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Chapter 17: 1852-1855: Aet. 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 schools for girls.

Agassiz returned from Charleston to Cambridge in the early spring, pausing in Washington to deliver a course of lectures before the Smithsonian Institution. By this time he had become intimate with Professor Henry, at whose hospitable house he and his family were staying during their visit at Washington. He had the warmest sympathy not only with Professor Henry's scientific work and character, but also with his views regarding the Smithsonian Institution, of which he had become the Superintendent shortly after Agassiz arrived in this country. Agassiz himself was soon appointed one of the Regents of the [507] Institution and remained upon the Board until his death.

Agassiz now began to feel an increased anxiety about his collections. During the six years of his stay in the United States he had explored the whole Atlantic sea-board as well as the lake and river system of the Eastern and Middle States, and had amassed such materials in natural history as already gave his collections, in certain departments at least, a marked importance. In the lower animals, and as illustrating the embryology of the marine invertebrates, they were especially valuable. It had long been a favorite idea with him to build up an embryological department in his prospective museum; the more so because such a provision on any large scale had never been included in the plan of the great zoological institutions, and he believed it would have a direct and powerful influence on the progress of modern science. The collections now in his possession included ample means for this kind of research, beside a fair representation of almost all classes of the animal kingdom. Packed together, however, in the narrowest quarters, they were hardly within his own reach, much less could they be made available for others. His own resources [508] were strained to the utmost, merely to save these precious materials from destruction. It is true that in 1850 the sum of four hundred dollars, to be renewed annually, was allowed him by the University for their preservation, and a barrack-like wooden building on the college grounds, far preferable to the bathhouse by the river, was provided for their storage. But the cost of keeping them was counted by thousands, not by hundreds, and the greater part of what Agassiz could make by his lectures outside of Cambridge was swallowed up in this way. It was, perhaps, the knowledge of this which induced certain friends, interested in him and in science, to subscribe twelve thousand dollars for the purchase of his collections, to be thus permanently secured to Cambridge. This gave him back, in part, the sum he had already spent upon them, and which he was more than ready to spend again in their maintenance and increase.

The next year showed that his overburdened life was beginning to tell upon his health. Scarcely had he arrived in Charleston and begun his course at the Medical College when he was attacked by a violent fever, and his life was in danger for many days. Fortu [509] nately for him his illness occurred at the ‘Hollow Tree,’ where he was passing the Christmas holidays. Dr.Holbrook and Mrs. Holbrook were like a brother and sister to him, and nothing could exceed the kindness he received under their roof. One young friend who had been his pupil, and to whom he was much attached, Dr. St. Julian Ravenel, was constantly at his bedside. His care was invaluable, for he combined the qualities of physician and nurse. Under such watchful tending, Agassiz could hardly fail to mend if cure were humanly possible. The solicitude of these nearer friends seemed to be shared by the whole community, and his recovery gave general relief. He was able to resume his lectures toward the end of February. Spite of the languor of convalescence his elastic mind was at once ready for work, as may be seen by the following extract from one of his first letters.

To James D. Dana.

