Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence
Part 1 out of 10
This eBook was produced by Sue Asscher and Robert Prince.
HIS LIFE AND CORRESPONDENCE.
ELIZABETH CARY AGASSIZ.
I am aware that this book has neither the fullness of personal
narrative, nor the closeness of scientific analysis, which its too
comprehensive title might lead the reader to expect. A word of
explanation is therefore needed. I thought little at first of the
general public, when I began to weave together in narrative form
the facts, letters, and journals contained in this volume. My chief
object was to prevent the dispersion and final loss of scattered
papers which had an unquestionable family value. But, as my work
grew upon my hands, I began to feel that the story of an
intellectual life, which was marked by such rare coherence and
unity of aim, might have a wider interest and usefulness; might,
perhaps, serve as a stimulus and an encouragement to others. For
this reason, and also because I am inclined to believe that the
European portion of the life of Louis Agassiz is little known in
his adopted country, while its American period must be unfamiliar
to many in his native land, I have determined to publish the
material here collected.
The book labors under the disadvantage of being in great part a
translation. The correspondence for the first part was almost
wholly in French and German, so that the choice lay between a
patch-work of several languages or the unity of one, burdened as it
must be with the change of version. I have accepted what seemed to
me the least of these difficulties.
Besides the assistance of my immediate family, including the
revision of the text by my son Alexander Agassiz, I have been
indebted to my friends Dr. and Mrs. Hagen and to the late Professor
Guyot for advice on special points. As will be seen from the list
of illustrations, I have also to thank Mrs. John W. Elliot for her
valuable aid in that part of the work.
On the other side of the water I have had most faithful and
efficient collaborators. Mr. Auguste Agassiz, who survived his
brother Louis several years, and took the greatest interest in
preserving whatever concerned his scientific career, confided to my
hands many papers and documents belonging to his brother's earlier
life. After his death, his cousin and brother-in-law, Mr. Auguste
Mayor, of Neuchatel, continued the same affectionate service.
Without their aid I could not have completed the narrative as it
The friend last named also selected from the glacier of the Aar, at
the request of Alexander Agassiz, the boulder which now marks his
father's grave. With unwearied patience Mr. Mayor passed hours of
toilsome search among the blocks of the moraine near the site of
the old "Hotel des Neuchatelois," and chose at last a stone so
monumental in form that not a touch of the hammer was needed to fit
it for its purpose. In conclusion I allow myself the pleasure of
recording here my gratitude to him and to all who have aided me in
ELIZABETH C. AGASSIZ.
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, June 11, 1885.
1807-1827: TO AGE 20.
Birthplace.--Influence of his Mother.--Early Love of Natural
History.--Boyish Occupations.--Domestic Education.--First School.
--Vacations.--Commercial Life renounced.--College of Lausanne.
--Choice of Profession.--Medical School of Zurich.--Life and
Studies there.--University of Heidelberg.--Studies interrupted by
Illness.--Return to Switzerland.--Occupations during Convalescence.
1827-1828: AGE 20-21.
Arrival in Munich.--Lectures.--Relations with the Professors.
--Schelling, Martius, Oken, Dollinger.--Relations with
Fellow-Students.--The Little Academy.--Plans for Traveling.--Advice
from his Parents.--Vacation Journey.--Tri-Centennial Durer Festival
1828-1829: AGE 21-22.
First Important Work in Natural History.--Spix's Brazilian Fishes.
--Second Vacation Trip.--Sketch of Work during University Year.
--Extracts from the Journal of Mr. Dinkel.--Home Letters.--Hope of
joining Humboldt's Asiatic Expedition.--Diploma of Philosophy.
--Completion of First Part of the Spix Fishes.--Letter concerning
it from Cuvier.
1829-1830: AGE 22-23.
Scientific Meeting at Heidelberg.--Visit at Home.--Illness and
Death of his Grandfather.--Return to Munich.--Plans for Future
Scientific Publications.--Takes his Degree of Medicine.--Visit to
Vienna.--Return to Munich.--Home Letters.--Last Days at Munich.
--Autobiographical Review of School and University Life.
1830-1832: AGE 23-25.
Year at Home.--Leaves Home for Paris.--Delays on the Road.
--Cholera.--Arrival in Paris.--First Visit to Cuvier.--Cuvier's
Kindness.--His Death.--Poverty in Paris.--Home Letters concerning
Embarrassments and about his Work.--Singular Dream.
1832: AGE 25.
Unexpected Relief from Difficulties.--Correspondence with Humboldt.
--Excursion to the Coast of Normandy.--First Sight of the Sea.
--Correspondence concerning Professorship at Neuchatel.--Birthday
Fete.--Invitation to Chair of Natural History at Neuchatel.
--Acceptance.--Letter to Humboldt.
1832-1834: AGE 25-27.
Enters upon his Professorship at Neuchatel.--First Lecture.
--Success as a Teacher.--Love of Teaching.--Influence upon the
Scientific Life of Neuchatel.--Proposal from University of
Heidelberg.--Proposal declined.--Threatened Blindness.
--Correspondence with Humboldt.--Marriage.--Invitation from
Charpentier.--Invitation to visit England.--Wollaston Prize.--First
Number of "Poissons Fossiles."--Review of the Work.
1834-1837: AGE 27-30.
First Visit to England.--Reception by Scientific Men.--Work on
Fossil Fishes there.--Liberality of English Naturalists.--First
Relations with American Science.--Farther Correspondence with
Humboldt.--Second Visit to England.--Continuation of "Fossil
Fishes."--Other Scientific Publications.--Attention drawn to
Glacial Phenomena.--Summer at Bex with Charpentier.--Sale of
Original Drawings for "Fossil Fishes."--Meeting of Helvetic
Society.--Address on Ice-Period.--Letters from Humboldt and Von
1837-1839: AGE 30-32.
Invitation to Professorships at Geneva and Lausanne.--Death of his
Father.--Establishment of Lithographic Press at Neuchatel.
--Researches upon Structure of Mollusks.--Internal Casts of Shells.
--Glacial Explorations.--Views of Buckland.--Relations with Arnold
Guyot.--Their Work together in the Alps.--Letter to Sir Philip
Egerton concerning Glacial Work.--Summer of 1839.--Publication of
"Etudes sur les Glaciers."
1840-1842: AGE 33-35.
Summer Station on the Glacier of the Aar.--Hotel des Neuchatelois.
--Members of the Party.--Work on the Glacier.--Ascent of the
Strahleck and the Siedelhorn.--Visit to England.--Search for
Glacial Remains in Great Britain.--Roads of Glen Roy.--Views of
English Naturalists concerning Agassiz's Glacial Theory.--Letter
from Humboldt.--Winter Visit to Glacier.--Summer of 1841 on the
Glacier.--Descent into the Glacier.--Ascent of the Jungfrau.
1842-1843: AGE 35-36.
Zoological Work uninterrupted by Glacial Researches.--Various
Publications.--"Nomenclator Zoologicus."--"Bibliographia Zoologiae
et Geologiae."--Correspondence with English Naturalists.
--Correspondence with Humboldt.--Glacial Campaign of 1842.
--Correspondence with Prince de Canino concerning Journey to United
States.--Fossil Fishes from the Old Red Sandstone.--Glacial
Campaign of 1843.--Death of Leuthold, the Guide.
1843-1846: AGE 36-39.
Completion of Fossil Fishes.--Followed by Fossil Fishes of the Old
Red Sandstone.--Review of the Later Work.--Identification of Fishes
by the Skull.--Renewed Correspondence with Prince Canino about
Journey to the United States.--Change of Plan owing to the Interest
of the King of Prussia in the Expedition.--Correspondence between
Professor Sedgwick and Agassiz on Development Theory.--Final
Scientific Work in Neuchatel and Paris.--Publication of "Systeme
Glaciaire."--Short Stay in England.--Farewell Letter from Humboldt.
--Sails for United States.
1846: AGE 39.
Arrival at Boston.--Previous Correspondence with Charles Lyell and
Mr. John A. Lowell concerning Lectures at the Lowell Institute.
--Relations with Mr. Lowell.--First Course of Lectures.--Character
of Audience.--Home Letter giving an Account of his first Journey in
the United States.--Impressions of Scientific Men, Scientific
Institutions and Collections.
1846-1847: AGE 39-40.
Course of Lectures in Boston on Glaciers.--Correspondence with
Scientific Friends in Europe.--House in East Boston.--Household and
Housekeeping.--Illness.--Letter to Elie de Beaumont.--Letter to
James D. Dana.
1847-1850: AGE 40-43.
Excursions on Coast Survey Steamer.--Relations with Dr. Bache, the
Superintendent of the Coast Survey.--Political Disturbances in
Switzerland.--Change of Relations with Prussia.--Scientific School
established in Cambridge.--Chair of Natural History offered to
Agassiz.--Acceptance.--Removal to Cambridge.--Literary and
Scientific Associations there and in Boston.--Household in
Cambridge.--Beginning of Museum.--Journey to Lake Superior.--"
Report, with Narration."--"Principles of Zoology," by Agassiz and
Gould.--Letters from European Friends respecting these
Publications.--Letter from Hugh Miller.--Second Marriage.--Arrival
of his Children in America.
1850-1852: AGE 43-45.
Proposition from Dr. Bache.--Exploration of Florida Reefs.--Letter
to Humboldt concerning Work in America.--Appointment to
Professorship of Medical College in Charleston, S.C.--Life at the
South.--Views concerning Races of Men.--Prix Cuvier.
1852-1855: AGE 45-48.
Return to Cambridge.--Anxiety about Collections.--Purchase of
Collections.--Second Winter in Charleston.--Illness.--Letter to
James D. Dana concerning Geographical Distribution and Geological
Succession of Animals.--Resignation of Charleston Professorship.
--Propositions from Zurich.--Letter to Oswald Heer.--Decision to
remain in Cambridge.--Letters to James D. Dana, S.S. Haldeman, and
Others respecting Collections illustrative of the Distribution of
Fishes, Shells, etc., in our Rivers.--Establishment of School for
1855-1860: AGE 48-53.
"Contributions to Natural History of the United States."
--Remarkable Subscription.--Review of the Work.--Its Reception in
Europe and America.--Letters from Humboldt and Owen concerning it.
--Birthday.--Longfellow's Verses.--Laboratory at Nahant.
--Invitation to the Museum of Natural History in Paris.--Founding
of Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge.--Summer Vacation in
1860-1863: AGE 53-56.
Return to Cambridge.--Removal of Collection to New Museum Building.
--Distribution of Work.--Relations with his Students.--Breaking out
of the War between North and South.--Interest of Agassiz in the
Preservation of the Union.--Commencement of Museum Publications.
--Reception of Third and Fourth Volumes of "Contributions."--Copley
Medal.--General Correspondence.--Lecturing Tour in the West.
--Circular Letter concerning Anthropological Collections.--Letter
to Mr. Ticknor concerning Geographical Distribution of Fishes in
1863-1864: AGE 56-57.
