previous next

Chapter 19: 1860-1863: Aet. 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 Spain.

On his return to Cambridge at the end of September, Agassiz found the Museum building well advanced. It was completed in the course of the next year, and the dedication took place on the 13th November, 1860. The transfer of the collections to their new and safe abode was made as rapidly as possible, and the work of developing the institution under these more favorable conditions moved steadily on. The lecture rooms were at once opened, not only to students but to other persons not connected with the university. Especially welcome were teachers of schools [565] for whom admittance was free. It was a great pleasure to Agassiz thus to renew and strengthen his connection with the teachers of the State, with whom, from the time of his arrival in this country, he had held most cordial relations, attending the Teachers' Institutes, visiting the normal schools, and associating himself actively, as far as he could, with the interests of public education in Massachusetts. From this time forward his college lectures were open to women as well as to men. He had great sympathy with the desire of women for larger and more various fields of study and work, and a certain number of women have always been employed as assistants at the Museum.

The story of the next three years was one of unceasing but seemingly uneventful work. The daylight hours from nine or ten o'clock in the morning were spent, with the exception of the hour devoted to the school, at the Museum, not only in personal researches and in lecturing, but in organizing, distributing, and superintending the work of the laboratories, all of which was directed by him. Passing from bench to bench, from table to table, with a suggestion here, a kindly but scrutinizing glance there, he made his sympathetic presence [566] felt by the whole establishment. No man ever exercised a more genial personal influence over his students and assistants. His initiatory steps in teaching special students of natural history were not a little discouraging. Observation and comparison being in his opinion the intellectual tools most indispensable to the naturalist, his first lesson was one in looking. He gave no assistance; he simply left his student with the specimen, telling him to use his eyes diligently, and report upon what he saw. He returned from time to time to inquire after the beginner's progress, but he never asked him a leading question, never pointed out a single feature of the structure, never prompted an inference or a conclusion. This process lasted sometimes for days, the professor requiring the pupil not only to distinguish the various parts of the animal, but to detect also the relation of these details to more general typical features. His students still retain amusing reminiscences of their despair when thus confronted with their single specimen; no aid to be had from outside until they had wrung from it the secret of its structure. But all of them have recognized the fact that this one lesson in looking, which forced them to such careful scrutiny of the [567] object before them, influenced all their subsequent habits of observation, whatever field they might choose for their special subject of study. One of them who was intending to be an entomologist concludes a very clever and entertaining account of such a first lesson, entirely devoted to a single fish, with these words: ‘This was the best entomological lesson I ever had,—a lesson whose influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the professor has left to me, as he left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we could not part.’1

But if Agassiz, in order to develop independence and accuracy of observation, threw his students on their own resources at first, there was never a more generous teacher in the end than he. All his intellectual capital was thrown open to his pupils. His original material, his unpublished investigations, his most precious specimens, his drawings and illustrations were at their command. This liberality led in itself to a serviceable training, for he taught them to use with respect the valuable, often unique, objects intrusted to their care. Out of the intellectual goodlowship [568] which he established and encouraged in the laboratory grew the warmest relations between his students and himself. Many of them were deeply attached to him, and he was extremely dependent upon their sympathy and affection. By some among them he will never be forgotten. He is still their teacher and their friend, scarcely more absent from their work now than when the glow of his enthusiasm made itself felt in his personal presence.

But to return to the distribution of his time in these busy days. Having passed, as we have seen, the greater part of the day in the Museum and the school, he had the hours of the night for writing, and rarely left his desk before one or two o'clock in the morning, or even later. His last two volumes of the ‘Contributions,’ upon the Acalephs, were completed during these years. In the mean time, the war between North and South had broken out, and no American cared more than he for the preservation of the Union and the institutions it represented. He felt that the task of those who served letters and science was to hold together the intellectual aims and resources of the country during this struggle for national existence, to fortify the strongholds [569] of learning, abating nothing of their efficiency, but keeping their armories bright against the return of peace, when the better weapons of civilization should again be in force. Toward this end he worked with renewed ardor, and while his friends urged him to suspend operations at the Museum and husband his resources until the storm should have passed over, he, on the contrary, stimulated its progress by every means in his power. Occasionally he was assisted by the Legislature, and early in this period an additional grant of ten thousand dollars was made to the Museum. With this grant was begun the series of illustrated publications already mentioned, known as the ‘Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge.’