Sullivan's Island, Charleston, February 16, 1853.
. . . It seems, indeed, to me as if in the study of the geographical distribution of animals the present condition of the animal kingdom was too exclusively taken into consideration. [510] Whenever it can be done, and I hope before long it may be done for all classes, it will be desirable to take into account the relations of the living to the fossil species. Since you are as fully satisfied as I am that the location of animals, with all their peculiarities, is not the result of physical influences, but lies within the plans and intentions of the Creator, it must be obvious that the successive introduction of all the diversity of forms which have existed from the first appearance of any given division of the animal kingdom up to the present creation, must have reference to the location of those now in existence. For instance, if it be true among mammalia that the highest types, such as quadrumana, are essentially tropical, may it not be that the prevailing distribution of the inferior pachyderms within the same geographical limits is owing to the circumstance that their type was introduced upon earth during a warmer period in the history of our globe, and that their present location is in accordance with that fact, rather than related to their degree of organization? The pentacrinites, the lowest of the echinoderms, have only one living representative in tropical America, where we find at the same time the highest and largest [511] spatangi and holothuridae. Is this not quite a parallel case with the monkeys and pachyderms? for once crinoids were the only representatives of the class of echinoderms. May we not say the same of crocodiles when compared with the ancient gigantic saurians? or are the crocodiles, as an order, distinct from the other saurians, and really higher than the turtles? Innumerable questions of this kind, of great importance for zoology, are suggested at every step, as soon as we compare the present distribution of animals with that of the inhabitants of former geological periods. Among crustacea, it is very remarkable that trilobites and limulus-like forms are the only representatives of the class during the paleozoic ages; that macrourans prevailed in the same manner during the secondary period; and that brachyurans make their appearance only in the tertiary period. Do you discover in your results any connection between such facts and the present distribution of crustacea? There is certainly one feature in their classification which must appear very striking,—that, taken on a large scale, the organic rank of these animals agrees in the main with their order of succession in geological times; and this fact is of no small [512] importance when it is found that the same correspondence between rank and succession obtains through all classes of the animal kingdom, and that similar features are displayed in the embryonic growth of all types so far as now known.

But I feel my head is growing dull, and I will stop here. Let me conclude by congratulating you on having completed your great work on crustacea....

Agassiz returned to the North in the spring of 1853 by way of the Mississippi, stopping to lecture at Mobile, New Orleans, and St. Louis. On leaving Charleston he proffered his resignation with deep regret, for, beside the close personal ties he had formed, he was attached to the place, the people, and to his work there. He had hoped to establish a permanent station for sustained observations in South Carolina, and thus to carry on a series of researches which, taken in connection with his studies on the New England coast and its vicinity, and on the Florida reefs and shores, would afford a wide field of comparison. This was not to be, however. The Medical College refused, indeed, to accept his resignation, granting him, at the same time, a year of [513] absence. But it soon became evident that his health was seriously shaken, and that he needed the tonic of the northern winter. He was, indeed, never afterward as strong as he had been before this illness.

The winter of 1854 was passed in Cambridge with such quiet and rest as the conditions of his life would allow. In May of that year he received an invitation to the recently established University of Zurich, in Switzerland. His acceptance was urged upon the ground of patriotism as well as on that of a liberal endowment both for the professor, and for the museum of which he was to have charge. The offer was tempting, but Agassiz was in love (the word is not too strong) with the work he had undertaken and the hopes he had formed in America. He believed that by his own efforts, combined with the enthusiasm for science which he had aroused and constantly strove to keep alive and foster in the community, he should at last succeed in founding a museum after his own heart in the United States,—a museum which should not be a mere accumulation, however vast or extensive, of objects of natural history, but should have a well-combined and clearly expressed educational value. As we [514] shall see, neither the associations of his early life nor the most tempting scientific prizes in the gift of the old world could divert him from this settled purpose. The proposition from Zurich was not official, but came through a friend and colleague, for whom he had the deepest sympathy and admiration,—Oswald Heer. To work in his immediate neighborhood would have been in itself a temptation.

To Professor Oswald Heer.

Cambridge, January 9, 1855.
my honored friend,—How shall I make you understand why your kind letter, though it reached me some months ago, has remained till now unanswered. It concerns a decision of vital importance to my whole life, and in such a case one must not decide hastily, nor even with too exclusive regard for one's own preference in the matter. You cannot doubt that the thought of joining an institution of my native country, and thus helping to stimulate scientific progress in the land of my birth, my home, and my early friends, appeals to all I hold dear and honorable in life. On the other side I have now been eight years in America, have learned to understand the advantages of my position here, and have begun undertakings [515] which are not yet brought to a conclusion. I am aware also how wide an influence I already exert upon this land of the future, —an influence which gains in extent and intensity with every year,—so that it becomes very difficult for me to discern clearly where I can be most useful to science. Among my privileges I must not overlook that of passing much of my time on the immediate sea-shore, where the resources for the zoologist and embryologist are inexhaustible. I have now a house distant only a few steps from an admirable locality for these studies, and can therefore pursue them uninterruptedly throughout the whole year, instead of being limited, like most naturalists, to the short summer vacations. It is true I miss the larger museums, libraries, etc., as well as the stimulus to be derived from association with a number of likeminded co-workers, all striving toward the same end. With every year, however, the number of able and influential investigators increases here, and among them are some who might justly claim a prominent place anywhere. . . .

