Chapter 18: 1855-1860: Aet. 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 Europe.
A few months earlier than the school circular Agassiz issued another prospectus, which had an even more important bearing upon his future work. This was the prospectus for his ‘Contributions to the Natural History of the United States.’ It was originally planned in ten volumes, every volume to be, however, absolutely independent, so that the completeness of each part should not be impaired by any possible interruption of the sequence. The mass of original material accumulated upon his hands ever since his arrival in America made such a publication almost imperative, but the costliness of a large illustrated work  deterred him. The ‘Poissons Fossiles’ had shown him the peril of entering upon such an enterprise without capital. Perhaps he would never have dared to undertake it but for a friendly suggestion which opened a way out of his perplexities. Mr. Francis C. Gray, of Boston, who felt not only the interest of a personal friend in the matter, but also that of one who was himself a lover of letters and science, proposed an appeal to the public spirit of the country in behalf of a work devoted entirely to the Natural History of the United States. Mr. Gray assumed the direction of the business details, set the subscription afloat, stimulated its success by his own liberal contributions, by letters, by private and public appeals. The result far exceeded the most sanguine expectations of those interested in its success. Indeed, considering the purely scientific character of the work, the number of subscribers for it was extraordinary, and showed again the hold Agassiz had taken upon the minds and affections of the people in general. The contributors were by no means confined to Boston and Cambridge, although the Massachusetts list was naturally the largest, nor were they found exclusively among literary and scientific circles. On the contrary,  the subscription list, to the astonishment of the publishers, was increased daily by unsolicited names, sent in from all sections of the country, and from various grades of life and occupation. In reference to the character of this subscription Agassiz says in his Preface: ‘I must beg my European readers to remember that this work is written in America, and more especially for Americans; and that the community to which it is particularly addressed has very different wants from those of the reading public in Europe. There is not a class of learned men here distinct from the other cultivated members of the community. On the contrary, so general is the desire for knowledge, that I expect to see my book read by operatives, by fishermen, by farmers, quite as extensively as by the students in our colleges or by the learned professions, and it is but proper that I should endeavor to make myself understood by all.’ If Agassiz, perhaps, overestimated in this statement the appreciation of the reading public in the United States for pure scientific research, it was because the number and variety of his subscribers gave evidence of a cordiality toward his work which surprised as much as it gratified him. On the list there were also some of his old European  subscribers to the ‘Poissons Fossiles,’ among them the King of Prussia, who still continued, under the influence of Humboldt, to feel an interest in his work.
Something of Agassiz's astonishment and pleasure at the encouragement given to his projected work is told in his letters. To his old friend Professor Valenciennes, in Paris, he writes: ‘I have just had an evidence of what one may do here in the interest of science. Some six months ago I formed a plan for the publication of my researches in America, and determined to carry it out with all  possible care and beauty of finish. I estimated my materials at ten volumes, quarto, and having fixed the price at 60 francs ($12.00) a volume, thought I might, perhaps, dispose of five hundred. I brought out my prospectus, and I have to-day seventeen hundred subscribers. What do you say to that for a work which is to cost six hundred francs a copy, and of which nothing has as yet appeared? Nor is the list closed yet, for every day I receive new subscriptions,—this very morning one from California! Where will not the love of science find its niche!’ . . . In the same strain he says, at a little later date, to Sir Charles Lyell: ‘You will, no doubt, be pleased to learn that the first volume of my new work, “Contributions to the Natural History of the United States,” which is to consist of ten volumes, quarto, is now printing, to come out this summer. I hope it will show that I have not been idle during ten years silence. I am somewhat anxious about the reception of my first chapter, headed, “Classification,” which contains anything but what zoologists would generally expect under that head. The subscription is marvelous. Conceive twenty-one hundred names before the appearance of the first pages of a work  costing one hundred and twenty dollars! It places in my hands the means of doing henceforth for Natural History what I had never dreamed of before.’ . . . This work, as originally planned, was never completed. It was cut short by ill-health and by the pressure of engagements arising from the rapid development of the great Museum, which finally became, as will be seen, the absorbing interest of his life. As it stands, the ‘Contributions to the Natural History of the United States’ consists of four large quarto volumes. The first two are divided into three parts, namely: 1st. An Essay on Classification. 2d. The North American Testudinata. 3d. The Embryology of the Turtle,—the latter two being illustrated by thirty-four plates. The third and fourth volumes are devoted to the Radiata, and consist of five parts, namely: 1st. Acalephs in general. 2d. Ctenophorae. 3d. Discophorae. 4th. Hydroida. 5th. Homologies of the Radiates,—illustrated by forty-six plates.1  For originality of material, clearness of presentation, and beauty of illustration, these volumes have had their full recognition as models of scientific work. Their philosophy was, perhaps, too much out of harmony with the current theories of the day to be acceptable. In the ‘Essay on Classification’ especially, Agassiz brought out with renewed earnestness his conviction that the animal world rests upon certain abstract conceptions, persistent and indestructible. He insists that while physical influences maintain, and within certain limits modify, organisms, they have never affected typical structure,—those characters, namely, upon which the great groups of the animal kingdom are united. From his point of view, therefore, what environment can do serves to emphasize what it cannot do. For the argument on which these conclusions are based we refer to the book itself. The discussion of this question occupies, however, only the first portion of the volume, two thirds of which are devoted to a general consideration of classification, and the ideas which it embodies, with a review of the modern systems of zoology.  The following letter was one of many in the same tone received from his European correspondents concerning this work.
Agassiz had promised himself that the first volume of his new work should be finished in time for his fiftieth birthday,—a milestone along the road, as it were, to mark his half century. Upon this self-appointed task he spent himself with the passion dominated by patience, which characterized him when his whole heart was bent toward an end. For weeks he wrote many hours of the day and a great part of the night, going out sometimes into the darkness and the open air to cool the fever of work, and then returning to his desk again. He felt himself that the excitement was too great, and in proportion to the strain was the relief when he set the seal of finis on his last page within the appointed time. His special students, young men who fully shared his scientific life and rewarded his generosity by an affectionate devotion, knowing, perhaps, that he himself associated the completion of his book with his birthday, celebrated both events by a serenade on the eve of his anniversary. They took into their confidence  Mr. Otto Dresel, warmly valued by Agassiz both as friend and musician, and he arranged their midnight programme for them. Always sure of finding their professor awake and at work at that hour, they stationed the musicians before the house, and as the last stroke of twelve sounded, the succeeding stillness was broken by men's voices singing a Bach choral. When Agassiz stepped out to see whence came this pleasant salutation, he was met by his young friends bringing flowers and congratulations. Then followed one number after another of the well-ordered selection, into which was admitted here and there a German student song in memory of Agassiz's own university life at Heidelberg and Munich. It was late, or rather early, since the new day was already begun, before the little concert was over and the guests had dispersed. It is difficult to reproduce with anything like its original glow and coloring a scene of this kind. It will no more be called back than the hour or the moonlight night which had the warmth and softness of June. It is recorded here only because it illustrates the intimate personal sympathy between Agassiz and his students. For this occasion also were written the wellknown  birthday verses by Longfellow, which were read the next day at a dinner given to Agassiz by the ‘Saturday Club.’ In speaking of Longfellow's relation to this club, Holmes says: ‘On one occasion he read a short poem at the table. It was in honor of Agassiz's birthday, and I cannot forget the very modest, delicate musical way in which he read his charming verses.’ Although included in many collections of Longfellow's Poems, they are reproduced here, because the story seems incomplete without them.