During this period he urged also the foundation of a National Academy of Sciences, and was active in furthering its organization and incorporation (1863) by Congress. With respect to this effort, and to those he was at the same time making for the Museum, he was wont to recall the history of the University of Berlin. In an appeal to the people in behalf of the intellectual institutions of the United States during the early years of the war he says: ‘A well known fact in the history [570] of Germany has shown that the moment of political danger may be that in which the firmest foundations for the intellectual strength of a country may be laid. When in 1806, after the battle of Jena, the Prussian monarchy had been crushed and the king was despairing even of the existence of his realm, he planned the foundation of the University of Berlin, by the advice of Fichte, the philosopher. It was inaugurated the very year that the despondent monarch returned to his capital. Since that time it has been the greatest glory of the Prussian crown, and has made Berlin the intellectual centre of Germany.’

It may be added here as an evidence of Agassiz's faith in the institutions of the United States and in her intellectual progress that he was himself naturalized in the darkest hour of the war, when the final disruption of the country was confidently prophesied by her enemies. By formally becoming a citizen of the United States he desired to attest his personal confidence in the stability of her Constitution and the justice of her cause.

Some light is thrown upon the work and incidents of these years by the following letters:— [571]

From Sir Philip de Grey Egerton.

London, Albemarle St., April 16, 1861.
Mon Cher Agass.,2—I have this morning received your handsome and welcome present of the third volume of your great undertaking, and this reminds me how remiss I have been in not writing to you sooner. In fact, I have had nothing worth writing about, and I know your time is too valuable to be intrenched upon by letters of mere gossip. I have not of course had time to peruse any portion of the monograph, but I have turned over the pages and seen quite enough to sharpen my appetite for the glorious scientific feast you have so liberally provided. And now that the weight is off your mind, I hope shortly to hear that you are about to fulfill this year the promise you made of returning to England for a good long visit, only postponed by circumstances you could not have foreseen. Now that you have your son as the sharer of your labors, you will be able to leave him in charge during your absence, and so divest your mind of all care and anxiety with reference to matters over the water. Here we are all fighting most furiously about Celts and flint implements, [572] struggle for life, natural selection, the age of the world, races of men, biblical dates, apes, and gorillas, etc., and the last duel has been between Owen and Huxley on the anatomical distinction of the pithecoid brain compared with that of man. Theological controversy has also been rife, stirred up by the ‘Essays and Reviews,’ of which you have no doubt heard much. For myself, I have been busy preparing, in conjunction with Huxley, another decade of fossil fishes, all from the old red of Scotland. . . . Enniskillen is quite well. He is now at Lyme Regis. . . .

At about this time the Copley Medal was awarded to Agassiz, a distinction which was the subject of cordial congratulation from his English friends.

From Sir Roderick Murchison.

Belgrave square, March, 1862.
my dear Agassiz,—Your letter of the 14th February was a great surprise to me. I blamed myself for not writing you sooner than I did on the event which I had long been anxious to see realized; but I took it for granted that you had long before received the official announcement from the foreign secretary [573] that you were, at the last anniversary of the Royal Society, the recipient of the highest honor which our body can bestow, whether on a foreigner or a native. . . . On going to the Royal Society to-day I found that the President and Secretaries were much surprised that you had never answered the official letter sent to you on the 1st or 2d December by the Foreign Secretary, Professor Muller, of Cambridge. He wrote to announce the award, and told you the Copley Medal was in his safe keeping till you wrote to say what you wished to have done with it. I have now recommended him to transmit it officially to you through the United States Minister, Mr. Adams. In these times of irritation, everything which soothes and calms down angry feelings ought to be resorted to; and I hope it may be publicly known that when our newspapers were reciprocating all sorts of rudenesses, the men of science of England thought of nothing but honoring a beloved and eminent savant of America.

I thank you for your clear and manly view of the North and South, which I shall show to all our mutual friends. Egerton, who is now here, was delighted to hear of you, as well as Huxley, Lyell, and many others. . .

. [574]

In a paper just read to the Geological Society Professor Ramsay has made a stronger demand on the powers of ice than you ever did. He imagines that every Swiss lake north and south (Geneva, Neuchatel, Como, etc.) has been scooped out, and the depressions excavated by the abrading action of the glaciers. . . .