Neither are means for publication lacking. The larger treatises with costly illustrations appear in the Smithsonian Contributions, in the [516] Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, in those of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and in the Memoirs of the American Academy; while the smaller communications find a place in Silliman's Journal, in the Journal of the Boston Natural History Society, and in the proceedings of other scientific societies. Museums also are already founded; . . . and beside these there are a number of private collections in single departments of zoology. . . . Better than all this, however, is the lively and general interest taken in the exploration of the country itself. Every scientific expedition sent out by the government to the interior, or to the Western States of Oregon and California, is accompanied by a scientific commission,—zoologists, geologists, and botanists. By this means magnificent collections, awaiting only able investigators to work them up, have been brought together. Indeed, I do not believe that as many new things are accumulated anywhere as just here, and it is my hope to contribute hereafter to the more critical and careful examination of these treasures. Under these circumstances I have asked myself for months past how I ought to decide; not what were my inclinations, for that is not the question,—but what [517] was my duty toward science? After the most careful consideration I am no longer in doubt, and though it grieves me to do so, I write to beg that you will withdraw from any action which might bring me a direct call to the professorship in Zurich. I have decided to remain here for an indefinite time, under the conviction that I shall exert a more advantageous and more extensive influence on the progress of science in this country than in Europe.

I regret that I cannot accept your offer of the Oeningen fossils. In the last two years I have spent more than 20,000 francs on my collection, and must not incur any farther expense of that kind at present. As soon, however, as I have new means at my command such a collection would be most welcome, and should it remain in your hands I may be very glad to take it. Neither can I make any exchange of duplicates just now, as I have not yet been able to sort my collections and set aside the specimens which may be considered only as materials for exchange. Can you procure for me Glarus fishes in any considerable number? I should like to purchase them for my collection, and do not care for single specimens of every species, but would prefer [518] whole suites that I may revise my former identifications in the light of a larger insight.

Remember me kindly to all my Zurich friends, and especially to Arnold Escher. . . .

Agassiz's increasing and at last wholly unmanageable correspondence attests the general sympathy for and cooperation with his scientific aims in the United States. In 1853, for instance, he had issued a circular, asking for collections of fishes from various fresh-water systems of the United States, in order that he might obtain certain data respecting the laws of their distribution and localization. To this he had hundreds of answers coming from all parts of the country, many of them very shrewd and observing, giving facts respecting the habits of fishes, as well as concerning their habitat, and offering aid in the general object. Nor were these empty promises. A great number and variety of collections, now making part of the ichthyological treasures of the Museum at Cambridge, were forwarded to him in answer to this appeal. Indeed, he now began to reap, in a new form, the harvest of his wandering lecture tours. In this part of his American experience he had come into contact with all classes of people, and had found [519] some of his most intelligent and sympathetic listeners in the working class. Now that he needed their assistance he often found his colaborers among farmers, stock-raisers, seafaring men, fishermen, and sailors. Many a New England captain, when he started on a cruise, had on board collecting cans, furnished by Agassiz, to be filled in distant ports or nearer home, as the case might be, and returned to the Museum at Cambridge. One or two letters, written to scientific friends at the time the above-mentioned circular was issued,will give an idea of the way in which Agassiz laid out such investigations.

To James D. Dana.