Correspondence with Dr. S.G. Howe.--Bearing of the War on the
Position of the Negro Race.--Affection for Harvard College.
--Interest in her General Progress.--Correspondence with Emerson
concerning Harvard.--Glacial Phenomena in Maine.
1865-1868: AGE 58-61.
Letter to his Mother announcing Journey to Brazil.--Sketch of
Journey.--Kindness of the Emperor.--Liberality of the Brazilian
Government.--Correspondence with Charles Sumner.--Letter to his
Mother at Close of Brazil Journey.--Letter from Martius concerning
Journey in Brazil.--Return to Cambridge.--Lectures in Boston and
New York.--Summer at Nahant.--Letter to Professor Peirce on the
Survey of Boston Harbor.--Death of his Mother.--Illness.
--Correspondence with Oswald Heer.--Summer Journey in the West.
--Cornell University.--Letter from Longfellow.
1868-1871: AGE 61-64.
New Subscription to Museum.--Additional Buildings.--Arrangement of
New Collections.--Dredging Expedition on Board the Bibb.--Address
at the Humboldt Centennial.--Attack on the Brain.--Suspension of
Work.--Working Force at the Museum.--New Accessions.--Letter from
Professor Sedgwick.--Letter from Professor Deshayes.--Restored
Health.--Hassler Voyage proposed.--Acceptance.--Scientific
Preparation for the Voyage.
1871-1872: AGE 64-65.
Sailing of the Hassler.--Sargassum Fields.--Dredging at Barbados.
--From the West Indies to Rio de Janeiro.--Monte Video.
--Quarantine.--Glacial Traces in the Bay of Monte Video.--The Gulf
of Mathias.--Dredging off Gulf of St. George.--Dredging off Cape
Virgens.--Possession Bay.--Salt Pool.--Moraine.--Sandy Point.
--Cruise through the Straits.--Scenery.--Wind Storm.--Borja Bay.
--Glacier Bay.--Visit to the Glacier.--Chorocua Bay.
1872: AGE 65.
Picnic in Sholl Bay.--Fuegians.--Smythe's Channel.--Comparison of
Glacial Features with those of the Strait of Magellan.--Ancud.
--Port of San Pedro.--Bay of Concepcion.--Three Weeks in
Talcahuana.--Collections.--Geology.--Land Journey to Santiago.
--Scenes along the Road.--Report on Glacial Features to Mr. Peirce.
--Arrival at Santiago.--Election as Foreign Associate of the
Institute of France.--Valparaiso.--The Galapagos.--Geological and
Zoological Features.--Arrival at San Francisco.
1872-1873: AGE 65-66.
Return to Cambridge.--Summer School proposed.--Interest of Agassiz.
--Gift of Mr. Anderson.--Prospectus of Penikese School.
--Difficulties.--Opening of School.--Summer Work.--Close of School.
--Last Course of Lectures at Museum.--Lecture before Board of
Agriculture.--Illness.--Death.--Place of Burial.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS.
1. PORTRAIT OF LOUIS AGASSIZ AT THE AGE OF NINETEEN; copied by Mrs.
John W. Elliot from a pastel drawing by Cecile Braun.
2. THE STONE BASIN AT MOTIER; drawn by Mrs. Elliot from a
3. THE LABORATORY AT NAHANT; from a drawing by Mrs. Elliot.
4. THE BIRTHPLACE OF LOUIS AGASSIZ; from a photograph.
5. HOTEL DES NEUCHATELOIS; copied by Mrs. Elliot from an oil sketch
made on the spot by J. Burkhardt.
6. PORTRAIT OF JACOB LEUTHOLD; from a portrait by Burkhardt.
7. SECOND STATION ON THE AAR GLACIER; Copied by Mrs. Elliot from a
sketch in oil by J. Burkhardt.
8. PORTRAIT OF LOUIS AGASSIZ AT THE AGE OF FIFTY-FIVE; originally
published in "Nature".
9. COTTAGE AT NAHANT; from a photograph.
10. MUSEUM OF COMPARATIVE ZOOLOGY; from a photograph.
11. PORTRAIT BUST OF AGASSIZ BY POWERS AT THE MUSEUM OF COMPARATIVE
ZOOLOGY; from a photograph.
12. VIEW OF PENIKESE; from a photograph.
PART 1. IN EUROPE.
1807-1827: TO AGE 20.
Influence of his Mother.
Early Love of Natural History.
Commercial Life renounced.
College of Lausanne.
Choice of Profession.
Medical School of Zurich.
Life and Studies there.
University of Heidelberg.
Studies interrupted by Illness.
Return to Switzerland.
Occupations during Convalescence.
JEAN LOUIS RODOLPHE AGASSIZ was born May 28, 1807, at the village
of Motier, on the Lake of Morat. His father, Louis Rodolphe
Agassiz, was a clergyman; his mother, Rose Mayor, was the daughter
of a physician whose home was at Cudrefin, on the shore of the Lake
The parsonages in Switzerland are frequently pretty and
picturesque. That of Motier, looking upon the lake and sheltered by
a hill which commands a view over the whole chain of the Bernese
Alps, was especially so. It possessed a vineyard large enough to
add something in good years to the small salary of the pastor; an
orchard containing, among other trees, an apricot famed the country
around for the unblemished beauty of its abundant fruit; a good
vegetable garden, and a delicious spring of water flowing always
fresh and pure into a great stone basin behind the house. That
stone basin was Agassiz's first aquarium; there he had his first
collection of fishes.* (* After his death a touching tribute was
paid to his memory by the inhabitants of his birthplace. With
appropriate ceremonies, a marble slab was placed above the door of
the parsonage of Motier, with this inscription, "J. Louis Agassiz,
celebre naturaliste, est ne dans cette maison, le 28 Mai, 1807.")
It does not appear that he had any precocious predilection for
study, and his parents, who for the first ten years of his life
were his only teachers, were too wise to stimulate his mind beyond
the ordinary attainments of his age. having lost her first four
children in infancy, his mother watched with trembling solicitude
over his early years. It was perhaps for this reason that she was
drawn so closely to her boy, and understood that his love of
nature, and especially of all living things, was an intellectual
tendency, and not simply a child's disposition to find friends and
playmates in the animals about him. In later years her sympathy
gave her the key to the work of his manhood, as it had done to the
sports of his childhood. She remained his most intimate friend to
the last hour of her life, and he survived her but six years.
Louis's love of natural history showed itself almost from infancy.
When a very little fellow he had, beside his collection of fishes,
all sorts of pets: birds, field-mice, hares, rabbits, guinea-pigs,
etc., whose families he reared with the greatest care. Guided by
his knowledge of the haunts and habits of fishes, he and his
brother Auguste became the most adroit of young fishermen,--using
processes all their own and quite independent of hook, line, or
net. Their hunting grounds were the holes and crevices beneath the
stones or in the water-washed walls of the lake shore. No such
shelter was safe from their curious fingers, and they acquired such
dexterity that when bathing they could seize the fish even in the
open water, attracting them by little arts to which the fish
submitted as to a kind of fascination. Such amusements are no doubt
the delight of many a lad living in the country, nor would they be
worth recording except as illustrating the unity of Agassiz's
intellectual development from beginning to end. His pet animals
suggested questions, to answer which was the task of his life; and
his intimate study of the fresh-water fishes of Europe, later the
subject of one of his important works, began with his first
collection from the Lake of Morat.
As a boy he amused himself also with all kinds of handicrafts on a
small scale. The carpenter, the cobbler, the tailor, were then as
much developed in him as the naturalist. In Swiss villages it was
the habit in those days for the trades-people to go from house to
house in their different vocations. The shoemaker came two or three
times a year with all his materials, and made shoes for the whole
family by the day; the tailor came to fit them for garments which
he made in the house; the cooper arrived before the vintage, to
repair old barrels and hogsheads or to make new ones, and to
replace their worn-out hoops; in short, to fit up the cellar for
the coming season. Agassiz seems to have profited by these lessons
as much as by those he learned from his father; and when a very
little fellow, he could cut and put together a well-fitting pair of
shoes for his sisters' dolls, was no bad tailor, and could make a
miniature barrel that was perfectly water-tight. He remembered
these trivial facts as a valuable part of his incidental education.
He said he owed much of his dexterity in manipulation, to the
training of eye and hand gained in these childish plays.
Though fond of quiet, in-door occupation, he was an active, daring
boy. One winter day when about seven years of age, he was skating
with his little brother Auguste, two years younger than himself,
and a number of other boys, near the shore of the lake. They were
talking of a great fair held that day at the town of Morat, on the
opposite side of the lake, to which M. Agassiz had gone in the
morning, not crossing upon the ice, however, but driving around the
shore. The temptation was too strong for Louis, and he proposed to
Auguste that they should skate across, join their father at the
fair, and come home with him in the afternoon. They started
accordingly. The other boys remained on their skating ground till
twelve o'clock, the usual dinner hour, when they returned to the
village. Mme. Agassiz was watching for her boys, thinking them
rather late, and on inquiring for them among the troop of urchins
coming down the village street she learned on what errand they had
gone. Her anxiety may be imagined. The lake was not less than two
miles across, and she was by no means sure that the ice was safe.
She hurried to an upper window with a spy-glass to see if she could
descry them anywhere. At the moment she caught sight of them,
already far on their journey, Louis had laid himself down across a
fissure in the ice, thus making a bridge for his little brother,
who was creeping over his back. Their mother directed a workman, an
excellent skater, to follow them as swiftly as possible. He
overtook them just as they had gained the shore, but it did not
occur to him that they could return otherwise than they had come,
and he skated back with them across the lake. Weary, hungry, and
disappointed, the boys reached the house without having seen the
fair or enjoyed the drive home with their father in the afternoon.
When he was ten years old, Agassiz was sent to the college for boys
at Bienne, thus exchanging the easy rule of domestic instruction
for the more serious studies of a public school. He found himself
on a level with his class, however, for his father was an admirable
teacher. Indeed it would seem that Agassiz's own passion for
teaching, as well as his love of young people and his sympathy with
intellectual aspiration everywhere, was an inheritance. Wherever
his father was settled as pastor, at Motier, at Orbe, and later at
Concise, his influence was felt in the schools as much as in the
pulpit. A piece of silver remains, a much prized heir-loom in the
family, given to him by the municipality of Orbe in acknowledgment
of his services in the schools.
The rules of the school at Bienne were rather strict, but the life
led by the boys was hardy and invigorating, and they played as
heartily as they worked. Remembering his own school-life, Agassiz
often asked himself whether it was difference of climate or of
method, which makes the public school life in the United States so
much more trying to the health of children than the one under which
he was brought up. The boys and girls in our public schools are
said to be overworked with a session of five hours, and an
additional hour or two of study at home. At the College of Bienne
there were nine hours of study, and the boys were healthy and
happy. Perhaps the secret might be found in the frequent
interruption, two or three hours of study alternating with an
interval for play or rest. Agassiz always retained a pleasant
impression of the school and its teachers. Mr. Rickly, the
director, he regarded with an affectionate respect, which ripened
into friendship in maturer years.
