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Eye opening especially the trail of bodies he leaves in his wake subordinates who didn t have a chance against the bombastic self promoting scientist Although Irmscher subtitles his book Creator of American Science that s an arguable point Next book on the docket Benjamin Silliman A Life in the Young Republic which explores Silliman s important role in bringing science curricula to American universities in the early 19th century forty or fifty ears before Agassiz Biography of Louis Agassiz I knew almost nothing about him so I learned uite a lot about him about his nearly rock star status and influence in science in the 19th century his key role in change the nature of science education his stature at Harvard and role in the development of science instruction and research there Also about his not great treatment of his first wife and the very significant role played by his second wife Elizabeth who helped create a market for popular science writing for interested non scientists Agassiz was also somewhat relentlessly ambitious and self serving and aggrandizing and seems to have been a freuently awful boss to his students and interns And he held firm in two areas where history proved him dreadfully wrongheaded a lifetime rivalry with Darwin and a fervent denial in theories of evolution and misguided views about the significance of racial variations though perhaps not far out of line with much of the thinking of his dayMy reservations about the book had to do with the writing style I have to admit I was put off by the effort to make the book I guess feel informal and modern by using collouial and very recent terminology and expressions Not that I need things to be dry and academic but I found it off putting I also struggled somewhat with the organization of the book He takes on themes like Darwin race and his wife in separate chapters in a way that to me took a way from a sense of chronology and a rounded life But I learned a lot Irmscher admits in the introduction that Agassiz is a difficult man to love I have always seen him as at best misguided and self promoting But this biography shows a complex and accomplished man if still not lovable He tried to teach students how to observe instead of relying on reading and he himself wrote the most careful detailed descriptions of his specimens living or pickled He founded the great Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard By putting Agassiz in the context of his times Irmscher illustrates the history of science and how issues of race and society that we consider settled today were subjects of such debate There is also a fascinating view of his second wife Elizabeth who used her travels with him to make a different kind of contribution the reflective and personal nature essay But given his egregious errors I do not see how he deserves the author s epithet Creator of American Science Elegant insightful compelling From Rebecca Stott s New York Times Book Review During the California earthuake of 1906 the marble statue of Louis Agassiz toppled off the second story of Stanford University s zoology building and plunged headfirst into the ground The great scientist with his head buried in concrete his upturned body sticking up into air became an iconic image of the earthuake Agassiz is often remembered as a fallen man Christoph Irmscher tells us His rejection of Darwinian evolution and his conviction that America belonged to the whites on Louis Agassiz was instrumental in establishing a tradition of reading nature not books that continues in a way today It is vital that new and established scientists make their own observations rather than rely just on the observations of othersThe legacy of Louis Agassiz is in the fact that he promoted this view to professionals and amateur naturalists alike and that he established one of the first field schools of natural history in the USA why didn t the author include on this Agassiz was a great promoter of natural history though he ended up on the wrong side of just about every major scientific argument of his day and todayand is thus largely forgotten and overlookedOK about this bookFrankly I am happy to be done with it Irmscher tackled an interesting topic and grew it larger than it needed to be It s obvious that he loved learning and then telling Agassiz s storyso much so that I really had to work to tease Agassiz s story out of this widely meandering narrativeIrmischer takes long distracting detours into the lives and exploits of many of Agassiz s mentors family peers adversaries and students This book could easily have been titled something like Louis Agassiz Creator of American Science and insights and reflections on everyone he knew In other words Irmscher wedged what could have been a completely satisfying 150 200 page biography into 350 pagesI do not doubt that Agassiz is much like Irmscher describes him driven a good observer someone who loves the spotlight a creationist a racist and a controlling overlord of his domains and of all the people in it and of all the work they did thereAside from the development of the Ice Age theory what was Louis Agassiz s greatest contribution to American science I d have to say it was his son Alexanderwho eventually broke with just about every scientific and social stance taken by LouisIn summary I found the writing to be overdone tough to slide through and IMO too distracting as I worked to follow Louis Agassiz s story I will probably add this title to my library rather than recycling it but I can t really imagine who I would recommend it toSadly my experience with it resulted in only a couple of stars Solid scientific and social biography of the 19th century Swiss founder of the professionalization of American science Irmscher is committed to showing his subject warts and all from the traits a 21st century reader would regard as progressive his second wife s work in science writing promotion of education abolitionism to the less acceptable his treatment of his first wife 19th century racial hierarchy opposition to Darwin all within the context of his carefully built network of patronage and New England high society connections. But there’s a dark side to the story Irmscher adds unflinching evidence of Agassiz’s racist impulses and shows how avidly Americans looked to men of science to mediate race policy The book’s potent original scenes include the pitched battle between Agassiz and his student Henry James Clark as well as the merciless often amusing exchanges between Darwin and Harvard botanist Asa Gray over Agassiz’s stubborn resistance to evolutionA fascinating life story both inspiring and cautionary for anyone interested in the history of American ideas.
