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Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in 1807 in Switzerland. He became a scientist, attending some of the finest universities in Europe. He moved to Paris and became an acolyte of Alexander Von Humboldt, giving him access to the finest training and connections in the scientific world. He quickly became one of the world’s experts on geology and zoology. He first became known when selected to a complete a study of Brazilian freshwater fish samples that an exploratory team had brought back but whose leader died before he could complete the study. This made Agassiz particularly interested in ichthyology, which would remain his specialty. He began his own studies of European freshwater fish and published pioneering books on the subject. He also began to explore fossil fish and he published five volumes of study on the matter between 1833 and 1843. In 1836, he was elected to the Royal Society of Britain, helping him secure the financial resources necessary to take on his work. In 1837, his research led him to the conclusion that the Earth had been subjected an Ice Age, the first scientist to figure this out.

Agassiz came to the United States in 1846 to deliver a series of lectures and do research. As many successful foreigners have learned over the last 200 years, the U.S. can be a good place to make money. He was really popular, with up to 5000 people attending his lectures on fossil fish, zoology, and the Ice Age. So Agassiz stayed and worked at Harvard for the rest of his life. His lectures at Harvard led to the creation of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard in 1847, headed by Agassiz. He founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1859 and headed it until his death. He also realized by the mid-1850s that he could coast on his previous works while being famous. He taught occasionally at Cornell and talked a lot to other scientists. Longfellow wrote poems about him and he became comfortable and happy in his fame. He did lead a couple of scientific expeditions to South America in the 1860s, in part to escape the cold climate of New England that was affecting his health as he aged.

As was not uncommon among 19th century scientists, he also took several positions that modern Americans should feel quite uncomfortable with. First, he thought that the races were different species affected by different climatic zones, and most horribly, that those climatic zones made white people more advanced than people from the southern climes. He believed the Book of Genesis only described the white race. There has been debate over the years whether Agassiz was explicitly a racist, with Stephen Jay Gould strongly accusing him of racism and others defending him. The problem with this construction is the idea that one is either a racist or not a racist, avoiding the reality that most people are racists on a continuum, which people don’t like to hear today because it means they have culpability in racism even if they are liberals. Agassiz was obviously a white supremacist and as most science past and present is heavily influenced by the political and social atmosphere of the time, just because Agassiz was operating in a period of scientific racism doesn’t excuse his perpetuating it, nor does it make him a monster per se. Moreover, as Gould pointed out, Agassiz was viscerally horrified upon seeing African-Americans after moving the United States. For similar reasons of racist thought backed by religious dogma, Agassiz also rejected Darwin’s evolutionary theory. In 1860, he launched a public attack on Darwin, denying any connection between fossilized species and living species. He believed that God created all the species and refused to accept any theory that did not center some role for the deity. He published three books before he died, attacking Darwin and defending creationism, even as he became increasingly irrelevant in scientific debates. For this, Agassiz is a hero today among creationists.

Louis Agassiz died in 1873 and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    You’re timing on this just could not be better.

    My kindergarten in Boston was named for him. I wondered if anyone thought to reconsider since, and found out yes they did, and made a delightfully apt choice of replacement:

    http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2002/5/22/committee-renames-local-agassiz-school-the/

  • Vance Maverick

    It’s easier to come to terms with the unacceptable sides of scientists than it is for other cultural figures — because the contributions of even the most successful scientists are completely rewritten by posterity. Even Darwin’s contribution is not his life, or the text of his book (excellent though it is!), but his ideas as they have been reworked in the light of later understanding. So we don’t need to keep Agassiz himself on a pedestal, thank goodness.

    • Vance Maverick

      But this is to take too narrow a view. The city of Cambridge didn’t have an Agassiz school because of glaciers, but to honor a local and global eminence, a “man of science” rather than a scientist. And that honor needed reassessing.

      • Downpuppy

        Although the neighborhood (mid Oxford St) is still called Agassiz

      • I agree, but I also think that someone who was more or less privately a racist like Agassiz fits into a different moral category than, say, a public theorist of white supremacy like Samuel Cartwright (coiner of “drapetomania”), a white supremacist politician like Calhoun or Davis, a soldier who fought and killed in the service of white supremacy like Lee, or a white supremacist terrorist like Forrest.

        Literally the only reason Agassiz is noted as a bigot today is because Stephen Jay Gould decided to use him as as a case study in how even great scientists can be motivated by emotional factors and cognitive bias in their work. Gould was actually the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard (Alexander being Louis’ son) so he had both a kind of personal connection and access to the archives necessary to make his case.