Cambridge, July 8, 1853.
. . . I have been lately devising some method of learning how far animals are truly autochthones, and how far they have extended their primitive boundaries. I will attempt to test that question with Long Island, the largest of all the islands along our coast. For this purpose I will for the present limit myself to the fresh-water fishes and shells, and for the sake of comparison I will try to collect carefully all the species living in the rivers of Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey, and [520] see whether they are identical with those of the island. Whatever may come out of such an investigation it will, at all events, furnish interesting data upon the local distribution of the species. . . . I am almost confident that it will lead to something interesting, for there is one feature of importance in the case; the present surface of Long Island is not older than the drift period; all its inhabitants must, therefore, have been introduced since that time. I shall see that I obtain similar collections from the upper course of the Connecticut, so as to ascertain whether there, as in the Mississippi, the species differ at different heights of the river basin. . . .

To Professor S. S. Haldeman, Columbia, Pennsylvania.

Cambridge, July 9, 1853.
. . . While ascending the great Mississippi last spring I was struck with the remarkable fact that the fishes differ essentially in the different parts of that long water-course,— a fact I had already noticed in the Rhine, Rhone, and Danube, though there the difference arises chiefly from the occurrence, in the higher Alpine regions, of representatives of the trout family which are not found in the [521] main river course. In the Mississippi, however, the case is otherwise and very striking, inasmuch as we find here, at separate latitudes, distinct species of the same genera, somewhat like the differences observed in distinct water-basins; and yet the river is ever flowing on past these animals, which remain, as it were, spell-bound to the regions most genial to them. The question at once arises, do our smaller rivers present similar differences? I have already taken steps to obtain complete collections of fishes, shells, and crayfishes from various stations on the Connecticut and the Hudson, and their tributaries; and I should be very happy if I could include the Susquehanna, Delaware, and Ohio in my comparisons. My object in writing now is to inquire whether you could assist me in making separate collections, as complete as possible, of all these animals from the north and west branches of the Susquehanna, from the main river either at Harrisburg or Columbia, and from the Juniata, also from the Schuylkill, Lehigh, and Delaware, and from the Alleghany and Monongahela. I have Swiss friends in the State of New York who have promised me to collect the fishes from the head-waters of the Delaware and Susquehanna [522] within the limits of the State of New York. I cannot, of course, expect you to survey your State for me, but among your acquaintance in various parts of your State are there not those who, with proper directions, could do the work for me? I would, of course, gladly repay all their expenses. The subject seems to me so important as to justify any effort in that direction. Little may be added to the knowledge of the fishes themselves, for I suppose most of the species have been described either by De Kay, Kirtland, or Storer; but a careful study of their special geographical distribution may furnish results as important to zoology as the knowledge of the species themselves. If you cannot write yourself, will you give me the names of such persons as might be persuaded to aid in the matter. I know from your own observations in former times that you have already collected similar facts for the Unios, so that you will at once understand and appreciate my object. . . .

He writes in the same strain and for the same object to Professor Yandell, of Kentucky, adding: ‘In this respect the State of Kentucky is one of the most important of the [523] Union, not only on account of the many rivers which pass through its territory, but also because it is one of the few States the fishes of which have been described by former observers, especially by Rafinesque in his ‘Ichthyologia Ohioensis,’ so that a special knowledge of all his original types is a matter of primary importance for any one who would compare the fishes of the different rivers of the West. . . . Do you know whether there is anything left of Rafinesque's collection of fishes in Lexington, and if so, whether the specimens are labeled, as it would be very important to identify his species from his own collection and his own labels? I never regretted more than now that circumstances have not yet allowed me to visit your State and make a stay in Louisville.’