The vacations were, of course, hailed with delight, and as Motier
was but twenty miles distant from Bienne, Agassiz and his younger
brother Auguste, who joined him at school a year later, were in the
habit of making the journey on foot. The lives of these brothers
were so closely interwoven in their youth that for many years the
story of one includes the story of the other. They had everything
in common, and with their little savings they used to buy books,
chosen by Louis, the foundation, as it proved, of his future
Long before dawn on the first day of vacation the two bright,
active boys would be on their homeward way, as happy as holiday
could make them, especially if they were returning for the summer
harvest or the autumn vintage. The latter was then, as now, a
season of festivity. In these more modern days something of its
primitive picturesqueness may have been lost; but when Agassiz was
a boy, all the ordinary occupations were given up for this
important annual business, in which work and play were so happily
combined. On the appointed day the working people might be seen
trooping in from neighboring cantons, where there were no
vineyards, to offer themselves for the vintage. They either camped
out at night, sleeping in the open air, or found shelter in the
stables and outhouses. During the grape gathering the floor of the
barn and shed at the parsonage of Motier was often covered in the
evening with tired laborers, both men and women. Of course, when
the weather was fine, these were festival days for the children. A
bushel basket, heaped high with white and amber bunches, stood in
the hall, or in the living room of the family, and young and old
were free to help themselves as they came and went. Then there were
the frolics in the vineyard, the sweet cup of must (unfermented
juice of the grape), and, the ball on the last evening at the close
of the merry-making.
Sometimes the boys passed their vacations at Cudrefin, with their
grandfather Mayor. He was a kind old man, much respected in his
profession, and greatly beloved for his benevolence. His little
white horse was well known in all the paths and by-roads of the
country around, as he went from village to village among the sick.
The grandmother was frail in health, but a great favorite among the
children, for whom she had an endless fund of stories, songs, and
hymns. Aunt Lisette, an unmarried daughter, who long lived to
maintain the hospitality of the old Cudrefin house and to be
beloved as the kindest of maiden aunts by two or three generations
of nephews and nieces, was the domestic providence of these family
gatherings, where the praises of her excellent dishes were annually
sung. The roof was elastic; there was no question about numbers,
for all came who could; the more, the merrier, with no diminution
of good cheer.
The Sunday after Easter was the great popular fete. Then every
house was busy coloring Easter eggs and making fritters. The young
girls and the lads of the village, the former in their prettiest
dresses and the latter with enormous bouquets of artificial flowers
in their hats, went together to church in the morning. In the
afternoon the traditional match between two runners, chosen from
the village youths, took place. They were dressed in white, and
adorned with bright ribbons. With music before them, and followed
by all the young people, they went in procession to the place where
a quantity of Easter eggs had been distributed upon the ground. At
a signal the runners separated, the one to pick up the eggs
according to a prescribed course, the other to run to the next
village and back again. The victory was to the one who accomplished
his task first, and he was proclaimed king of the feast. Hand in
hand the runners, followed as before by all their companions,
returned to join in the dance now to take place before the house of
Dr. Mayor. After a time the festivities were interrupted by a
little address in patois from the first musician, who concluded by
announcing from his platform a special dance in honor of the family
of Dr. Mayor. In this dance the family with some of their friends
and neighbors took part,--the young ladies dancing with the peasant
lads and the young gentlemen with the girls of the village,--while
the rest formed a circle to look on.
Thus, between study and recreation, the four years which Agassiz's
father and mother intended he should pass at Bienne drew to a
close. A yellow, time-worn sheet of foolscap, on which during the
last year of his school-life he wrote his desiderata in the way of
books, tells something of his progress and his aspirations at
fourteen years of age. "I wish," so it runs, "to advance in the
sciences, and for that I need d'Anville, Ritter, an Italian
dictionary, a Strabo in Greek, Mannert and Thiersch; and also the
works of Malte-Brun and Seyfert. I have resolved, as far as I am
allowed to do so, to become a man of letters, and at present I can
go no further: 1st, in ancient geography, for I already know all my
notebooks, and I have only such books as Mr. Rickly can lend me; I
must have d'Anville or Mannert; 2nd, in modern geography, also, I
have only such books as Mr. Rickly can lend me, and the Osterwald
geography, which does not accord with the new divisions; I must
have Ritter or Malte-Brun; 3rd, for Greek I need a new grammar, and
I shall choose Thiersch; 4th, I have no Italian dictionary, except
one lent me by Mr. Moltz; I must have one; 5th, for Latin I need a
larger grammar than the one I have, and I should like Seyfert; 6th,
Mr. Rickly tells me that as I have a taste for geography he will
give me a lesson in Greek (gratis), in which we would translate
Strabo, provided I can find one. For all this I ought to have about
twelve louis. I should like to stay at Bienne till the month of
July, and afterward serve my apprenticeship in commerce at
Neuchatel for a year and a half. Then I should like to pass four
years at a university in Germany, and finally finish my studies at
Paris, where I would stay about five years. Then, at the age of
twenty-five, I could begin to write."
Agassiz's note-books, preserved by his parents, who followed the
education of their children with the deepest interest, give
evidence of his faithful work both at school and college. They form
a great pile of manuscript, from the paper copy-books of the
school-boy to the carefully collated reports of the college
student, begun when the writer was ten or eleven years of age and
continued with little interruption till he was eighteen or
nineteen. The later volumes are of nearly quarto size and very
thick, some of them containing from four to six hundred closely
covered pages; the handwriting is small, no doubt for economy of
space, but very clear. The subjects are physiological,
pathological, and anatomical, with more or less of general natural
history. This series of books is kept with remarkable neatness.
Even in the boy's copy-books, containing exercises in Greek, Latin,
French and German, with compositions on a variety of topics, the
writing is even and distinct, with scarcely a blot or an erasure.
From the very beginning there is a careful division of subjects
under clearly marked headings, showing even then a tendency toward
an orderly classification of facts and thoughts.
It is evident from the boyish sketch which he drew of his future
plans that the hope of escaping the commercial life projected for
him, and of dedicating himself to letters and learning, was already
dawning. He had begun to feel the charm of study, and his
scientific tastes, though still pursued rather as the pastimes of a
boy than as the investigations of a student, were nevertheless
becoming more and more absorbing. He was fifteen years old and the
time had come when, according to a purpose long decided upon, he
was to leave school and enter the business house of his uncle,
Francois Mayor, at Neuchatel. He begged for a farther delay, to be
spent in two additional years of study at the College of Lausanne.
He was supported in his request by several of his teachers, and
especially by Mr. Rickly, who urged his parents to encourage the
remarkable intelligence and zeal already shown by their son in his
studies. They were not difficult to persuade; indeed, only want of
means, never want of will, limited the educational advantages they
gave to their children.
It was decided, therefore, that he should go to Lausanne. Here his
love for everything bearing on the study of nature was confirmed.
Professor Chavannes, Director of the Cantonal Museum, in whom he
found not only an interesting teacher, but a friend who sympathized
with his favorite tastes, possessed the only collection of Natural
History in the Canton de Vaud. To this Agassiz now had access. His
uncle, Dr. Mathias Mayor, his mother's brother and a physician of
note in Lausanne, whose opinion had great weight with M. and Mme.
Agassiz, was also attracted by the boy's intelligent interest in
anatomy and kindred subjects. He advised that his nephew should be
allowed to study medicine, and at the close of Agassiz's college
course at Lausanne the commercial plan was finally abandoned, and
he was permitted to choose the medical profession as the one most
akin to his inclination.
Being now seventeen years of age, he went to the medical school of
Zurich. Here, for the first time, he came into contact with men
whose instruction derived freshness and vigor from their original
researches. He was especially indebted to Professor Schinz, a man
of learning and ability, who held the chair of Natural History and
Physiology, and who showed the warmest interest in his pupil's
progress. He gave Agassiz a key to his private library, as well as
to his collection of birds. This liberality was invaluable to one
whose poverty made books an unattainable luxury. Many an hour did
the young student pass at that time in copying books which were
beyond his means, though some of them did not cost more than a
dollar a volume. His brother Auguste, still his constant companion,
shared this task, a pure labor of love with him, for the books were
more necessary to Louis's studies than to his own.
During the two years passed by Agassiz in Zurich he saw little of
society beyond the walls of the university. His brother and he had
a pleasant home in a private house, where they shared the family
life of their host and hostess. In company with them, Agassiz made
his first excursion of any importance into the Alps. They ascended
the Righi and passed the night there. At about sunset a fearful
thunder-storm gathered below them, while on the summit of the
mountain the weather remained perfectly clear and calm. Under a
blue sky they watched the lightning, and listened to the thunder in
the dark clouds, which were pouring torrents of rain upon the plain
and the Lake of Lucerne. The storm lasted long after night had
closed in, and Agassiz lingered when all his companions had retired
to rest, till at last the clouds drifted softly away, letting down
the light of moon and stars on the lake and landscape. He used to
say that in his subsequent Alpine excursions he had rarely
witnessed a scene of greater beauty.
Such of his letters from Zurich as have been preserved have only a
home interest. In one of them, however, he alludes to a curious
circumstance, which might have changed the tenor of his life. He
and his brother were returning on foot, for the vacation, from
Zurich to their home which was now in Orbe, where their father and
mother had been settled since 1821. Between Neuchatel and Orbe they
were overtaken by a traveling carriage. A gentleman who was its
sole occupant invited them to get in, made them welcome to his
lunch, talked to them of their student life, and their future
plans, and drove them to the parsonage, where he introduced himself
to their parents. Some days afterward M. Agassiz received a letter
from this chance acquaintance, who proved to be a man in affluent
circumstances, of good social position, living at the time in
Geneva. He wrote to M. Agassiz that he had been singularly
attracted by his elder son, Louis, and that he wished to adopt him,
assuming henceforth all the responsibility of his education and his
establishment in life. This proposition fell like a bomb-shell into
the quiet parsonage. M. Agassiz was poor, and every advantage for
his children was gained with painful self-sacrifice on the part of
both parents. How then refuse such an opportunity for one among
them, and that one so gifted? After anxious reflection, however,
the father, with the full concurrence of his son, decided to
decline an offer which, brilliant as it seemed, involved a
separation and might lead to a false position. A correspondence was
kept up for years between Louis and the friend he had so suddenly
won, and who continued to interest himself in his career. Although
it had no sequel, this incident is mentioned as showing a kind of
personal magnetism which, even as child and boy, Agassiz
unconsciously exercised over others.
From Zurich, Agassiz went to the University of Heidelberg, where we
find him in the spring of 1826.
TO HIS FATHER.
HEIDELBERG, April 24, 1826.
