Science & Environment
9:01 am
Mon March 10, 2014

The Complex Life and Legacy of Louis Agassiz

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, 1807-1873
Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, 1807-1873

Louis Agassiz was a popular celebrity unmatched by any American scientist since. But can we love a man who justified racism with pseudoscience?

In all areas of his life and work, Louis Agassiz was a man of contradictions. His boundless enthusiasm and vitality was balanced by declining eyesight and bouts of a neurological condition. He craved intimacy with nature and other scientists, but was a harsh authoritarian with his students. He believed in public science and private religion. Not surprisingly, this complicated man has left a mixed legacy, inspiring enthusiastic admirers and equally passionate critics.

Louis Agassiz's list of scientific accomplishments is long and distinguished. He published more than 400 scientific books and manuscripts, and popularized the idea of ice ages. He founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, and the students who came there to study the collection and learn from Agassiz arguably constitute the first graduate school in the nation. Agassiz also founded the the Anderson School of Natural History on Penikese Island, a summer science camp for teachers that was the predecessor to today's scientific institutions in Woods Hole, MA.

In many regards, Agassiz was ahead of his time. The Anderson School was co-ed, with more than a dozen female teachers in the inaugural class. And his involvement of the general public in zoological research was crowdsourcing and citizen science, more than a century before those terms existed.

But Agassiz ended up on the wrong side of history on two key issues - evolution, and race. Despite his studies of fossils and the diversity of life on Earth, Agassiz found it impossible to accept Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and common ancestry. Instead, he was a steadfast believer in multiple creation events. And his creationist beliefs fed his racist views; people of different races were the result of separate creation events, he believed, and white people were the supreme race.

Despite what were controversial views, even at the time, Agassiz achieved a degree of celebrity during his life that has been unmatched by any American scientist since.

In recent years, though, his legacy has been dominated by his darker side. In 2004, the former Agassiz School was renamed in honor of Maria L. Baldwin, the first black principal of the school.

In "Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science," biographer Christoph Irmscher poses the questions: Can we - and should we - love Agassiz? Regardless of the answer, Irmscher argues that removing Agassiz's name from species, landmarks, and institutions is an exercise in revisionist history that does us all a disservice. Louis Agassiz was a product of his times, and helped shape American history. If encountering his name helps commemorate our collective past and spark debate about the still relevant issues of race in our country, then so much the better.  

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