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  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  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  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.
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  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  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.
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  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.
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  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  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  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  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  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  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  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.  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  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.