Longfellow had an exquisite touch for occasions of this kind, whether serious or mirthful. Once, when some years after this Agassiz was keeping Christmas Eve with his children and grandchildren, there arrived a basket of wine containing six old bottles of rare vintage. They introduced themselves in a charming French ‘Noel’ as pilgrims from beyond  the sea who came to give Christmas greeting to the master of the house. Gay pilgrims were these six ‘gaillards,’ and they were accompanied by the following note:—
An additional word about the ‘Saturday Club,’ the fame of which has spread beyond the city of its origin, may not be amiss here. Notwithstanding his close habits of work Agassiz was eminently social, and to this club he was especially attached. Dr. Holmes says of it in his volume on Emerson, who was one of its most constant members: ‘At one end of the table sat Longfellow, florid, quiet, benignant, soft-voiced, a most agreeable rather than a brilliant talker, but a man upon whom it was always pleasant to look,—whose silence was better than many another man's conversation. At the other end sat Agassiz, robust, sanguine, animated, full of talk, boy-like in his laughter. The stranger who should have asked who were the men ranged along the sides of the table  would have heard in answer the names of Hawthorne, Motley, Dana, Lowell, Whipple, Peirce, the distinguished mathematician, Judge Hoar, eminent at the bar and in the cabinet, Dwight, the leading musical critic of Boston for a whole generation, Sumner, the academic champion of freedom, Andrew, “the great War Governor” of Massachusetts, Dr. Howe, the philanthropist, William Hunt, the painter, with others not unworthy of such company.’ We may complete the list and add the name of Holmes himself, to whose presence the club owed so much of its wit and wisdom. In such company the guests were tempted to linger long, and if Holmes has described the circle around the table, Lowell has celebrated the late walk at night across the bridge as he and Agassiz returned to Cambridge on foot together. To break the verse by quotation would mar the quiet scene and interrupt the rambling pleasant talk it so graphically describes. But we may keep the parting words:
 Agassiz was now the possessor of a small laboratory by the immediate sea-coast. It was situated on the northeastern shore of Nahant, within a stone's throw of broken and bold rocks, where the deep pools furnished him with ever fresh specimens from natural aquariums which were re-stocked at every rise of the tide. This laboratory, with a small cottage adjoining, which was shared during the summer between his own family and that of Professor Felton, was the gift of his father-in-law, Mr. Cary. So carefully were his wishes considered that the microscope table stood on a flat rock sunk in the earth and detached from the floor, in order that no footstep or accidental jarring of door or window in other parts of the building might disturb him at his work. There, summer after summer, he pursued his researches on the medusae; from the smaller and more exquisite kinds, such as the Pleurobrachyias, Idyias, and Bolinas, to the massive Cyaneas, with their large disks and heavy tentacles, many yards in length. Nothing can be prettier than the smaller kinds of jellyfishes. Their structure is so delicate, yet so clearly defined, their color so soft, yet often so brilliant, their texture so transparent, that  you seek in vain among terrestrial forms for terms of comparison, and are tempted to say that nature has done her finest work in the sea rather than on land. Sometimes hundreds of these smaller medusae might be seen floating together in the deep glass bowls, or jars, or larger vessels with which Agassiz's laboratory at Nahant was furnished. When the supply was exhausted, new specimens were easily to be obtained by a row in a dory a mile or two from shore, either in the hot, still noon, when the jelly-fish rise toward the surface, or at night, over a brilliantly phosphorescent sea, when they are sure to be abundant, since they themselves furnish much of the phosphorescence. In these little excursions, many new and interesting things came to his nets beside those he was seeking. The fishermen, also, were his friends and coadjutors. They never failed to bring him whatever of rare or curious fell into their hands, sometimes even turning aside from their professional calling to give the laboratory preference over the market. Neither was his summer work necessarily suspended during winter, his Cambridge and Nahant homes being only about fifteen miles distant from each other. He writes to his  friends, the Holbrooks, at this time, ‘You can hardly imagine what a delightful place Nahant is for me now. I can trace the growth of my little marine animals all the year round without interruption, by going occasionally over there during the winter. I have at this moment young medusae budding from their polyp nurses, which I expect to see freeing themselves in a few weeks.’ In later years, when his investigations on the medusae were concluded, so far as any teaching from the open book of Nature can be said to be concluded, he pursued here, during a number of years, investigations upon the sharks and skates. For this work, which should have made one of the series of ‘Contributions,’ he left much material, unhappily not ready for publication. In August, 1857, Agassiz received the following letter from M. Rouland, Minister of Public Instruction in France.