From Sir Philip de Grey Egerton.

Albemarle St., London, March 11, 1862.
Mon Cher Agass.,—As I am now settled in London for some months, I take the first opportunity of writing to congratulate you on the distinction which has been conferred upon you by the Royal Society, and I will say that you have most fully earned it. I rejoice exceedingly in the decision the Council have arrived at. I only regret I was not on the Council myself to have advocated your high claims and taken a share in promoting your success. It is now long since I have heard from you, but this terrible disruption between the North and South has, I suppose, rendered the pursuit of science rather difficult, and the necessary funds also difficult of attainment. I should like very much to hear how you are getting on, and whether there is any like. [575] lihood of your being able to come over in the course of the summer or autumn. I fully expected you last year, and was very much disappointed that you could not realize your intention. I have this day sent to you through Bailliere, the last decade of the Jermyn St. publications.3 You will see that Huxley has taken up the subject of the Devonian fishes in a truly scientific spirit. . . .

From Owen to Agassiz.

British Museum, Aug. 30, 1862.
my dear Agassiz,—I have received, and since its reception have devoted most of my spare moments to the study of, your fourth volume of the ‘Natural History of the United States,’—a noble contribution to our science, and worthy of your great name.

The demonstration of the unity of plan pervading the diversities of the Polyps, Hydroids, Acalephal and Echinodermal modifications of your truly natural group of Radiates, is to my mind perfect, and I trust that the harsh and ugly and essentially error-breeding name of Coelenterata may have received its final sentence of exile from lasting and rational zoological terminology. [576]

I shall avail myself of opportunities for bringing myself to your recollection by such brochures as I have time for. One of them will open to your view something of the nature of the contest here waging to obtain for England a suitable Museum of Natural History, equivalent to her wealth and colonies and maritime business. In this I find you a valuable ally, and have cited from the Reports of your Museum of Comparative Zoology in support of my own claims for space.

I was glad to hear from Mr. Bates that the Megatherium had not gone to the bottom, but had been rescued, and that it was probably ere this in your Museum at Cambridge. I trust it may be so.

A line from you or the sight of any friend of yours is always cheering to me. Our friends Enniskillen and Egerton are both well. . . .

I remain ever truly yours,

As has been seen by a previous letter from Sir Roderick Murchison, Agassiz tried from time to time to give his English friends more just views of our national struggle. The letter to which the following is an answer is [577] missing, but one may easily infer its tenor, and the pleasure it had given him.

To Sir Philip de Grey Egerton.

Nahant, mass., August 15, 1862.
. . . I feel so thankful for your words of sympathy, that I lose not an hour in expressing my feeling. It has been agonizing week after week to receive the English papers, and to see there the noble devotion of the men of the North to their country and its government, branded as the service of mercenaries. You know I am not much inclined to meddle with politics; but I can tell you that I have never seen a more generous and prompt response to the call of country than was exhibited last year, and is exhibiting now, in the loyal United States. In the last six weeks nearly 300,000 men have volunteered, and I am satisfied that the additional 300,000 will be forthcoming without a draft in the course of the next month. And believe me, it is not for the sake of the bounty they come forward, for our best young men are the first to enlist; if anything can be objected to these large numbers of soldiers, it is that it takes away the best material that the land possesses. I thank you once more for your warm sympathy. [578] I needed it the more, as it is almost the first friendly word of that kind I have received from England, and I began to question the humanity of your civilization. . . . Under present circumstances, you can well imagine that I cannot think of leaving Cambridge, even for a few weeks, much as I wish to take some rest, and especially to meet your kind invitation. But I feel that I have a debt to pay to my adopted country, and all I can now do is to contribute my share toward maintaining the scientific activity which has been awakened during the last few years, and which even at this moment is on the increase.

I am now at Nahant, on the sea-shore, studying embryology chiefly with reference to paleontology, and the results are most satisfactory. I have had an opportunity already of tracing the development of the representatives of three different families, upon the embryology of which we had not a single observation thus far, and of making myself familiar with the growth of many others. With these accessions I propose next winter seriously to return to my first scientific love. . . .

I have taken with me to the sea-shore your and Huxley's ‘Contributions to the Devonian [579] Fishes,’ and also your notice of Carboniferous fish-fauna; but I have not yet had a chance to study them critically, from want of time, having been too successful with the living specimens to have a moment for the fossils. The season for sea-shore studies is, however, drawing rapidly to an end, and then I shall have more leisure for my old favorites.

