Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz

Below: Photograph of the statue of Louis Agassiz positioned on the Zoology building [today's Jordan Hall] at Stanford University.

Louis Agassiz was born on May 28, 1807, in a village named Môtier in the Canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. His father was a Protestant pastor, as were five generations of his ancestors. After being home schooled until age eleven, Agassiz was sent to Gymnasium of Bienne, where he spent four years studying ancient and modern languages. It was during this period that Agassiz’s interest in natural history arose: during school vacations, he organized collections of objects of nature. (3) His father wanted him to join the clergy, but his interest in natural history could not be resisted, so he pursued the study of medicine, in line with his interests in nature. (4)

In 1824, Agassiz entered the University of Zurich, where he pursued zoological investigations under the Swiss physician and naturalist Professor Heinrich Rudolf Schinz. Agassiz next studied at the University of Heidelberg, under Friedrich Tiedemann, Professor of Anatomy and Physiology. In 1827, Agassiz transferred again, attracted by the remarkable group of naturalists at the University of Munich. There, Agassiz was selected by Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius to work on the natural history of the freshwater fishes of Brazil, the material for which had been collected by a scientific expedition, sent out by the governments of Austria and Bavaria. Agassiz’s study of Brazilian fishes was published in 1829 in a folio volume, " Pisces etc., quos collegit et pingendos curavit Spix, descripsit Agassiz” and included 91 lithographic plates. It was in this work that Agassiz began to establish his reputation as a naturalist. (5)

By now, Agassiz’s parents had become quite disappointed with their son’s increasing interest in natural history, which had almost completely displaced his study of medicine, and they suspended his financial support. (6) To regain his parents’ approval, Agassiz returned to his medical studies, receiving a doctorate in medicine from the University of Munich in 1830. From Munich, Agassiz traveled to Paris, where he spent a short time studying under the direction of Georges Cuvier, a major figure in natural sciences in the early 19th century.(7) Agassiz remained in Paris, until Cuvier’s death in 1832, where upon he returned to Switzerland, accepting the position of Professor of Natural History in the recently established College of Neuchâtel.

By the age of thirty-three, Agassiz belonged to every scientific academy in Europe and had received invitations from several leading universities to join their faculties. (8) Agassiz chose to remain at College of Neuchâtel and continue his studies of natural history. His next publication was titled Natural History of the Freshwater Fishes of Central Europe, in two parts (1831, 1842). The progress of this work was interrupted by Researches on Fossil Fishes, published in parts from 1832 to 1842, with 311 lithographic plates. For this publication, he examined many important museum collections, particularly those of the Museum of Natural History in Paris. (9)

From 1836 to 1845, Agassiz spent his summers in the Alps, developing his theory on the formation of glaciers, often in the company of his friend and fellow Swiss geologist Arnold Henry Guyot. In 1840, Agassiz published Etudes sur les Glaciers (“Studies on Glaciers”), a volume that revolutionized existing theories on the development and movement of glaciers. This publication was followed by a more detailed exposition and presented further evidence for this theory Systeme Glaciare, (“Glacier System”) published in 1847. (10) With these works, Agassiz established himself as the author of a massive treatise on fossil fishes and a major proponent of the ice-age theory. By the time he arrived in America, he was uniquely positioned to become a leader in American science. (11)

Louis Agassiz’s influence on the United States began in the fall of 1846, when at the age of thirty-nine, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean. (12) Fresh from Switzerland, he found himself welcomed in America like the prophet of a new religion. (13) From the moment of his arrival, he began the mission of advancing both science and the teaching of science in the United States. Textile magnate and Harvard University supporter John Amory Lowell had invited Agassiz to present twelve lectures on the three subjects, “The Plan of Creation as shown in the Animal Kingdom, Ichthyology, and Comparative Embryology” at the Lowell Institute of Boston, Massachusetts. (14) A brilliant lecturer and scholar, this invitation served as Agassiz’s original motivation for traveling to America. During that first winter, Bostonians flocked into Lowell Institute’s Tremont Temple to hear Agassiz speak; on some evenings as many as five thousand packed the temple.(15) So great was public interest to hear these talks of science that Agassiz found it necessary to offer his lectures each day to a second audience. (16) It would be these lectures for the Lowell Institute that would start Agassiz’s communication of science to the American public for the next 27 years of his life. With every series of lectures that Agassiz presented, his popularity amongst the American public grew ever larger.

During October and November of 1847, at the request of the Faculty of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York, Agassiz delivered in the hall of that institution a series of twelve lectures on the principles of classification in the animal kingdom. The complete transcript of each lecture was printed the following day in the New York Tribune, the first time Agassiz's lectures had been transcribed and printed in full, just after an evening’s presentation. Newsboys in the streets of New York could be heard yelling at the top of their voices, “Professor Agassiz’s Lecture!” (17) The American public was enthralled. The demand for the papers containing these admirable discourses was so great that the editor of the New York Tribune was obliged to issue them in the form of a pamphlet, An Introduction to the Study of Natural History. (18)

Several months after this lecture series, in January 1847, Agassiz was approached by several friends, among them John A. Lowell, to ask if he would consider accepting a permanent position as Professor of Zoology and Geology at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (19) That very year, Louis Agassiz would be officially appointed to position of Professor of Zoology and Geology to be held in the new Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University. Agassiz would spend the rest of his life at Harvard, training America’s first cohort of academic instructors of natural history and many of this nation’s first and most prominent naturalists.


(4) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(9) Jordan, David Starr. (1993). Agassiz, (Jean) Louis (Rodolphe). In: The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago, IL. The University of Chicago Press. 1:141-142

(10) Ibid.

(18) Ibid.