At last, arrived at where our paths divide,
‘Good night!’ and, ere the distance grew too wide,
‘Good night!’ again; and now with cheated ear
I half hear his who mine shall never hear.
Had it been told to Agassiz when he left Europe that in ten years he should be recalled to fill one of the coveted places at the Jardin des Plantes, the great centre of scientific life and influence in France, he would hardly have believed himself capable of refusing it. Nor does a man reject what would once have seemed to him a great boon without a certain regret. Such momentary regret he felt perhaps, but not an instant of doubt. His answer expressed his gratitude and his pleasure in finding himself so remembered in Europe. He pleaded his work in America as his excuse for declining a position which he nevertheless considered the most brilliant that could be offered to a naturalist. In conclusion he adds: ‘Permit me to correct an error concerning myself. I am not French, although of French  origin. My family has been Swiss for centuries, and spite of my ten years exile I am Swiss still.’ The correspondence did not end here. A few months later the offer was courteously renewed by M. Rouland, with the express condition that the place should remain open for one or even two years to allow time for the completion of the work Agassiz had now on hand. To this second appeal he could only answer that his work here was the work not of years, but of his life, and once more decline the offer. That his refusal was taken in good part is evident from the fact that the order of the Legion of Honor was sent to him soon after, and that from time to time he received friendly letters from the Minister of Public Instruction, who occasionally consulted him upon general questions of scientific moment. This invitation excited a good deal of interest among Agassiz's old friends in Europe. Some urged him to accept it, others applauded his resolve to remain out of the great arena of competition and ambition. Among the latter was Humboldt. The following extract is from a letter of his (May 9, 1858) to Mr. George Ticknor, of Boston, who had been one of Agassiz's kindest and best friends in America  from the moment of his arrival. ‘Agassiz's large and beautiful work (the first two volumes) reached me a few days since. It will produce a great effect both by the breadth of its general views and by the extreme sagacity of its special embryological observations. I have never believed that this illustrious man, who is also a man of warm heart, a noble soul, would accept the generous offers made to him from Paris. I knew that gratitude would keep him in the new country, where he finds such an immense territory to explore, and such liberal aid in his work.’ In writing of this offer to a friend Agassiz himself says: ‘On one side, my cottage at Nahant by the sea-shore, the reef of Florida, the vessels of the Coast Survey at my command from Nova Scotia to Mexico, and, if I choose, all along the coast of the Pacific,— and on the other, the Jardin des Plantes, with all its accumulated treasures. Rightly considered, the chance of studying nature must prevail over the attractions of the (Paris) Museum. I hope I shall be wise enough not to be tempted even by the prospect of a new edition of the “Poissons Fossiles.” ’ To his old friend Charles Martins, the naturalist, he writes: ‘The work I have undertaken  here, and the confidence shown in me by those who have at heart the intellectual development of this country, make my return to Europe impossible for the present; and, as you have well understood, I prefer to build anew here rather than to fight my way in the midst of the coteries of Paris. Were I offered absolute power for the reorganization of the Jardin des Plantes, with a revenue of fifty thousand francs, I should not accept it. I like my independence better.’ The fact that Agassiz had received and declined this offer from the French government seemed to arouse anew the public interest in his projects and prospects here. It was felt that a man who was ready to make an alliance so uncompromising with the interests of science in the United States should not be left in a precarious and difficult position. His collections were still heaped together in a slight wooden building. The fact that a great part of them were preserved in alcohol made them especially in danger from fire. A spark, a match carelessly thrown down, might destroy them all in half an hour, for with material so combustible, help would be unavailing. This fear was never out of his mind. It disturbed his peace by day and his  rest by night. That frail structure, crowded from garret to cellar with seeming rubbish, with boxes, cases, barrels, casks still unpacked and piled one above the other, held for him the treasure out of which he would give form and substance to the dream of his boyhood and the maturer purpose of his manhood. The hope of creating a great museum intelligently related in all its parts, reflecting nature, and