. . .Having arrived early enough to see something of the environs
before the opening of the term, I decided to devote each day to a
ramble in one direction or another, in order to become familiar
with my surroundings. I am the more glad to have done this as I
have learned that after the lectures begin there will be no further
chance for such interruptions, and we shall be obliged to stick
closely to our work at home.
Our first excursion was to Neckarsteinach, two and a half leagues
from here. The road follows the Neckar, and at certain places rises
boldly above the river, which flows between two hills, broken by
rocks of the color of red chalk, which often jut out from either
side. Farther on the valley widens, and a pretty rising ground,
crowned by ruins, suddenly presents itself in the midst of a wide
plain, where sheep are feeding. Neckarsteinach itself is only a
little village, containing, however, three castles, two of which
are in ruins. The third is still inhabited, and commands a
magnificent view. In the evening we returned to Heidelberg by
Another day we started for what is here called "The Mountain,"
though it is at most no higher than Le Suchet. As the needful
supplies are not to be obtained there, we took our provisions with
us. We had so much fun out of this, that I must tell you all about
it. In the morning Z--bought at the market veal, liver, and bacon
enough to serve for three persons during two days. To these
supplies we added salt, pepper, butter, onions, bread, and some
jugs of beer. One of us took two saucepans for cooking, and some
alcohol. Arrived at the summit of our mountain, we looked out for a
convenient spot, and there we cooked our dinner. It did not take
long, nor can I say whether all was done according to the rules of
art. But this I know,--that never did a meal seem to me better. We
wandered over the mountain for the rest of the day, and at evening
came to a house where we prepared our supper after the same
fashion, to the great astonishment of the assembled household, and
especially of an old woman who regretted the death of her husband,
because she said it would certainly have amused him. We slept on
the ground on some straw, and returned to Heidelberg the next day
in time for dinner. The following day we went to Mannheim to visit
the theatre. It is very handsome and well appointed, and we were
fortunate in happening upon an excellent opera. Beyond this, I saw
nothing of Mannheim except the house of Kotzebue and the place
where Sand was beheaded.
To-day I have made my visits to the professors. For three among
them I had letters from Professors Schinz and Hirzel. I was
received by all in the kindest way. Professor Tiedemann, the
Chancellor, is a man about the age of papa and young for his years.
He is so well-known that I need not undertake his panegyric here.
As soon as I told him that I brought a letter from Zurich, he
showed me the greatest politeness, offered me books from his
library; in one word, said he would be for me here what Professor
Schinz, with whom he had formerly studied, had been for me in
Zurich. After the opening of the term, when I know these gentlemen
better, I will tell you more about them. I have still to describe
my home, chamber, garden, people of the house, etc.
The next letter fills in this frame-work.
TO HIS FATHER.
HEIDELBERG, May 24, 1826.
. . .According to your request, I am going to write you all
possible details about my host, the employment of my time, etc.,
etc. Mr.--, my "philister," is a tobacco merchant in easy
circumstances, having a pretty house in the faubourg of the city.
My windows overlook the town, and my prospect is bounded by a hill
situated to the north of Heidelberg. At the back of the house is a
large and fine garden, at the foot of which is a very pretty
summer-house. There are also several clumps of trees in the garden,
and an aviary filled with native birds. . .
Since each day in term time is only the repetition of every other,
the account of one will give an idea of all, especially as I follow
with regularity the plan of study I have formed. Every morning I
rise at six o'clock, dress, and breakfast. At seven I go to my
lectures, given during the morning in the Museum building, next to
which is the anatomical laboratory. If, in the interval, I have a
free hour, as sometimes happens from ten to eleven, I occupy it in
making anatomical preparations. I shall tell you more of that and
of the Museum another time. From twelve to one I practice fencing.
We dine at about one o'clock, after which I walk till two, when I
return to the house and to my studies till five o'clock. From five
to six we have a lecture from the renowned Tiedemann. After that, I
either take a bath in the Neckar or another walk. From eight to
nine I resume my special work, and then, according to my
inclination, go to the Swiss club, or, if I am tired, to bed. I
have my evening service and talk silently with you, believing that
at that hour you also do not forget your Louis, who thinks always
of you. . .As soon as I know, for I cannot yet make an exact
estimate, I will write you as nearly as possible what my expenses
are likely to be. Sometimes there may be unlooked-for expenditures,
as, for instance, six crowns for a matriculation paper. But be
assured that at all events I shall restrict myself to what is
absolutely necessary, and do my best to economize. The same of the
probable duration of my stay in Heidelberg; I shall certainly not
prolong it needlessly. . .
Now for the first time the paths of the two brothers separated,
Auguste returning from Zurich to Neuchatel, where he entered into
business. It chanced, however, that in one of the first
acquaintances made by Louis in Heidelberg he found not only a
congenial comrade, but a friend for life, and in after years a
brother. Professor Tiedemann, by whom Agassiz had been so kindly
received, recommended him to seek the acquaintance of young
Alexander Braun, an ardent student, and an especial lover of
botany. At Tiedemann's lecture the next day Agassiz's attention was
attracted by a young man who sat next him, and who was taking very
careful notes and illustrating them. There was something very
winning in his calm, gentle face, full of benevolence and
intelligence. Convinced by his manner of listening to the lecture
and transcribing it that this was the student of whom Tiedemann had
spoken, Agassiz turned to his neighbor as they both rose at the
close of the hour, and said, "Are you Alex Braun?" "Yes, and you,
Louis Agassiz?" It seems that Professor Tiedemann, who must have
had a quick eye for affinities in the moral as well as in the
physical world, had said to Braun also, that he advised him to make
the acquaintance of a young Swiss naturalist who had just come, and
who seemed full of enthusiasm for his work. The two young men left
the lecture-room together, and from that time their studies, their
excursions, their amusements, were undertaken and pursued in each
other's company. In their long rambles, while they collected
specimens in their different departments of Natural History, Braun
learned zoology from Agassiz, and he, in his turn, learned botany
from Braun. This was, perhaps, the reason why Alexander Braun,
afterward Director of the Botanical Gardens in Berlin, knew more of
zoology than other botanists, while Agassiz himself combined an
extensive knowledge of botany with his study of the animal kingdom.
That the attraction was mutual may be seen by the following extract
from a letter of Alexander Braun to his father.
BRAUN To HIS FATHER.
HEIDELBERG, May 12, 1826.
. . .In my leisure hours, between the forenoon and afternoon
lectures, I go to the dissecting-room, where, in company with
another young naturalist who has appeared like a rare comet on the
Heidelberg horizon, I dissect all manner of beasts, such as dogs,
cats, birds, fishes, and even smaller fry, snails, butterflies,
caterpillars, worms, and the like. Beside this, we always have from
Tiedemann the very best books for reference and comparison, for he
has a fine library, especially rich in anatomical works, and is
particularly friendly and obliging to us.
In the afternoon from two to three I attend Geiger's lectures on
pharmaceutical chemistry, and from five to six those of Tiedemann
on comparative anatomy. In the interval, I sometimes go with this
naturalist, so recently arrived among us (his name is Agassiz, and
he is from Orbe), on a hunt after animals and plants. Not only do
we collect and learn to observe all manner of things, but we have
also an opportunity of exchanging our views on scientific matters
in general. I learn a great deal from him, for he is much more at
home in zoology than I am. He is familiar with almost all the known
mammalia, recognizes the birds from far off by their song, and can
give a name to every fish in the water. In the morning we often
stroll together through the fish market, where he explains to me
all the different species. He is going to teach me how to stuff
fishes, and then we intend to make a collection of all the native
kinds. Many other useful things he knows; speaks German and French
equally well, English and Italian fairly, so that I have already
appointed him to be my interpreter on some future vacation trip to
Italy. He is well acquainted with ancient languages also, and
studies medicine besides. . .
A few lines from Braun to his mother, several weeks later, show
that this first enthusiasm, poured out with half-laughing
extravagance to his father, was ripening into friendship of a more
BRAUN TO HIS MOTHER.
HEIDELBERG, June 1, 1826.
. . .I am very happy now that I have found some one whose
occupations are the same as mine. Before Agassiz came I was obliged
to make my excursions almost always alone, and to study in
hermit-like isolation. After all, two people working together can
accomplish far more than either one can do alone. In order, for
instance, to utilize the interval spent in the time-consuming and
mechanical work of preparing specimens, pinning insects and the
like, we have agreed that while one is so employed the other shall
read aloud. In this way we shall go through various works on
physiology, anatomy, and zoology.
Next to Alexander Braun, Agassiz's most congenial companion at
Heidelberg was Karl Schimper, a friend of Braun, and like him a
young botanist of brilliant promise. The three soon became
inseparable. Agassiz had many friends and companions at the
university beside those who, on account of their influence upon his
after life, are mentioned here. He was too affectionate not to be a
genial companion among his young countrymen of whom there were many
at Heidelberg, where they had a club and a gymnasium of their own.
In the latter, Agassiz bore his part in all the athletic sports,
being distinguished both as a powerful gymnast and an expert
Of the professors then at Heidelberg, Leuckart, the zoologist, was,
perhaps, the most inspiriting. His lectures were full of original
suggestions and clever hypotheses, which excited and sometimes
amused his listeners. He knew how to take advantage of the
enthusiasm of his brighter pupils, and, at their request, gave them
a separate course of instruction on special groups of animals; not
without some personal sacrifice, for these extra lectures were
given at seven o'clock in the morning, and the students were often
obliged to pull their professor out of bed for the purpose. The
fact that they did so shows at least the friendly relation existing
between teacher and scholars. With Bischoff the botanist also, the
young friends were admitted to the most kindly intercourse. Many a
pleasant botanical excursion they had with him, and they owed to
him a thorough and skillful instruction in the use of the
microscope, handled by him like a master. Tiedemann's lectures were
very learned, and Agassiz always spoke of his old teacher in
comparative anatomy and physiology with affectionate respect and
admiration. He was not, however, an inspiring teacher, and though
an excellent friend to the students, they had no such intimate
personal relations with him as with Leuckart and Bischoff. From
Bronn, the paleontologist, they received an immense amount of
special information, but his instruction was minute in details
rather than suggestive in ideas; and they were glad when their
professor, finding that the course must be shortened for want of
time, displayed to them his magnificent collection of fossils, and
with the help of the specimens, developed his subject in a more
general and practical way.* (* This collection was purchased in
1859 by the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, and Agassiz had thus the pleasure of teaching his
American pupils from the very collection in which he had himself
made his first important paleontological studies.) Of the medical
professors, Nageli was the more interesting, though the reputation
of Chelius brought him a larger audience. If there was however any
lack of stimulus in the lecture rooms, the young friends made good
the deficiency by their own indefatigable and intelligent study of
nature, seeking to satisfy their craving for knowledge by every
means within their reach.* (* The material for this account of the
student life of the two friends at Heidelberg and of their teachers
was chiefly furnished by Alexander Braun himself at the close of
his own life, after the death of Agassiz. The later sketches of the
Professors at Munich in 1832 were drawn in great part from the same
As the distance and expense made it impossible for Agassiz to spend
his vacations with his family in Switzerland, it soon became the
habit for him to pass the holidays with his new friend at
Carlsruhe. For a young man of his tastes and acquirements a more
charming home-life than the one to which he was here introduced can
hardly be imagined. The whole atmosphere was in harmony with the
pursuits of the students. The house was simple in its appointments,
but rich in books, music, and in all things stimulating to the
thought and imagination. It stood near one of the city gates which
opened into an extensive oak forest, in itself an admirable
collecting ground for the naturalist. At the back certain rooms,
sheltered by the spacious garden from the noise of the street, were
devoted to science. In the first of these rooms the father's rich
collection of minerals was arranged, and beyond this were the
laboratories of his sons and their friends, where specimens of all
sorts, dried and living plants, microscopes and books of reference,
covered the working tables. Here they brought their treasures; here
they drew, studied, dissected, arranged their specimens; here they
discussed the theories, with which their young brains were teeming,
about the growth, structure, and relations of animals and plants.*
(* See "Biographical Memoir of Louis Agassiz" by Arnold Guyuot, in
the "Proceedings of U.S. National Academy".)