        None of this is to say that renaming the school is a bad idea. It sounds like they chose a wonderful person to name it after, and I don’t think there is any strong historical argument to retain the dedication of schools. But if there’s a statue of him somewhere on the grounds of Harvard, I don’t think that merits the same treatment as Confederate memorials.

  • Derelict

    As noted, Agassiz made some outstanding contributions to science. Perhaps the most interesting thing about him is how his openness to new ideas evaporated as he aged. From deciding there was at least one ice age based on glacial evidence he saw in Switzerland to denying evolution and becoming a Bible literalist in his old age is pretty remarkable.

    • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

      Many of the prominent “HIV does not cause AIDS” denialists are/ were brilliant biologists (including one Nobel winner) who just couldn’t make the mental leaps necessary to grasp the connection, and assumed this meant the rest of their field was wrong.

      • Linnaeus

        Similarly, the deutsche Physik movement in Nazi Germany, led by two Nobel Prize winners, had its origins in part in the opposition that many classical, experimental physicists had to quantum physics. It wasn’t coincidental, of course, that a lot of work on quantum physics was being done by theoretical physicists who were Jews, because experimental physics had greater prestige in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so antisemitism kept Jews out of the better academic and research positions that were held by experimentalists. Philippe Lenard and Johannes Stark weren’t just antisemites (although that was bad enough); it’s arguable that they also failed to understand the significance of quantum physics and didn’t want to understand it.

        • Colin Day

          In the case of Lenard, it included disdain for relativity.

      • Warren Terra

        I don’t think there’s a mental leap necessary to believe HIV causes AIDS. I haven’t looked into it that much, but I think Duesberg mostly just backed the wrong hypothesis early (when it was still quite tenable) and then refused to acknowledge subsequent data, either because he enjoys being a self-perceived iconoclast or simply because he can’t admit fault.

        • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

          From what I recall of his book, Duesberg had a hard time buying into the parts of the hypothesis that relied on epidemiologic theory. There’s also a lot that relies on conspiracy theory: it has entire sections devoted to the idea that “the virus was only discovered after virology methods improved, and isn’t that just a little too coincidental?” He was also attached to the idea that gay men were getting rare cancers from poppers and teh buttsecs. He really only recanted once the social pressure became unrelenting. The evidence was largely adequate at the time he was writing it.

          • Warren Terra

            Oh, he was well round the bend by the time he was writing crazy books about the issue – but that was a good decade after he first dissented from the emerging consensus. In (limited) defense of (some of) his early position, AIDS would hardly have been the first or the last case in which a symptom or infection frequently associated with a poorly understood disease was initially and mistakenly taken to be causative for it. But he clearly lost his marbles – though no more so than Luc Montagnier, who got the Nobel for getting that same question right but has spent the last couple of decades falling for every ludicrous hoax he can find.

    • Keaaukane

      IIRC, Gould wrote an essay on Agassiz visiting the Galapagos when Agassiz was doing one of his get out of New England for winter trips. Agassiz never wrote about his Galapagos trip, and in fact stopped publishing anything afterward. Gould thought Agassiz had seen the truth of Evolution there, and could not handle it.

  • Murc

    Moreover, as Gould pointed out, Agassiz was viscerally horrified upon seeing African-Americans after moving the United States.

    This isn’t clear from context: was Agassiz viscerally horrified upon seeing how African-Americans were treated here in the States, or was he viscerally horrified upon seeing African-Americans, as in, he found black people so repugnant he didn’t even want to look at them?

    • The latter

      • Murc

        Wow.

        Just wow.

    • Vance Maverick
    • Warren Terra

      I had similar confusion reading that sentence, but from context assumed it couldn’t be that Agassiz was viscerally horrified at the bad treatment of African-Americans, it must be that he was upset they existed, or that they weren’t treated much worse.

      • Murc

        I was like, 60% sure of that, but there were a fair number of stone cold racists who were all “the monkeys belong on the monkey continent” who were nonetheless not that happy with seeing black folk, you know… whipped to death. So I didn’t know for sure.

  • Ahenobarbus

    More than a century ago, God made clear his opinion on Agassiz.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c3/Agassiz_statue_Mwc00715.jpg

  • Ellie1789

    Anyone else notice that this is actually the grave of TWO persons? Not just the grave of Louis Agassiz, but also of ** Elizabeth ** Agassiz? As a natural historian in her own right, a contributor to her husband’s work, and one of the founders of Radcliffe College, Mrs. Agassiz was hardly an insignificant person in American history. And her name is RIGHT THERE ON THE STONE IN THE PICTURE!!! Maybe she had influential but problematic ideas, too?