illustrating the history of the animal kingdom in the past and the present, had always tempted his imagination. Nor was it merely as a comprehensive and orderly collection that he thought of it. From an educational point of view it had an even greater value for him. His love of teaching prompted him no less than his love of science. Indeed, he hoped to make his ideal museum a powerful auxiliary in the interests of the schools and teachers throughout the State, and less directly throughout the country. He hoped it would become one of the centres for the radiation of knowledge, and that the investigations carried on within its walls would find means of publication, and be a fresh, original contribution to the science of the day. This hope was fully realized. The first number of the Museum Bulletin was published in March,  1863, the first number of the Illustrated Catalogue in 1864, and both publications have been continued with regularity ever since.2 In laying out the general plan, which was rarely absent from his thought, he distinguished between the demands which the specialist and the general observer might make upon an institution intended to instruct and benefit both. Here the special student should find in the laboratories and work rooms all the needed material for his investigations, stored in large collections, with duplicates enough to allow for that destruction of specimens which is necessarily involved in original research. The casual visitor meanwhile should walk through exhibition rooms, not simply crowded with objects to delight and interest him, but so arranged that the selection of every specimen should have reference to its part and place in nature; while the whole should be so combined as to explain, so far as known, the faunal and systematic relations of animals in the actual world, and in the geological formations; or, in other words, their succession in time, and their distribution in space.  A favorite part of his plan was a room which he liked to call his synoptic room. Here was to be the most compact and yet the fullest statement in material form of the animal kingdom as a whole, an epitome of the creation, as it were. Of course the specimens must be few in so limited a space, but each one was to be characteristic of one or other of the various groups included under every large division. Thus each object would contribute to the explanation of the general plan. On the walls there were to be large, legible inscriptions, serving as a guide to the whole, and making this room a simple but comprehensive lesson in natural history. It was intended to be the entrance room for visitors, and to serve as an introduction to the more detailed presentation of the same vast subject, given by the faunal and systematic collections in the other exhibition rooms. The standard of work involved in this scheme is shown in many of his letters to his students and assistants, to whom he looked for aid in its execution. To one he writes: ‘You will get your synoptic series only after you have worked up in detail the systematic collection as a whole, the faunal collections in their totality, the geological sequence of the  entire group under consideration, as well as its embryology and geographical distribution. Then alone will you be able to know the representatives in each series which will best throw light upon it and complete the other series.’ He did not live to fill in this comprehensive outline with the completeness which he intended, but all its details were fully explained by him before his death, and since that time have been carried out by his son, Alexander Agassiz. The synoptic room, and in great part the systematic and faunal collections, are now arranged and under exhibition, and the throngs of visitors during all the pleasant months of the year attest the interest they excite. This conception, of which the present Museum is the expression, was matured in the brain of the founder before a brick of the building was laid, or a dollar provided for the support of such an institution. It existed for him as his picture does for the artist before it lives upon the canvas. One must have been the intimate companion of his thoughts to know how and to what degree it possessed his imagination, to his delight always, yet sometimes to his sorrow also, for he had it and he  had it not. The thought alone was his; the means of execution were far beyond his reach. His plan was, however, known to many of his friends, and especially he had explained it to Mr. Francis C. Gray, whose intellectual sympathy made him a delightful listener to the presentation of any enlightened purpose. In 1858 Mr. Gray died, leaving in his will the sum of fifty thousand dollars for the establishment of a Museum of Comparative Zool ogy, with the condition that this sum should be used neither for the erection of buildings nor for salaries, but for the purely scientific needs of such an institution. Though this bequest was not connected in set terms with the collections already existing in Cambridge, its purpose was well understood; and Mr. Gray's nephew, Mr. William Gray, acting upon the intention of his uncle as residuary legatee, gave it into the hands of the President and Fellows of Harvard University. In passing over this trust, the following condition, among others, was made, namely: ‘That neither the collections nor any building which may contain the same shall ever be designated by any other name than the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.’ This is worth noting, because the title was chosen and insisted  upon by Agassiz himself in opposition to many who would have had it called after him. To such honor as might be found in connecting his own name with a public undertaking of any kind he was absolutely indifferent. It was characteristic of him to wish, on the contrary, that the name should be as impersonal and as comprehensive as the uses and aims of the institution itself. Yet he could not wholly escape the distinction he deprecated. The popular imagination, identifying him with his work, has re-christened the institution; and, spite of its legal title, its familiar designation is almost invariably the ‘Agassiz Museum.’ Mr. Gray's legacy started a movement which became every day more active and successful. The university followed up his bequest by a grant of land suitable for the site of the building, and since the Gray fund provided for no edifice, an appeal was made to the Legislature of Massachusetts to make good that deficiency. The Legislature granted lands to the amount of one hundred thousand dollars, on condition that a certain additional contribution should be made by private subscription. The sum of seventy-one thousand one hundred and twenty-five dollars, somewhat exceeding  that stipulated, was promptly subscribed, chiefly by citizens of Boston and Cambridge, and Agassiz himself gave all the collections he had brought together during the last four or five years, estimated, merely by the outlay made upon them, at ten thousand dollars. The architects, Mr. Henry Greenough and Mr. George Snell, offered the plan as their contribution. The former had long been familiar with Agassiz's views respecting the internal arrangements of the building. The main features had been discussed between them, and now, that the opportunity offered, the plan was practically ready for execution. These events followed each other so rapidly that although Mr. Gray's bequest was announced only in December, 1858, the first sod was turned and the corner-stone of the future Museum was laid on a sunny afternoon in the following June, 1859.3  This event, so full of significance for Agassiz, took place a few days before he sailed for Europe, having determined to devote the few weeks of the college and school vacation to a flying visit in Switzerland. The incidents of this visit were of a wholly domestic nature and hardly belong here. He paused a few days in Ireland and England to see his old friends, the Earl of Enniskillen and Sir Philip Egerton, and review their collections. A day or two in London gave him, in like manner, a few hours at the British Museum, a day with Owen at Richmond, and an opportunity to greet old friends and colleagues called together to meet him at Sir Roderick Murchison's. He allowed himself also a week in Paris, made delightful by the cordiality and hospitality of the professors of the Jardin des Plantes, and by the welcome he received at the Academy, when he made his appearance there. The happiest hours of this brief sojourn in Paris were perhaps spent with his old and dear friend Valenciennes, the associate of earlier days in Paris, when the presence of Cuvier and Humboldt gave a crowning interest to scientific work there. From Paris he hastened on to his mother in Switzerland, devoting to her and to his immediate  family all the time which remained to him before returning to his duties in Cambridge. They were very happy weeks, passed, for the most part, in absolute retirement, at Montagny, near the foot of the Jura, where Madame Agassiz was then residing with her daughter. The days were chiefly spent in an old-fashioned garden, where a corner shut in by ivy and shaded by trees made a pleasant out-of-door sitting-room. There he told his mother, as he had never been able to tell her in letters, of his life and home in the United States, and of the Museum to which he was returning, and which was to give him the means of doing for the study of nature all he had ever hoped to accomplish. His quiet stay here was interrupted only by a visit of a few days to his sister at Lausanne, and a trip to the Diablerets, where his brother, then a great invalid, was staying. He also passed a day or two at Geneva, where he was called to a meeting of the Helvetic Society, which gave him an opportunity of renewing old ties of friendship, as well as scientific relations, with the naturalists of his own country, with Pictet de la Rive, de Candolle, Favre, and others.