Ious believed that though man was mobile species of animals were not and that they developed where God placed themDarwin a sharp observer of other people s foibles saw Agassiz s work as contemptible rubbish and also compared him to one of the jellyfish Agassiz obsessively researched and chronicled weird infinitely interesting capable of inflicting a certain amount of harm but destined ultimately to fade into insubstantiality Regarding Agassiz s Charleston folly Darwin sarcastically wrote to his cousin William Darwin Fox Agassiz lectures in the US in which he has been maintaining the doctrine of several species much I daresay to the comfort of the slave holding Southerns Over his academic career Agassiz earned another unfortunate reputation that of a stingy domineering and credit stealing professor who both alienated and smothered the ambitions of legions of students and research assistants Here Irmscher has exhaustively examined numerous letters and journals the book contains 44 pages of endnotes of former prot g s such as Charles Girard and douard Desor who worked and studied with Agassiz at the University of Neuch tel in Switzerland and Henry James Clark and Addison Emery Verrill who were both assistants to Agassiz at Harvard Agassiz s rancorous Crochet Pattern - Tutu Skirt for Onesie yet fascinating episodes with theseoung men were marked by common themes of professional jealousy theft of what would now be called intellectual property and bitter personal attacksParticularly revealing as well as heartbreaking is the case of Clark who toiled in penury within Agassiz s shadow for Bad Pets years as an Adjunct professor helping to organize Agassiz s career long ambition the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology Clark shortchanged both in credit and in remuneration was eventually pushed out of his position by the Harvard Corporation after a very public uarrel with Agassiz And in the case of Girard who came to regret following his flawed master Agassiz from Switzerland to America and eventually defected to Washington DC s Smithsonian headed by Spencer Fullerton Baird Agassiz could not help but badmouth his former student to Baird saying that Girard had no judgment was obstinate as a mule and needed to be led with a high hand and kept in an entirely subordinate position When it comes to his books Agassiz s tudes sur les Glaciers 1840 is outstanding not only for its scholarship but also for its exceptionally beautiful lithographed atlas volume But for all its beauty and scientific importance the name of Agassiz s friend and fellow glaciologist Karl Friedrich Schimper is absent from its pages Even the initial use of the term ice age eitzeit Agassiz cribbed from Schimper As Irmscher asserts this was the first prominent instance of the cavalier unattributed use of other people s ideas that in the eyes of Agassiz critics would become a hallmark of his career And in a supreme act of hypocrisy added to what Irmscher terms a similar mix of ruthlessness and naivet Agassiz who thought that another contemporary author Jean de Charpentier had pre empted his tudes wrote of his disappointment that Charpentier hadn t used his Agassiz s observations in order to establish synonymy betweenour theory and mine Embarrassment was obviously not in Agassiz s lexiconThere is no uestion that Agassiz s shadow looms large in numerous scientific disciplines But Irmscher s devastating new appraisal pushes Agassiz out of that shadow and into the klieg lights leaving all the hagiographic and illusive imagery behind In the book s epilogue Irmscher writes The history of science is unforgiving it remembers those who were right and commits to the dustbin those who were wrong And Agassiz certainly was dead wrong about evolution and about race What this groundbreaking book distills is ugly and very disturbing but ultimately it is the necessary and timely exposure of a great man who in truth really wasn t Very well written biography Even with this sympathetic treatment by Irmscher it wasn t easy to like Aggasiz The interplay between Agassiz and contemporary luminaries including Asa Gray Thoreau etc is fascinating And then of course there is Darwin This is a biography of the absolute now its methods feel incredibly current from the way is seeks to read the glacial scratches that Agassiz identifies to the textual exegesis is gives to Agassiz s comments on race interpreting them not only as themselves but also as a part of a discourse of white supremacy it s like the grad school answer to claims Running Your Best you had to unerstand the times and it s even harsher for that or the way it very symapthetically and a little playfully