    Sometimes Erik’s tour makes me wonder if women ever died in the US of A …

    • Anna in PDX

      Thanks for this. I often wonder about the wives who are buries in the same place.

    • Largely, I’m glad this series has reached a high enough point of prominence to be accused to perpetuating inequality.

      • Anna in PDX

        Erik, you know I’m a fan, but being relatively obscure does not mean you have no unconscious biases.

        Also your “I am so unknown” thing is getting to remind me of this:

        “Nothing is more deceitful,” said Darcy, “than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”

        “And which of the two do you call my little recent piece of modesty?”

        “The indirect boast; for you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting. The power of doing anything with quickness is always much prized by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance. When you told Mrs. Bennet this morning that if you ever resolved on quitting Netherfield you should be gone in five minutes, you meant it to be a sort of panegyric, of compliment to yourself — and yet what is there so very laudable in a precipitance which must leave very necessary business undone, and can be of no real advantage to yourself or any one else?”

        • The choices in this series are of people I have heard of. The fact that I have heard of Louis Agassiz and not his wife absolutely replicates sexism in 19th century society, yes. And arguably in 21st century society too, although I couldn’t care less about who founded an elite college. So sure, I have no problem admitting this.

          • econoclast

            Come on, man.

          • Anna in PDX

            I think you did visit a grave of a suffragist once. And also recently you did a female labor leader, except that was one from your other series “this day in labor history”

          • LFC

            @Erik L.
            although I couldn’t care less about who founded an elite college

            Erik couldn’t care less who founded Radcliffe b.c it was (the past tense is appropriate[*]) an elite college and therefore bad. Never mind that, as a women’s college, it educated a lot of women at a time when women’s options for higher ed. in the U.S. were fairly restricted, and was set up at a time when private colleges were almost by definition elite b.c there weren’t all that many of them. In EL’s view, it was elite, therefore bad. This pose is getting a bit tiresome.

            [*]Radcliffe College no longer exists; it’s now the Radcliffe Inst. of Advanced Study (or that’s v. close to the name anyway).

          • Ellie1789

            Well, presumably you’ve heard at least somewhat vaguely of her, since her name is right there under his on the stone. (For those who care about elite colleges, it’s also on a building at Radcliffe. If it’s worth discussing the elite colleges where Louis taught, I don’t quite see why it’s not worth discussing one of the first women’s colleges in the United States.)

            Seriously, I love the “American Grave” series. It’s a great point of entry into history. But “I haven’t heard of her” is a pretty lame reason not to inquire further. Even if you’re only interested in him and his ideas, it seems (surprise! #ThanksforTyping!) that they were really more like their ideas. A quick poke around the Googles turns up the Encyclopedia Britannica, hardly a hotbed of feminist intellectual history, saying “her work proved to be invaluable to his career. Her notes on his lectures were the raw material of much of his published work, and she helped organize and manage several of his expeditions into the field, notably the Thayer Expedition to Brazil in 1865–66 and the Hassler Expedition through the Strait of Magellan in 1871–72. Together they founded the coeducational Anderson School of Natural History, a marine laboratory on Penikese Island in Buzzard’s Bay.” It looks like she was co-author on a number of his books.

            Not caring who founded one of the first women’s colleges in the US is fine (I care, but tomato/tomahto), but this seems like a case where the gravestone actually tells the full story and not asking the question “Who’s that other person here?” means half the story got left out of the post.

            • Warren Terra

              not caring who founded one of the most important and only places women could get educated in this country seems wrong (and in context a petty assertion Erik might not otherwise stand by).

              But: Erik sought out that grave, knowing something of Jean Louis and intending to maybe write about him. Simply seeing a spouse’s name on the grave would hardly be sufficient cause to research her and see whether she’s important in her own right. I assume Erik read up a bit on Jean Louis, and whatever he read didn’t present Elizabeth as a compelling, important, or relevant figure for the story he was telling. That’s not fair, perhaps, but it’s not necessarily Erik being unfair, as versus his source(s) – and Erik wasn’t trying to understand Jean Louis’s life and times, he was just writing a couple of paragraphs for a blog.

              • Ellie1789

                I totally see how Erik got there and that his sources might not say anything about Elizabeth Agassiz. But that together with your comment seems like a pretty good argument for always looking up the other name, even for a quick blog post!

  • Hogan

    His son Alexander made a fortune in copper mining in Michigan.

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