BOOK REVIEW: Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

Christoph Irmscher, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 448 pp.

There is no lack of books about the nineteenth-century naturalist Louis Agassiz. He had considerable influence in his scientific endeavors (most notably, the creation of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology). He studied glaciation, fossil fish, and jellyfish. He was a great public speaker. And he is perhaps best known for his anti-evolution stance and views about race. All of this is covered in previous biographies and treatments: Lurie’s Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science (1960), Winsor’s Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum (1991), and Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001). So why the need for a new biography of Agassiz? Paleontologist Kevin Padian wrote a review of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science for Nature in which he basically stated that there was no need for Irmscher to pen a new biography, for those others mentioned above give “a fuller perspective of the man and his influence.” For me, the book’s audience is perhaps a good reason why. Lurie’s book is over half a decade old, and while a standard in the field and useful to historians, it is dated for a popular treatment of Agassiz. Winsor’s book is very specific, and Menand’s, while including much about Agassiz, is not centered on him.

Irmscher’s offering, while being a great introduction to non-historians or others who want a good biography all in one place, also brings to the table interesting aspects of Agassiz’s life. He discusses gender and science issues, regarding the role of Agassiz’s wife Elizabeth in Agassiz’s publications. There are priority disputes and distinctions to be made between professional and amateur, for while Agassiz pursued collaborative science, he was greedy with having only his name attached to publications and research, while students of his would simply do the work. (Irmscher devotes considerable pages to the lives of several of Agassiz’s students/assistants; perhaps to some readers these sections will seem tangential and long-winded, but they allow a window into Agassiz’s thoughts and motivations from those who worked closely with him, as Agassiz himself did not record much in diaries or letters about his own feelings.) We go along with Agassiz on a trip to the Galapagos to examine God’s creation, a final attempt to counter Darwin. We get a fresh perspective on the “racist” Agassiz’s views on race and slavery. And, (my favorite chapter), we are treated to a wonderful examination of science and art through the illustrations made for Agassiz’s publications. Irmscher is not a historian, but a an English professor, and his detailed descriptions and analysis of Agassiz’s doings are a pleasure to read. Toward the beginning of the book I got the impression that Irmscher intended to remove Agassiz from the world of Darwin, but he fails to keep Darwin out of every turn, at many points comparing some aspect of Agassiz’s life or work to that of Darwin’s.

That Agassiz lost the battle (and Darwin won) and had unsettling views on race seems reason enough for Padian that Agassiz as a historical character is not much of interest. But to who? Why should any historical figure be of interest? Padian is presentist in his notions, and we must consider Agassiz in his time. We may consider him racist today, but he fell in line with a lot of Americans at the time, but was perhaps just more publicly vocal about his views. There is no doubt that he had the attention of many, in his personal life, his research, the museum, the scientific community, social circles. Padian writes in his review, “The biologist today who doesn’t read Agassiz misses some great treatments of glaciology, invertebrates and fishes. The biologist who doesn’t read On the Origin of Species knows nothing about how evolution works.”* Should the story of Agassiz be relegated to whether or not it is useful to only biologists? Surely not. But I think biologists, historians, and others with interest in science, nature, or history will find interest in Irmscher’s Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.

* It is interesting that Padian lacks a sensitivity toward historical interest when reviewing a book about the lesser known creationist Agassiz, but wrote an essay for a facsimile edition of the also lesser known and creation-minded anatomist Richard Owen’s On the Nature of Limbs.
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One thought on “BOOK REVIEW: Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

  1. Pingback: Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science | Science Book a Day

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