From this house, which became a second home to Agassiz, he wrote to
his father in the Christmas holidays of 1826:. . ."My happiness
would be perfect were it not for the painful thought which pursues
me everywhere, that I live on your privations; yet it is impossible
for me to diminish my expenses farther. You would lift a great
weight from my heart if you could relieve yourself of this burden
by an arrangement with my uncle at Neuchatel. I am confident that
when I have finished my studies I could easily make enough to repay
him. At all events, I know that you cannot pay the whole at once,
and therefore in telling me frankly what are our resources for this
object you would do me the greatest favor. Until I know that, I
cannot be at peace. Otherwise, I am well, going on as usual, always
working as hard as I can, and I believe all the professors whose
lectures I attend are satisfied with me.". . .His father was also
pleased with his conduct and with his progress, for about this time
he writes to a friend, "We have the best possible news of Louis.
Courageous, industrious, and discreet, he pursues honorably and
vigorously his aim, namely, the degree of Doctor of Medicine and
In the spring of 1827 Agassiz fell ill of a typhus fever prevalent
at the university as an epidemic. His life was in danger for many
days. As soon as he could be moved, Braun took him to Carlsruhe,
where his convalescence was carefully watched over by his friend's
mother. Being still delicate he was advised to recruit in his
native air, and he returned to Orbe, accompanied by Braun, who did
not leave him till he had placed him in safety with his parents.
The following extracts from the correspondence between himself and
Braun give some account of this interval spent at home.
AGASSIZ TO BRAUN.
ORBE, May 26, 1827.
. . .Since I have been here, I have walked faithfully and have
collected a good number of plants which are not yet dry. I have
more than one hundred kinds, about twenty specimens of each. As
soon as they can be taken out of the press, I'll send you a few
specimens of each kind with a number attached so that you may
identify them. Take care that you do not displace the numbers in
opening the package. Should you want more of any particular kind
let me know; also whether Schimper wishes for any. . .At Neuchatel
I had the good fortune to find at least thirty specimens of
Bombinator obstetricans with the eggs. Tell Dr. Leuckart that I
will bring him some,--and some for you also. I kept several alive
laid in damp moss; after fourteen days the eggs were almost as
large as peas, and the little tadpoles moved about inside in all
directions. The mother stripped the eggs from her legs, and one of
the little tadpoles came out, but died for want of water. Then I
placed the whole mass of eggs in a vessel filled with water, and
behold! in about an hour some twenty young ones were swimming
freely about. I shall spare no pains to raise them, and I hope, if
I begin aright, to make fine toads of them in the end. My oldest
sister is busy every day in making drawings for me to illustrate
their gradual development. . .I dissect now as much and on as great
a variety of subjects as possible. This makes my principal
occupation. I am often busy too with Oken. His "Natur-philosophie"
gives me the greatest pleasure. I long for my box, being in need of
my books, which, no doubt, you have sent. Meantime, I am reading
something of Universal History, and am not idle, as you see. But I
miss the evenings with you and Schimper at Heidelberg, and wish I
were with you once more. I am afraid when that happy time does
come, it will be only too short. . .
BRAUN TO AGASSIZ.
HEIDELBERG, May, 1827.
. . .On Thursday evening, the 10th, I reached Heidelberg. The
medical lectures did not begin till the second week of May, so that
I have missed little, and almost regret having returned so soon. . .
I passed the last afternoon in Basel very pleasantly with Herr
Roepper, to whom I must soon write. He gave me a variety of
specimens, showed me many beautiful things, and told me much that
was instructive. He is a genuine and excellent botanist, and no
mere collector like the majority. Neither is he purely an observer
like Dr. Bischoff, but a man who thinks. . .Dr. Leuckart is in
raptures about the eggs of the "Hebammen Krote," and will raise
them. . .Schweiz takes your place in our erudite evening meetings.
I have been lecturing lately on the metamorphosis of plants, and
Schimper has propounded an entirely new and very interesting
theory, which will, no doubt, find favor with you hereafter, about
the significance of the circular and longitudinal fibres in
organisms. Schimper is fruitful as ever in poetical and
philosophical ideas, and has just now ventured upon a natural
history of the mind. We have introduced mathematics also, and he
has advanced a new hypothesis about comets and their long tails. . .
Our chief botanical occupation this summer is the careful
observation of all our plants, even the commonest, and the
explanation of whatever is unusual or enigmatical in their
structure. We have already cracked several such nuts, but many
remain to be opened. All such puzzling specimens are spread on
single sheets and set aside. . .But more of this when we are
together again. . .Dr. Leuckart begs you to study carefully the
"Hebammen Unke;"* (* Bombinator obstetricans referred to in a
former letter.) to notice whether the eggs are already fecundated
when they are in the earth, or whether they copulate later in the
water, or whether the young are hatched on land, and what is their
tadpole condition, etc. All this is still unknown. . .
AGASSIZ TO BRAUN.
ORBE, June 10, 1827.
. . .Last week I made a very pleasant excursion. You will remember
that I have often spoken to you of Pastor Mellet at Vallorbe, who
is much interested in the study of the six-legged insects. He
invited me to go to Vallorbe with him for some days, and I passed a
week there, spending my time most agreeably. We went daily on a
search after insects; the booty was especially rich in beetles and
butterflies. . .I examined also M. Mellet's own most excellent
collection of beetles and butterflies very carefully. He has many
beautiful things, but almost exclusively Swiss or French, with a
few from Brazil,--in all about 3,000 species. He gave me several,
and promises more in the autumn. . .He knows his beetles
thoroughly, and observes their habits, haunts, and changes (as far
as he can) admirably well. It is a pity though that while his
knowledge of species is so accurate, he knows nothing of
distribution, classification, or general relations. I tried to
convince him that he ought to collect snails, slugs, and other
objects of natural history, in the hope that he might gain thereby
a wider insight. But he would not listen to it; he said he had
enough to do with his Vermine.
My brother writes me that my box has arrived in Neuchatel. As I am
going there soon I will take it then. I rejoice in the thought of
being in Neuchatel, partly on account of my brother, Arnold
(Guyot), and other friends, and partly that I may study the fishes
of our Swiss lakes. The species Cyprinus and Corregonus with their
allies, including Salmo, are, as you know, especially difficult. I
will preserve some small specimens in alcohol, and, if possible,
dissect one of each, in order to satisfy myself as to their
identity or specific variety. As the same kinds have received
different names in different lakes, and since even differences of
age have led to distinct designations, I will note all this down
carefully. When I have made it clear to myself, I will send you a
catalogue of the kinds we possess, specifying at the same time the
lakes in which they occur. As I am on the chapter of fishes, I will
1. What are the gill arches?
2. What the gill blades?
3. What is the bladder in fishes?
4. What is the cloaca in the egg-laying animals?
5. What signify the many fins of fishes?
6. What is the sac which surrounds the eggs in Bombinator obstetricans?
. . .Tell Dr. Leuckart I have already put aside for him the
Corregonus umbla (if such it be), but can get no Silurus glanis.
I suppose you continue to come together now and then in the evening
. . .Make me a sharer in your new discoveries. Have you finished
your essay on the physiology of plants, and what do you make of
it?. . .
BRAUN TO AGASSIZ.
CARLSRUHE, Whitsuntide, Monday, 1827.
. . .I am in Carlsruhe, and as the package has not gone yet, I add
a note. I have been analyzing and comparing all sorts of plants in
our garden to-day, and I wish you had been with me. On my last
sheet I send some nuts for you to pick, some wholly, some half,
others not at all, cracked. Schimper is lost in the great
impenetrable world of suns, with their planets, moons, and comets;
he soars even into the region of the double stars, the milky way,
and the nebulae.
On a loose sheet come the "nuts to pick." It contains a long list
of mooted questions, a few of which are given here to show the
exchange of thought between Agassiz and his friend, the one
propounding zoological, the other botanical, puzzles. Although most
of the problems were solved long ago, it is not uninteresting to
follow these young minds in their search after the laws of
structure and growth, dimly perceived at first, but becoming
gradually clearer as they go on. The very first questions hint at
the law of Phyllotaxis, then wholly unknown, though now it makes a
part of the most elementary instruction in botany.* (* Botany owes
to Alexander Braun and Karl Schimper the discovery of this law, by
which leaves, however crowded, are so arranged around the stem as
to divide the space with mathematical precision, thus giving to
each leaf its fair share of room for growth.)
"1. Where is the first diverging point of the stems and roots in
plants, that is to say, the first geniculum?
"2. How do you explain the origin of those leaves on the stem
which, not arising from distinct geniculi, are placed spirally or
scattered around the stem?
"3. Why do some plants, especially trees (contrary to the ordinary
course of development in plants), blossom before they have put
forth leaves? (Elm-trees, willow-trees, and fruit-trees.)
"4. In what succession does the development of the organs of the
flower take place?--and their formation in the bud? (Compare
"5. What are the leaves of the Spergula?
"6. What are the tufted leaves of various pine-trees? (Pinus
sylvestris, Strobus, Larix, etc.). . .
"8. What is individuality in plants?"
The next letter contains Agassiz's answer to Dr. Leuckart's
questions concerning the eggs he had sent him, and some farther
account of his own observations upon them.
AGASSIZ TO BRAUN.
NEUCHATEL, June 20, 1827.
. . .Now you shall hear what I know of the "Hebammen Krote." How
the fecundation takes place I know not, but it must needs be the
same as in other kinds of the related Bombinator; igneus throws out
almost as many eggs hanging together in clusters as obstetricans;
fuscus throws them out from itself in strings (see Roseld's
illustration). . .I have now carefully examined the egg clusters of
obstetricans; all the eggs are in one string and hang together.
