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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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