In 1854 Agassiz moved to a larger house, built for him by the college. Though very simple, it was on a liberal scale with respect to space; partly in order to accommodate his library, consisting of several thousand volumes, now for the first time collected and arranged in one room. He became very fond of this Cambridge home, where, with few absences, he spent the remainder of his life. The architect, Mr. Henry Greenough, was his [524] personal friend, and from the beginning the house adapted itself with a kindly readiness to whatever plans developed under its roof. As will be seen, these were not few, and were sometimes of considerable moment. For his work also the house was extremely convenient. His habits in this respect were, however, singularly independent of place and circumstance. Unlike most studious men, he had no fixed spot in the house for writing. Although the library, with the usual outfit of well-filled shelves, maps, large tables, etc., held his materials, he brought what he needed for the evening by preference to the drawing-room, and there, with his paper on his knee, and his books for reference on a chair beside him, he wrote and read as busily as if he were quite alone. Sometimes when dancing and music were going on among the young people of the family and their guests, he drew a little table into the corner of the room, and continued his occupations as undisturbed and engrossed as if he had been in complete solitude,—only looking up from time to time with a pleased smile or an apt remark,which showed that he did not lose but rather enjoyed what was going on about him.

His children's friends were his friends. As [525] his daughters grew up, he had the habit of inviting their more intimate companions to his library for an afternoon weekly. On these occasions there was always some subject connected with the study of nature under discussion, but the talk was so easy and so fully illustrated that it did not seem like a lesson. It is pleasant to remember that in later years Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson revived this custom for his own daughters; and their friends (being, indeed, with few changes, the same set of young people as had formerly met in Agassiz's library) used to meet in Mr. Emerson's study at Concord for a similar object. He talked to them of poetry and literature and philosophy as Agassiz had talked to them of nature. Those were golden days, not to be forgotten by any who shared their happy privilege.

In the winter of 1855 Agassiz endeavored to resume his public lectures as a means of increasing his resources. He was again, however, much exhausted when spring came, and it seemed necessary to seek some other means of support, for without considering scientific expenses, his salary of fifteen hundred dollars did not suffice for the maintenance of his family. Under these circumstances it occurred [526] to his wife and his two older children, now of an age to assist her in such a scheme, that a school for young ladies might be established in the upper part of the new and larger house. By the removal of one or two partitions, ample room could be obtained for the accommodation of a sufficient number of pupils, and if successful such a school would perhaps make good in a pecuniary sense the lecturing tours which were not only a great fatigue to Agassiz, but an interruption also to all consecutive scientific work. In consultation with friends these plans were partly matured before they were confided to Agassiz himself. When the domestic conspirators revealed their plot, his surprise and pleasure knew no bounds. The first idea had been simply to establish a private school on the usual plan, only referring to his greater experience for advice and direction in its general organization. But he claimed at once an active share in the work. Under his inspiring influence the outline enlarged, and when the circular announcing the school was issued, it appeared under his name, and contained these words in addition to the programme of studies: ‘I shall myself superintend the methods of instruction and tuition, and while maintaining that regularity [527] and precision in the studies so important to mental training shall endeavor to prevent the necessary discipline from falling into a lifeless routine, alike deadening to the spirit of teacher and pupil. It is farther my intention to take the immediate charge of the instruction in Physical Geography, Natural History, and Botany, giving a lecture daily, Saturdays excepted, on one or other of these subjects, illustrated by specimens, models, maps, and drawings.’

In order not to interrupt the course of the narrative, the history of this undertaking in its sequence and general bearing on his life and work may be completed here in a few words. This school secured to him many happy and comparatively tranquil years. It enabled him to meet both domestic and scientific expenses, and to pay the heavy debt he had brought from Europe as the penalty of his ‘Fossil Fishes’ and his investigations on the glaciers. When the school closed after eight years he was again a free man. With an increased salary from the college, and with such provision for the Museum (thanks to the generosity of the State and of individuals) as rendered it in a great degree independent, he was never again involved in the pecuniary [528] anxieties of his earlier career. The occupation of teaching was so congenial to him that his part in the instruction of the school did not at any time weigh heavily upon him. He never had an audience more responsive and more eager to learn than the sixty or seventy girls who gathered every day at the close of the morning to hear his daily lecture; nor did he ever give to any audience lectures more carefully prepared, more comprehensive in their range of subjects, more lofty in their tone of thought. As a teacher he always discriminated between the special student, and the one to whom he cared to impart only such a knowledge of the facts of nature, as would make the world at least partially intelligible to him. To a school of young girls he did not think of teaching technical science, and yet the subjects of his lectures comprised very abstruse and comprehensive questions. It was the simplicity and clearness of his method which made them so interesting to his young listeners. ‘What I wish for you,’ he would say, ‘is a culture that is alive, active, susceptible of farther development. Do not think that I care to teach you this or the other special science. My instruction is only intended to show you the thoughts in nature which [529] science reveals, and the facts I give you are useful only, or chiefly, for this object.’