This string is a bag, in which the eggs lie inclosed at different
distances, though they seem in the empty space to be fallen,
thread-like, together. But if you stretch the thread and press the
eggs, they change their places, and you can distinctly see that
they lie free in the bag, having their own membranous envelopes
corresponding to those of other batrachian eggs. Surely this
species seeks the water at the time of fecundation, for so do all
batrachians, the water being indeed a more fitting medium for
fecundation than the air. . .It is certain that the eggs were
already fecundated when we found them in the ground, for later, I
found several not so far advanced as those you have, and yet after
three weeks I had tadpoles from them. In those eggs which were in
the lowest stage of development (how they may be earlier, nescio),
nothing was clearly visible; they were simply little yellow balls.
After some days, two small dark spots were to be seen marking the
position of the eyes, and a longitudinal streak indicated the
dorsal ridge. Presently everything became more distinct; the mouth
and the nasal opening, the eyes and the tail, which lay in a half
circle around the body; the skin was so transparent that the
beating of the heart and the blood in the vessels could be easily
distinguished; the yolk and the yolk sac were meanwhile sensibly
diminished. The movements of the little animal were now quite
perceptible,--they were quick and by starts. After three or four
weeks the eggs were as large as peas; the bags had burst at the
spots where the eggs were attached, and the little creatures filled
the egg envelopes completely. They moved incessantly and very
quickly. Now the female stripped off the eggs from her legs; she
seemed very uneasy, and sprang about constantly in the tank, but
grew more quiet when I threw in more water. The eggs were soon
free, and I laid them in a shallow vessel filled with fresh water.
The restlessness among them now became greater, and behold! like
lightning, a little tadpole slipped out of its egg, paused
astonished, gazed on the greatness of the world, made some
philanthropic observations, and swam quickly away. I gave them
fresh water often, and tender green plants as well as bread to eat.
They ate eagerly. Up to this time their different stages of
development had been carefully drawn by my sister. I now went to
Vallorbe; they promised at home to take care of my young brood, but
when I returned the tadpoles had been forgotten, and I found them
all dead; not yet decayed, however, and I could therefore preserve
them in alcohol. The gills I have never seen, but I will watch to
see whether they are turned inward. . .
BRAUN TO AGASSIZ.
CARLSRUHE, August 9, 1827.
. . .This is to tell you that I have determined to leave Heidelberg
in the autumn and set forth on a pilgrimage to Munich, and that I
invite you to be my traveling companion. Judging by a
circumstantial letter from Dollinger, the instruction in the
natural sciences leaves nothing to be desired there. Add to this
that the lectures are free, and the theatre open to students at
twenty-four kreutzers. No lack of advantages and attractions,
lodgings hardly more expensive than at Heidelberg, board equally
cheap, beer plenty and good. Let all this persuade you. We shall
hear Gruithuisen in popular astronomy, Schubert in general natural
history, Martius in botany, Fuchs in mineralogy, Seiber in
mathematics, Starke in physics, Oken in everything (he lectures in
winter on the philosophy of nature, natural history, and
physiology). The clinical instruction will be good. We shall soon
be friends with all the professors. The library contains whatever
is best in botany and zoology, and the collections open to the
public are very rich. It is not known whether Schelling will
lecture, but at all events certain of the courses will be of great
advantage. Then little vacation trips to the Salzburg and
Carinthian Alps are easily made from there! Write soon whether you
will go and drink Bavarian beer and Schnapski with me, and write
also when we are to see you in Heidelberg and Carlsruhe. Remind me
then to tell you about the theory of the root and poles in plants.
As soon as I have your answer we will bespeak our lodgings from
Dollinger, who will attend to that for us. Shall we again house
together in one room, or shall we have separate cells in one comb,
namely, under the same roof? The latter has its advantages for
grass-gatherers and stone-cutters like ourselves. . .Hammer away
industriously at all sorts of rocks. I have collected at Auerbach,
Weinheim, Wiesloch, etc. But before all else, observe carefully and
often the wonderful structure of plants, those lovely children of
the earth and sky. Ponder them with child-like mind, for children
marvel at the phenomena of nature, while grown people often think
themselves too wise to wonder, and yet they know little more than
the children. But the thoughtful student recognizes the truth of
the child's feeling, and with his knowledge of nature his wonder
does but grow more and more. . .
1827-1828: AGE 20-21.
Arrival in Munich.
Relations with the Professors.
Schelling, Martius, Oken, Dollinger.
Relations with Fellow-Students.
The Little Academy.
Plans for Traveling.
Advice from his Parents.
Tri-Centennial Durer Festival at Nuremberg.
Agssiz accepted with delight his friend's proposition, and toward
the end of October, 1827, he and Braun left Carlsruhe together for
the University of Munich. His first letter to his brother is given
in full, for though it contains crudities at which the writer
himself would have smiled in after life, it is interesting as
showing what was the knowledge possessed in those days by a clever,
well-informed student of natural history.
TO HIS BROTHER AUGUSTE.
MUNICH, November 5, 1827.
. . .At last I am in Munich. I have so much to tell you that I
hardly know where to begin. To be sure that I forget nothing,
however, I will give things in their regular sequence. First, then,
the story of my journey; after that, I will tell you what I am
doing here. As papa has, of course, shown you my last letter, I
will continue where I left off. . .
From Carlsruhe we traveled post to Stuttgart, where we passed the
greater part of the day in the Museum, in which I saw many things
quite new to me; a llama, for instance, almost as large as an ass.
You know that this animal, which is of the genus Camelus, lives in
South America, where it is to the natives what the camel is to the
Arab; that is to say, it provides them with milk, wool, and meat,
and is used by them, moreover, for driving and riding. There was a
North American buffalo of immense size; also an elephant from
Africa, and one from Asia; beside these, a prodigious number of
gazelles, deer, cats, and dogs; skeletons of a hippopotamus and an
elephant; and lastly the fossil bones of a mammoth. You know that
the mammoth is no longer found living, and that the remains
hitherto discovered lead to the belief that it was a species of
carnivorous elephant. It is a singular fact that some fishermen,
digging recently on the borders of the Obi, in Siberia, found one
of these animals frozen in a mass of ice, at a depth of sixty feet,
so well preserved that it was still covered with hair, as in life.
They melted the ice to remove the animal, but the skeleton alone
remained complete; the hide was spoiled by contact with the air,
and only a few pieces have been kept, one of which is in the Museum
at Stuttgart. The hairs upon it are as coarse as fine twine, and
nearly a foot long. The entire skeleton is at St. Petersburg in the
Museum, and is larger than the largest elephant. One may judge by
that what havoc such an animal must have made, if it was, as its
teeth show it to have been, carnivorous. But what I would like to
know is how this animal could wander so far north, and then in what
manner it died, to be frozen thus, and remain intact, without
decomposing, perhaps for countless ages. For it must have belonged
to a former creation, since it is nowhere to be found living, and
we have no instance of the disappearance of any kind of animal
within the historic period. There were, besides, many other kinds
of fossil animals. The collection of birds is very beautiful, but
it is a pity that many of them are wrongly named. I corrected a
number myself. . .From Stuttgart we went to Esslingen, where we
were to visit two famous botanists. One was Herr Steudel; a sombre
face, with long overhanging black hair, almost hiding the eyes,--a
very Jewish face. He knows every book on botany that appears, has
read them all, but cares little to see the plants themselves; in
short, he is a true closet student. He has a large herbarium,
composed in great part of plants purchased or received as gifts.
The other, Professor Hochstetter, is an odd little man, stepping
briskly about in his high boots, and having always a half
suppressed smile on his hips whenever he takes the pipe from
between his teeth. A very good man, however, and extremely
obliging; he offered us every civility. As we desired not only to
make their acquaintance, but to win from these botanists at least a
few grasses, we presented ourselves like true commis voyageurs,
with dried herbs to sell, each of us having a package of plants
under his arm,--mine being Swiss, gathered last summer, Braun's
from the Palatinate. We gave specimens to each, and received in
exchange from Steudel some American plants; from Hochstetter some
from Bohemia, and others from Moravia, his native country. From
Esslingen we were driven to Goeppingen, in the most frightful
weather possible; it rained, snowed, froze, blew, all at once. It
was a pity, since our road lay through one of the prettiest valleys
I have ever seen, watered by the Neckar, and bordered on both sides
by mountains of singular form and of considerable height. They are
what the Wurtembergers call the Suabian Alps, but I think that
Chaumont is higher than the loftiest peak of their Alps. Here we
found an old Heidelberg acquaintance, whose father owns a superb
collection of fossils, especially of shells and zoophytes. He has
also quite a large collection of shells from the Adriatic Sea, but
among these last not one was named. As we knew them, we made it our
duty to arrange them, and in three hours his whole collection was
labeled. Since he has duplicates of almost everything, he promised,
as soon as he should have time, to make a selection from these and
send them to us. Could we have stayed longer we might have picked
out what we pleased, for he placed his collection at our disposal.
But we were in haste to arrive here, so we begged him to send us,
at his leisure, whatever he could give us.
Thence we continued our journey by post, because it still rained,
and the roads were so detestable that with the best will in the
world we could not have made our way on foot. In the evening we
reached Ulm, where, owing to the late hour, we saw almost nothing
except the famous belfry of the cathedral, which was distinctly
visible as we entered the city. After supper we continued our
journey, still by post, wishing to be in Munich the next day. I
have never seen anything more beautiful than the view as we left
Ulm. The moon had risen and shone upon the belfry like broad
daylight. On all sides extended a wide plain, unbroken by a single
inequality, so far as the eye could distinguish, and cut by the
Danube, glittering in the moonbeams. We crossed the plain during
the night, and reached Augsburg at dawn. It is a beautiful city,
but we merely stopped there for breakfast, and saw the streets only
as we passed through them. On leaving Augsburg, the Tyrolean Alps,
though nearly forty leagues away, were in sight. About eighteen
leagues off was also discernible an immense forest; of this we had
a nearer view as we advanced, for it encircles Munich at some
distance from the town. We arrived here on Sunday, the 4th, in the
afternoon. . .My address is opposite the Sendlinger Thor Number 37.
I have a very pretty chamber on the lower floor with an alcove for
my bed. The house is situated outside the town, on a promenade,
which makes it very pleasant. Moreover, by walking less than a
hundred yards, I reach the Hospital and the Anatomical School, a
great convenience for me when the winter weather begins. One thing
gives me great pleasure: from one of my windows the whole chain of
the Tyrolean Alps is visible as far as Appenzell; and as the
country is flat to their very base, I see them better than we see
our Alps from the plain. It is a great pleasure to have at least a
part of our Swiss mountains always in sight. To enjoy it the more,
I have placed my table opposite the window, so that every time I
lift my head my eyes rest on our dear country. This does not
prevent me from feeling dull sometimes, especially when I am alone,
but I hope this will pass off when my occupations become more
regular. . .