reads Elizabeth s Agassiz s travel journals of the trip to Galapagos This is a very text rich text interested biographyWhich as much as I admired it I found a little exhausting Irmscher kept crowding himself and his insights between me and his subject It might be different if this was my fourth biography of Agassiz but it s not it s my first I saw a lot of the writer s insight and process and was impressed but feel like I didn t get a handle on the man at the center in any holistic wayI admire this book but don t uite love it I would have never predicted writing this sentence but I felt the author was too much of a Darwinist for my tastes English professors are the most strident defenders of Darwin in the academy so whenou commission an EngProf to write about this topic it will lack balance If The Fall Of White City (Victorian Chicago Mystery Series Book 1) your sympathies for Darwinian thought overshadowour interest in its predecessors by all means read this book and sneer If ou are genuinely interested in Agassiz and his work look elsewhere I m sure I read about Louis Agassiz in high school probably reuired reading in biology class But I never really had a sense of the full person Christoph Irmscher gives us that picture Agassiz is not a pleasant fellow always a charmer es but don t cross his path and be careful of how much of MTIV your own researchou share with him An anti Darwinian evolutionist to the end Agassiz had his own views of things which he cultivated in his own domain Harvard s Lawrence Scientific School Following Agassiz through Irmscher s well written and researched book is. Me A pioneer in field research and an obsessive collector Agassiz enlisted the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural specimens dead or alive for his ingeniously conceived museum of comparative zoology As an educator of enduring impact he trained a generation of American scientists and science teachers men and women alike Irmscher sheds new light on Agassiz’s fascinating partnership with his brilliant wife Elizabeth Cary Agassiz a science writer in her own right who would go on to become the first president of Radcliffe College.
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review Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science
This is taken from my review appearing in the March 14 2013 issue of the Christian Science MonitorIn the introduction to his wonderful new biography Louis Agassiz Creator of American Science Christoph Irmscher carefully lists some of the undelightful aspects of the life and work of the eminent Swiss zoologist glaciologist and paleontologist his shabby treatment of his first wife whom he left when he traveled to the new world his relentless resistance to Darwinism and perhaps most of all his reprehensible belief that America belonged to whites only And it doesn t get much better from thereAgassiz born Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz a world renowned and celebrated Swiss born scientist whose name than 100 International Organizations years later would grace street signs schools and even a mountain range inSwitzerland recently had his reputation almost single handedly felled by a Cambridge Mass eighth grader The student who attended the Agassiz School there discovered Agassiz s abhorrent racial views in an edition of biologist Stephen A Gould s The Mismeasure of Man The horrified student Irmscher writes suggested that the school change its name which it did Irmscher a professor of English at Indiana University asks some very difficult uestions about Agassiz s legacy at the onset of this biography Despite the book s rather generous subtitle Irmscher ultimately cannot reconcile Agassiz s numerous and significant scientific achievements with his abhorrent views on evolution and raceFor example Agassiz was an early and vociferous proponent of such biological uackery as polygenism the idea that races of humans stemmed from distinct and different ancestors and thus were of separate origin as well as miscegenation or racial admixture within a society Agassiz could also be called a prototypical 19th century racial philosopher because of his curious obsession with comparative brain size and cranial capacity and their relationship to intelligence among races of humansAgassiz always the charismatic showman compounded the damage to his own reputation by regaling attendees at a Charleston SC conference with his racial sophistry which unfortunately encouraged and enabled much of America s pro slavery faction His patrons included the notorious Alabama physician Josiah C Nott who as the owner of nine slaves sought out Agassiz s counsel to validate his own theories