Running over the titles of his courses during several consecutive years of this school instruction they read: Physical Geography and Paleontology; Zoology; Botany; Coral Reefs; Glaciers; Structure and Formation of Mountains; Geographical Distribution of Animals; Geological Succession of Animals; Growth and Development of Animals; Philosophy of Nature, etc. With the help of drawings, maps, bas-reliefs, specimens, and countless illustrations on the blackboard, these subjects were made clear to the pupils, and the lecture hour was anticipated as the brightest of the whole morning. It soon became a habit with friends and neighbors, and especially with the mothers of the scholars, to drop in for the lectures, and thus the school audience was increased by a small circle of older listeners. The corps of teachers was also gradually enlarged. The neighborhood of the university was a great advantage in this respect, and Agassiz had the cooperation not only of his brother-in-law, Professor Felton, but of others among his colleagues, who took classes in special departments, or gave lectures in history and literature. [530]

This school opened in 1855 and closed in 1863. The civil war then engrossed all thoughts, and interfered somewhat also with the success of private undertakings. Partly on this account, partly also because it had ceased to be a pecuniary necessity, it seemed wise to give up the school at this time. The friendly relations formed there did not, however, cease with it. For years afterward on the last Thursday of June (the day of the annual closing of the school) a meeting of the old pupils was held at the Museum, which did not exist when the school began, but was fully established before its close. There Agassiz showed them the progress of his scientific work, told them of his future plans for the institution, and closed with a lecture such as he used to give them in their school-days. The last of these meetings took place in 1873, the last year of his own life. The memory of it is connected with a gift to the Museum of four thousand and fifty dollars from a number of the scholars, now no longer girls, but women with their own cares and responsibilities. Hearing that there was especial need of means for the care of the more recent collections, they had subscribed this sum among themselves to express their affection for their [531] old teacher, as well as their interest in his work, and in the institution he had founded. His letter of acknowledgment to the one among them who had acted as their treasurer makes a fitting close to this chapter.

. . . Hardly anything in my life has touched me more deeply than the gift I received this week from my school-girls. From no source in the world could sympathy be more genial to me. The money I shall appropriate to a long-cherished scheme of mine, a special work in the Museum which must be exclusively my own,—the arrangement of a special collection illustrating in a nutshell, as it were, all the relations existing among animals,—which I have deferred because other things were more pressing, and our means have been insufficient. The feeling that you are all working with me will be even more cheering than the material help, much needed as that is. I wish I could write to each individually. I shall try to find some means of expressing my thanks more widely. Meantime I write to you as treasurer, and beg you, as far as you can do so without too much trouble, to express my gratitude to others. Will you also say to those whom you chance to meet that I shall be at [532] the Museum on the last Thursday of June, at half-past 11 o'clock. I shall be delighted to see all to whom it is convenient to come. The Museum has grown not only in magnitude, but in scientific significance, and I like from time to time to give you an account of its progress, and of my own work and aims. How much thought and care and effort this kind plan of yours must have involved, scattered as you all are! It cannot have been easy to collect the names and addresses of all those whose signatures it was delightful to me to see again. Words seem to me very poor, but you will accept for yourself and your school-mates the warm thanks and affectionate regards of your old friend and teacher.

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