A far more stimulating intellectual life than that of Heidelberg
awaited our students at Munich. Among their professors were some of
the most original men of the day,--men whose influence was felt all
over Europe. Dollinger lectured on comparative anatomy and kindred
subjects; Martius and Zuccarini on botany. Martius gave, besides,
his so-called "Reise-Colleg," in which he instructed the students
how to observe while on their travels. Schelling taught philosophy,
the titles of his courses in the first term being, "Introduction to
Philosophy" and "The Ages of the World"; in the second, "The
Philosophy of Mythology" and "The Philosophy of Revelation."
Schelling made a strong impression upon the friends. His manner was
as persuasive as his style was clear, and his mode of developing
his subject led his hearers along with a subtle power which did not
permit fatigue. Oken lectured on general natural history,
physiology, and zoology, including his famous views on the
philosophy of nature (Natur-philosophie). His lectures gave
occasion for much scientific discussion, the more so as he brought
very startling hypotheses into his physiology, and drew from them
conclusions which even upon his own showing were not always in
accordance with experience. "On philosophical grounds," he was wont
to say, when facts and theory thus confronted each other, "we must
so accept it." Oken was extremely friendly with the students, and
Agassiz, Braun, and Schimper (who joined them at Munich) passed an
evening once a week at his house, where they listened to scientific
papers or discussed scientific matters, over a pipe and a glass of
beer. They also met once a week to drink tea at the house of
Professor von Martius, where, in like manner, the conversation
turned upon scientific subjects, unless something interesting in
general events gave it a different turn. Still more beloved was
Dollinger, whose character they greatly esteemed and admired while
they delighted in his instruction. Not only did they go to him
daily, but he also came often to see them, bringing botanical
specimens to Braun, or looking in upon Agassiz's breeding
experiments, in which he took the liveliest interest, being always
ready with advice or practical aid. The fact that Agassiz and Braun
had their room in his house made intercourse with him especially
easy. This room became the rendezvous of all the aspiring, active
spirits among the young naturalists at Munich, and was known by the
name of "The Little Academy." Schimper, no less than the other two,
contributed to the vivid, enthusiastic intellectual life, which
characterized their meetings. Not so happy as Agassiz and Braun in
his later experience, the promise of his youth was equally
brilliant; and those who knew him in those early days remember his
charm of mind and manner with delight. The friends gave lectures in
turn on various subjects, especially on modes of development in
plants and animals. These lectures were attended not only by
students, but often by the professors.
Among Agassiz's intimate friends in Munich, beside those already
mentioned, was Michahelles, the distinguished young zoologist and
physician, whose early death in Greece, where he went to practice
medicine, was so much regretted. Like Agassiz, he was wont to turn
his room into a menagerie, where he kept turtles and other animals,
brought home, for the most part, from his journeys in Italy and
elsewhere. Mahir, whose name occurs often in the letters of this
period, was another college friend and fellow-student, though
seemingly Agassiz's senior in standing, if not in years, for he
gave him private instruction in mathematics, and also assisted him
in his medical studies.
TO HIS SISTER CECILE,
MUNICH, November 20, 1827.
. . .I will tell you in detail how my time is spent, so that when
you think of me you may know where I am and what I am doing. In the
morning from seven to nine I am at the Hospital. From nine to
eleven I go to the Library, where I usually work at that time
instead of going home. From eleven till one o'clock I have
lectures, after which I dine, sometimes at one place, sometimes at
another, for here every one, that is, every foreigner, takes his
meals in the cafes, paying for the dinner on the spot, so that he
is not obliged to go always to the same place. In the afternoon I
have other lectures on various subjects, according to the days,
from two or three till five o'clock. These ended, I take a walk
although it is then dark. The environs of Munich are covered with
snow, and the people have been going about in sleighs these three
weeks. When I am frozen through I come home, and set to work to
review my lectures of the day, or I write and read till eight or
nine o'clock. Then I go to my cafe for supper. After supper I am
glad to return to the house and go to bed.
This is the course of my daily life, with the single exception that
sometimes Braun and I pass an evening with some professor,
discussing with all our might and main subjects of which we often
know nothing; this does not, however, lessen the animation of the
talk. More often, these gentlemen tell us of their travels, etc. I
enjoy especially our visits to M. Martius, because he talks to us
of his journey to Brazil, from which he returned some years ago,
bringing magnificent collections, which he shows us whenever we
call upon him. Friday is market day here, and I never miss going to
see the fishes to increase my collection. I have already obtained
several not to be found in Switzerland; and even in my short stay
here I have had the good fortune to discover a new species, of
which I have made a very exact description, to be printed in some
journal of natural history. Were my dear Cecile here, I should have
begged her to draw it nicely for me. That would have been pleasant
indeed. Now I must ask a stranger to do it, and it will have by no
means the same value in my eyes. . .
TO HIS BROTHER AUGUSTE.
MUNICH, December 26, 1827.
. . .After my long fast from news of you, your letter made me very
happy. I was dull besides, and needed something to cheer me. . .
Since my talk about natural history does not bore you, I want to
tell you various other things about it, and also to ask you to do
me a favor. I have stuffed a superb otter lately; next week I shall
receive a beaver, and I have exchanged all my little toads from
Neuchatel for reptiles from Brazil and Java. One of our professors
here, who is publishing a natural history of reptiles, will
introduce in his work my description of that species, and my
observations upon it. He has already had lithographed those
drawings of eggs that Cecile made for me, as well as the colored
drawings made for me by Braun's sister when I was at Carlsruhe. My
collection of fishes is also much increased, but I have no
duplicates left of the species I brought with me. I have exchanged
them all. I should therefore be greatly obliged if you would get me
some more of the same. I will tell you what kinds I want, and how
you are to forward them. I have still at Cudrefin several jars of
thick green glass. When you go there take them away with you, fill
them with alcohol, and put into them as many of these fishes as you
can find for me. Put something between every two specimens, to
prevent them from rubbing against each other; pack them in a little
box wrapped in hay, and send them either by a good opportunity or
in the least expensive way. The kinds I want are [here follows the
list]. . .It will interest you to know that I am working with a
young Dr. Born upon an anatomy and natural history of the
fresh-water fishes of Europe. We have already gathered a great deal
of material, and I think by the spring, or in the course of the
summer, we shall be able to publish the first number. This will
bring in a little ready money for a short journey in the vacation.
I earnestly advise you to while away your leisure hours with study.
Read much, but only good and useful books. I promised to send you
something; do not think, because I have not done so yet, that I
have forgotten it. On the contrary, the difficulty of choosing is
the cause of the delay; but I will make farther inquiry as to what
will suit you best and you shall have my list. Meantime remember to
read Say, and if you have not already begun it, do not put it off.
Remember that statistical and political knowledge alone
distinguishes the true merchant from the mere tradesman, and guides
him in his undertakings. . .A merchant familiar with the products
of a country, its resources, its commercial and political relations
with other countries, is much less likely to enter into
speculations based on false ideas, and therefore of doubtful issue.
Write me about what you are reading and about your plans and
projects, for I can hardly believe that any one could exist without
forming them: I, at least, could not.
The last line of this letter betrays the restless spirit of
adventure growing out of the desire for larger fields of activity
and research. Tranquilized for a while in the new and more
satisfying intellectual life of Munich, it stirred afresh from time
to time, not without arousing anxiety in friends at home, as we
shall see. The letter to which the following is an answer has not
FROM HIS MOTHER.
ORBE, January 8, 1828.
. . .Your letter reached me at Cudrefin, where I have been passing
ten days. With what pleasure I received it,--and yet I read it with
a certain sadness too, for there was something of ennui, I might
say of discontent, in the tone. . .Believe me, my dear Louis, your
attitude is a wrong one; you see everything in shadow. Consider
that you are exactly in the position you have chosen for yourself;
we have in no way opposed your plans. We have, on the contrary,
entered into them with readiness, saying amen to your proposals,
only insisting upon a profession that would make us easy about your
future, persuaded as we are that you have too much energy and
uprightness not to wish to fill honorably your place in society.
You left us a few months ago with the assurance that two years
would more than suffice to complete your medical studies. You chose
the university which offered, as you thought, the most ample means
to reach your end; and now, how is it that you look forward only
with distaste to the practice of medicine? Have you reflected
seriously before setting aside this profession? Indeed, we cannot
consent to such a step. You would lose ground in our opinion, in
that of your family, and in that of the public. You would pass for
an inconsiderate, fickle young fellow, and the slightest stain on
your reputation would be a mortal blow to us. There is one way of
reconciling all difficulties,--the only one in my opinion. Complete
your studies with all the zeal of which you are capable, and then,
if you have still the same inclination, go on with your natural
history; give yourself wholly up to it should that be your wish.
Having two strings to your bow, you will have the greater facility
for establishing yourself. Such is your father's way of thinking as
well as mine. . .Nor are you made to live alone, my child. In a
home only is true happiness to be found; there you can settle
yourself to your liking. The sooner you have finished your studies,
the sooner you can put up your tent, catch your blue butterfly, and
metamorphose her into a loving housewife. Of course you will not
gather roses without thorns; life consists of pains and pleasures
everywhere. To do all the good you can to your fellow-beings, to
have a pure conscience, to gain an honorable livelihood, to procure
for yourself by work a little ease, to make those around you happy,
--that is true happiness; all the rest but mere accessories and
chimeras. . .
TO HIS MOTHER.
MUNICH, February 3, 1828.
. . .You know well to whom you speak, dear mother, and how you must
bait your hook in order that the fish may rise. When you paint it,
I see nothing above domestic happiness, and am convinced that the
height of felicity is to be found in the bosom of your family,
surrounded by little marmots to love and caress you. I hope, too,
to enjoy this happiness in time. . .But the man of letters should
seek repose only when he has deserved it by his toil, for if once
he anchor himself, farewell to energy and liberty, by which alone
great minds are fostered. Therefore I have said to myself, that I
would remain unmarried till my work should assure me a peaceful and
happy future. A young man has too much vigor to bear confinement so
soon; he gives up many pleasures which he might have had, and does
not appreciate at their just value those which he has. As it is
said that the vaurien must precede the bon sujet, so I believe that
for the full enjoyment of sedentary life one must have played the
vagabond for a while.
This brings me to the subject of my last letter. It seems that you
have misunderstood me, for your answer grants me after all just
what I ask. You think that I wish to renounce entirely the study of
medicine? On the contrary, the idea has never occurred to me, and,
according to my promise, you shall have one of these days a doctor
of medicine as a son. What repels me is the thought of practicing
medicine for a livelihood, and here you give me free rein just
where I wanted it. That is, you consent that I should devote myself
wholly to the natural sciences should this career offer me, as I
hope it may, a more favorable prospect. It requires, for instance,
but two or three years to go around the world at government
expense. I will levy contributions on all my senses that not a
single chance may escape me for making interesting observations and
fine collections, so that I also may be ranked among those who have
enlarged the boundaries of science. With that my future is secured,
and I shall return content and disposed to do all that you wish.