about the subjugation of blacks through slavery Nott infamously stated that those indentured achieved their greatest perfection physical and moral as well as longevity in a state of slavery Agassiz and other scientists who espoused polygenism also emboldened colonialists who believed that the inherent superiority of the white race gave credence to Kipling s white man s burden the obligation and duty of whites to rule over other presumably inferior racesAgassiz south in Switzerland had a powerful influence on his own attitudes toward his family students and colleagues His autocratic father was a merchant with both a manipulative personality and a provincial worldview He sought to control his son s career path by repeatedly suggesting that studying to become a zoologist with two doctoral degrees no less was a waste of time and money Agassiz s mother was also aggressive perhaps even abusive The pressure she exerted on Agassiz s beautiful and artistically talented wife C cilie Silli Braun to subject herself to her husband s ambitions left Silli feeling helpless and abandonedEventually in an act Irmscher likens to that of a modern woman Silli took their children and left Agassiz In September 1846 Agassiz whose writings and traveling lectures on glaciers Brazilian fishes and other exotic and arcane topics had brought him worldwide acclaim would leave Europefor good to accept a professorship at Harvard University And Silli who once illustrated her husband s published works and shared his professional enthusiasms would die in loneliness and despair two Laurus years laterAgassiz s second wife Elizabeth Cabot Cary fared considerably better Born into blue blood Boston in 1822 Lizzie Cary had a powerful intellect rivaling that of Agassiz She employed her intelligence to her future husband s advantage as well as her own by editing his books and other writings But hidden underneath the scholarly veneer and the strenuously rational language of their correspondence Elizabeth had a true lasting affection for Agassiz Following their marriage in 1850 she sought to realize her keen interest in education by starting a private school foroung girls in the attic of their uincy Street home Twenty two Silk and Steel years after Agassiz s death she became the first president of Radcliffe College In between she accompanied Agassiz on his Charleston lectures and assisted him in gathering specimens on the Galapagos Islands And in her attempt to solidify her late husband s legacy she also authored a comprehensive and well regarded biography of AgassizAlexander von Humboldt the pre eminent zoologist during Agassiz south also had a profoundly important influence on Agassiz s career Mentor patron and cheerleader to Agassiz von Humboldt had royal patrons which gave him wealth and added to his prestige He would write fawning letters to Agassiz and his scion would respond with eually fawning almost obseuious replies But if anyone could conjure insecurities in Agassiz it was von Humboldt whom Irmscher likens to Agassiz s surrogate father the one who really saw Agassiz s scholarly potential and unselfishly nurtured and financed itAgassiz s anxiety about von Humboldt s towering legacy was never in evidence than when Agassiz was asked to prepare a series of lectures at Harvard on the occasion of what would have been von Humboldt s 100th birthday in 1869 Agassiz fretted about every detail and was adamant that it be carried off perfectly in other words to his own satisfactionAgassiz s career long competition with English naturalist Charles Darwin was focused on a few distinct areas of contention including Darwin s theories of evolution and natural selection in which Darwin emphasized an evolutionary process for the adaptation of species dependent on their mobility Agassiz although particularly relig. Charismatic and controversial Louis Agassiz is our least known revolutionary some fifty Het Reservaat Van Ward Ruyslinck years after American independence he became a founding father of American science One hundred and seventy fiveears ago a Swiss immigrant took America by storm launching American science as we know it The irrepressible Louis Agassiz legendary at a oung age for his work on mountain glaciers focused his prodigious energies on the fauna of the New World Invited to deliver a series of lectures in Boston he never left becoming the most famous scientist of his ti.
Christoph Irmscher is Professor of English and Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy of Science and American Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington He is the author of Longfellow Redux The Poetics of Natural History and Public Poet Private Man