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Louis Agassiz: Biography, Theory & Contributions

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

A very influential and famous scientist, Louis Agassiz had some beliefs that sharply contrasted with the scientific community of his time. In this lesson, we will explore those beliefs, as well as why he was at one time held in such high regard.

Who Was Louis Agassiz?

Perhaps the most famous scientist you've never heard of, Louis Agassiz remains one of the most important figures in scientific history. Heralded for helping to shape our understanding of glacial activity and systematics, the study of scientific classification and relationships, he was later ousted for his staunch and unfavorable beliefs regarding evolution and race.

Louis Agassiz was at one time one of the most famous scientists in America
Louis Agassiz

Born in Switzerland in 1807, Agassiz was the son of a minister. He first earned a doctorate in philosophy, followed by a medical degree, both at German universities. Even from an early age, Agassiz was interested in ichthyology, the study of fish, and before he finished school he had planned a comprehensive study of extinct fish. A critical point in his life was after he finished school and moved to Paris in 1830. There, he studied under Baron Georges Cuvier, who at the time was the most famous naturalist in Europe. For a short time the two studied fossil fishes together, but unfortunately, Cuvier died only two years after Agassiz's arrival. After Cuvier's death in 1832, Agassiz moved back to Switzerland to become a professor at the College of Neuchâtel.

From 1833 to 1843, Agassiz published his comprehensive fossil fish study in five volumes. This Rercherches sur les poissons fossiles, or Research on Fossil Fishes, named and described an incredible number of fossils. His interest in extinct animals was so strong that from 1839 - 1840 he published two volumes on extinct echinoderms of Switzerland (animals like sea stars, sand dollars, and sea urchins), and from 1840 - 1845 he published his Études critiques sur les mollusques fossiles, or Critical Studies on Fossil Mollusks.

Glacial Theory and Professional Advancement

For years, Agassiz studied paleontology (the science of fossils) and glaciology. In 1836, he began to notice distinct features that were left behind by glaciers in Switzerland like valleys, scratches on rocks, and mounds of debris called moraines.. He also noticed that these features existed where there currently were no glaciers. This got him thinking, and he proposed that it was during an ice age that these glaciers had moved across the Earth, and shaped the landscape. This was a very different way of thinking (sort of like when science tried to explain that the Earth was round instead of flat), and he published works on this theory in 1840, and again in 1847, after further study and evidence collection all over Europe.

Agassiz noticed that glaciers left clues behind where they had once been
 Glacial lake

A year before this second publication, Agassiz traveled to the United States to lecture and was very well received. He became a professor at Harvard in 1848, and in 1859, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the first publicly funded science building in North America, was established. The museum was something that Agassiz truly believed in, and it well represented his belief in the connections between science education and research. In 1863 Agassiz became a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences, and in that same year was also appointed a regent of the Smithsonian Institute.

Opposing Evolution and Darwin

Despite Agassiz's strong beliefs in evidence-based scientific research, he stood in firm opposition to evolution, and especially Darwinism. Agassiz believed in a 'Divine Plan of God' that was based on the purposeful design of each species, and which did not align with the randomness of evolution. His belief in this Divine Plan held true even when Agassiz's reasoning seemed to be in support of evolutionary theory.

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