Even then, if medicine had gained greater attraction for me, there
would still be time to begin the practice of it. It seems to me
there is nothing impracticable in this plan. I beg you to think of
it, and to talk it over with papa and with my uncle at Lausanne
. . .I am perfectly well and as happy as possible, for I feed in
clover here on my favorite studies, with every facility at my
command. If you thought my New Year's letter depressed, it was only
a momentary gloom due to the memories awakened by the day. . .
FROM HIS FATHER.
ORBE, February 21, 1828.
Your mother's last letter, my dear Louis, was in answer to one from
you which crossed it on the way, and gave us, so far as your health
and contentment are concerned, great satisfaction. Yet our
gratification lacks something; it would be more complete had you
not a mania for rushing full gallop into the future. I have often
reproved you for this, and you would fare better did you pay more
attention to my reproof. If it be an incurable malady with you, at
all events do not force your parents to share it. If it be
absolutely essential to your happiness that you should break the
ice of the two poles in order to find the hairs of a mammoth, or
that you should dry your shirt in the sun of the tropics, at least
wait till your trunk is packed and your passports are signed before
you talk with us about it. Begin by reaching your first aim, a
physician's and surgeon's diploma. I will not for the present hear
of anything else, and that is more than enough. Talk to us, then in
your letters, of your friends, of your personal life, of your wants
(which I am always ready to satisfy), of your pleasures, of your
feeling for us, but do not put yourself out of our reach with your
philosophical syllogisms. My own philosophy is to fulfill my duties
in my sphere, and even that gives me more than I can do. . .
The Vaudois "Society of Public Utility" has just announced an
altogether new project, that of establishing popular libraries. A
committee consisting of eight members, of whom I have the honor to
be one, is nominated under the presidency of M. Delessert for the
execution of this scheme. What do you think of the idea? To me it
seems a delicate matter. I should say that before we insist upon
making people read we must begin by preparing them to read
usefully?. . .
TO HIS FATHER.
MUNICH, March 3, 1828.
. . .What you tell me of the "Society of Public Utility" has
aroused in me a throng of ideas, about which I will write you when
they are a little more mature. Meanwhile, please tell me: 1. What
is this Society? 2. Of what persons is it composed? 3. What is its
principal aim? 4. What are the popular libraries to contain, and
for what class are they intended? I believe this project may be of
the greatest service to our people, and it is on this account that
I desire farther details that I may think it over carefully. Tell
me, also, in what way you propose to distribute your libraries at
small expense, and how large they are to be. . .
I could not be more satisfied than I am with my stay here. I lead a
monotonous but an exceedingly pleasant life, withdrawn from the
crowd of students and seeing them but little. When our lectures are
over we meet in the evening at Braun's room or mine, with three or
four intimate acquaintances, and talk of scientific matters, each
one in his turn presenting a subject which is first developed by
him, and then discussed by all. These exercises are very
instructive. As my share, I have begun to give a course of natural
history, or rather of pure zoology. Braun talks to us of botany,
and another of our company, Mahir, who is an excellent fellow,
teaches us mathematics and physics in his turn. In two months our
friend Schimper, whom we left at Heidelberg, will join us, and he
will then be our professor of philosophy. Thus we shall form a
little university, instructing each other and at the same time
learning what we teach more thoroughly, because we shall be obliged
to demonstrate it. Each session lasts two or three hours, during
which the professor in charge retails his merchandise without aid
of notes or book. You can imagine how useful this must be in
preparing us to speak in public and with coherence; the experience
is the more important, since we all desire nothing so much as
sooner or later to become professors in very truth, after having
played at professor in the university.
This brings me naturally to my projects again. Your letter made me
feel so keenly the anxiety I had caused you by my passion for
travel, that I will not recur to it; but as my object was to make
in that way a name that would win for me a professorship, I venture
upon another proposition. If during the course of my studies I
succeed in making myself known by a work of distinction, will you
not then consent that I shall study, at least during one year, the
natural sciences alone, and then accept a professorship of natural
history, with the understanding that in the first place, and in the
time agreed upon, I shall take my Doctor's degree? This is, indeed,
essential to my obtaining what I wish, at least in Germany. You
will object that, before thinking of anything beyond, I ought first
to fulfill the condition. But let me say that the more clearly a
man sees the road before him, the less likely he is to lose his way
or take the wrong turn,--the better he can divide his stages and
his resting-places. . .
FROM HIS FATHER.
ORBE, March 25, 1828.
. . .I have had a long talk about you with your uncle. He does not
at all disapprove of your letters, of which I told him the
contents. He only insists, as we do, on the necessity of a settled
profession as absolutely essential to your financial position.
Indeed, the natural sciences, however sublime and attractive, offer
nothing certain in the future. They may, no doubt, be your golden
bridge, or you may, thanks to them, soar very high, but--modern
Icarus--may not also some adverse fortune, an unexpected loss of
popularity, or, perhaps, some revolution fatal to your philosophy,
bring you down with a somersault, and then you would not be sorry
to find in your quiver the means of gaining your bread. Agreed that
you have now an invincible repugnance to the practice of medicine,
it is evident from your last two letters that you would have no
less objection to any other profession by which money is to be
made, and, besides, it is too late to make another selection. This
being so, we will come to an understanding in one word: Let the
sciences be the balloon in which you prepare to travel through
higher regions, but let medicine and surgery be your parachutes. I
think, my dear Louis, you cannot object to this way of looking at
the question and deciding it. In making my respects to the
professor of zoology, I have the pleasure to tell him that his
uncle was delighted with his way of passing his evenings, and
congratulates him with all his heart on his choice of a recreation.
Enough of this chapter. I close it here, wishing you most heartily
courage, health, success, and, above all, contentment. . .
Upon this follows the answer to Louis's request for details about
the "Society of Public Utility." It shows the intimate exchange of
thought between father and son on educational subjects, but it is
of too local an interest for reproduction here.
The Easter vacation was devoted to a short journey, some account of
which will be found in the next letter. The traveling party
consisted of Agassiz, Braun, and Schimper, with two other students,
who did not, however, remain with them during the whole trip.
TO HIS FATHER.
MUNICH, May 15, 1828.
. . .Pleasant as my Easter journey was, I will give you but a brief
account of it, for my enjoyment was so connected with my special
studies that the details would only be tiresome to you. You know
who were my traveling companions, so I have only to tell you of our
adventures, assuredly not those of knights errant or troubadours.
Could these gentry have been resuscitated, and have seen us
starting forth in blouses, with bags or botanical boxes at our
backs and butterfly-nets in our hands, instead of lance and
buckler, they could hardly have failed to look down upon us with
pity from the height of their grandeur.
The first day brought us to Landshut, where was formerly the
university till it was transferred, ten years ago, to Munich. We
had the pleasure of finding along our road most of the early spring
plants. The weather was magnificent, and nature seemed to smile
upon her votaries. . .We stopped on the way but one day, at
Ratisbon, to visit some relations of Braun's, with whom we promised
to spend several days on our return. Learning on our arrival at
Nuremberg that the Durer festival, which had been our chief
inducement for this journey, would not take place under eight or
ten days, we decided to pass the intervening time at Erlangen, the
seat, as you know, of a university. I do not know if I have already
told you that among German students the exercise of hospitality
toward those who exchange visits from one university to another is
a sacred custom. It gives offense, or is at least looked upon as a
mark of pride and disdain, if you do not avail yourself of this. We
therefore went to one of the cafe's de reunion, and received at
once our tickets for lodgings. We passed six days at Erlangen most
agreeably, making a botanical excursion every day. We also called
upon the professors of botany and zoology, whom we had already seen
at Munich, and by whom we were most cordially received. The
professor of botany, M. Koch, invited us to a very excellent
dinner, and gave us many rare plants not in our possession before,
while M. Wagner was kind enough to show us in detail the Museum and
At last came the day appointed for the third centennial festival of
Durer. Everything was so arranged as to make it very brilliant, and
the weather was most favorable. I doubt if ever before were
collected so many painters in the same place. They gathered; as if
to vie with each other, from all nations, Russians, Italians,
French, Germans, etc. Beside the pupils of the Academy of Fine Arts
at Munich, I think that every soul who could paint, were it only
the smallest sketch, was there to pay homage to the great master.
All went in procession to the place where the monument is to be
raised, and the magistrates of the city laid the first stones of
the pedestal. To my amusement they cemented these first stones with
a mortar which was served in great silver platters, and made of
fine pounded porcelain mixed with champagne. In the evening all the
streets were illuminated; there were balls, concerts, and plays, so
that we must have been doubled or quadrupled to see everything. We
stayed some days longer at Nuremberg to visit the other curiosities
of the city, especially its beautiful churches, its manufactories,
etc., and then started on our return to Ratisbon. . .
1828-1829: AGE 21-22.
First Important Work in Natural History.
Spix's Brazilian Fishes.
Second Vacation Trip.
Sketch of Work during University Year.
Extracts from the Journal of Mr. Dinkel.
Hope of joining Humboldt's Asiatic Expedition.
Diploma of Philosophy.
Completion of First Part of the Spix Fishes.
Letter concerning it from Cuvier.
It was not without a definite purpose that Agassiz had written to
his father some weeks before, "Should I during the course of my
studies succeed in making myself known by a distinguished work,
would you not then consent that I should study for one year the
natural sciences alone?" Unknown to his parents, for whom he hoped
to prepare a delightful surprise, Agassiz had actually been engaged
for months on the first work which gave him distinction in the
scientific world; namely, a description of the Brazilian fishes
brought home by Martius and Spix from their celebrated journey in
Brazil. This was the secret to which allusion is made in the next
letter. To his disappointment an accident brought his undertaking
to the knowledge of his father and mother before it was completed.
He always had a boyish regret that his little plot had been
betrayed before the moment for the denouement arrived. The book was
written in Latin and dedicated to Cuvier.* (* "Selecta genera et
species piscium quos collegit et pingendos curavit Dr. J.W. de
Spix". Digessit, descripsit et observationibus illustravit Dr. L.
TO HIS BROTHER.
MUNICH, July 27, 1828.
. . .Various things which I have begun keep me a prisoner here.
Probably I shall not stir during the vacation, and shall even give
up the little trip in the Tyrol, which I had thought of making as a
rest from occupations that bind me very closely at present, but
from which I hope to free myself in the course of the holidays.
Don't be angry with me for not telling you at once what they are.
When you know, I hope to be forgiven for keeping you so long in the
dark. I have kept it a secret from papa too, though in his last
letter he asks me what is my especial work just now. A few months
more of patience, and I will give you a strict account of my time
since I came here, and then I am sure you will be satisfied with
me. I only wish to guard against one thing: do not take it into
your head that I am about to don the fool's cap suddenly and
surprise you with a Doctor's degree; that would be going a little
too fast, nor do I think of it yet. . .I want to remind you not to
let the summer pass without getting me fishes according to the list
in my last letter, which I hope you have not mislaid. You would
give me great pleasure by sending them as soon as possible. Let me
tell you why. M. Cuvier has announced the publication of a complete
work on all the known fishes, and in the prospectus he calls on
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