I am very sorry to hear such accounts of the sufferings of the manufacturing districts in England. I wish I could foretell the end of our conflict; but I do not believe it can now be ended before slavery is abolished, though I thought differently six months ago. The most conservative men at the North have gradually come to this conviction, and nobody would listen for a moment to a compromise with the southern slave power. Whether we shall get rid of it by war measures or by an emancipation proclamation, I suppose the President himself does not yet know. I do not think that we shall want more money than the people are willing to give. Private contributions for the comfort of the army are really unbounded. I know a gentleman, not among the richest in Boston, who has already contributed over $30,000; and I heard yesterday of a shop-boy who tendered all his earnings of [580] many years to the relief committee,—$2,000, retaining nothing for himself,—and so it goes all round. Of course we have croakers and despondent people, but they no longer dare to raise their voices; from which I infer that there is no stopping the storm until by the natural course of events the atmosphere is clear and pure again.

Ever truly your friend,

Agassiz had now his time more at his own disposal since he had given up his school and had completed also the fourth volume of his ‘Contributions.’ Leisure time he could never be said to have, but he was free to give all his spare time and strength to the Museum, and to this undivided aim, directly or indirectly, the remainder of his life was devoted. Although at intervals he received generous aid from the Legislature or from private individuals for the further development of the Museum, its growth outran such provision, and especially during the years of the war the problem of meeting expenses was often difficult of solution. To provide for such a contingency Agassiz made in the winter of 1863 the most extensive lecturing tour he [581] had ever undertaken, even in his busiest lecturing days. He visited all the large cities and some of the smaller towns from Buffalo to St. Louis. While very remunerative, and in many respects delightful, since he was received with the greatest cordiality, and lectured everywhere to enthusiastic crowds, this enterprise was, nevertheless, of doubtful economy even for his scientific aims. Agassiz was but fifty-six, yet his fine constitution began to show a fatigue hardly justified by his years, and the state of his health was already a source of serious anxiety to his friends. He returned much exhausted, and passed the summer at Nahant, where the climate always benefited him, while his laboratory afforded the best conditions for work. If this summer home had a fault, it was its want of remoteness. He was almost as much beset there, by the interruptions to which a man in his position is liable, as in Cambridge.

His letters show how constantly during this nominal vacation his Museum and its interests occupied his thoughts. One is to his brother-in-law, Thomas G. Cary, whose residence was in San Francisco, and who had been for years his most efficient aid in obtaining collections from the Pacific Coast. [582]

To Mr. Thomas G. Cary.

Cambridge, March 23, 1863.
dear Tom,—For many years past your aid in fostering the plans of the Museum in Cambridge has greatly facilitated the progress of that establishment in everything relating to the Natural History of California, and now that it has become desirable to extend our scheme to objects which have thus far been neglected I make another appeal to you.

Every day the history of mankind is brought into more and more intimate connection with the natural history of the animal creation, and it is now indispensable that we should organize an extensive collection to illustrate the natural history of the uncivilized races. Your personal acquaintance with business friends in almost every part of the globe has suggested to me the propriety of addressing to you a circular letter, setting forth the objects wanted, and requesting of you the favor to communicate it as widely as possible among your friends.

To make the most instructive collections relative to the natural history of mankind, two classes of specimens should be brought together, one concerning the habits and pursuits [583] of the races, the other concerning the physical constitution of the races themselves.

With reference to the first it would be desirable to collect articles of clothing and ornaments of all the races of men, their implements, tools, weapons, and such models or drawings of their dwellings as may give an idea of their construction; small canoes and oars as models of their vessels, or indications of their progress in navigation; in one word, everything that relates to their avocations, their pursuits, their habits, their mode of worship, and whatever may indicate the dawn or progress of the arts among them. As to articles of clothing, it would be preferable to select such specimens as have actually been worn or even cast off, rather than new things which may be more or less fanciful and not indicate the real natural condition and habits of a race.

With regard to the collections intended to illustrate the physical constitution of the races it is more difficult to obtain instructive specimens, as the savage races are generally inclined to hold sacred all that relates to their dead; yet whenever an opportunity is afforded to obtain skulls of the natives of different parts of the world, it should be industriously improved, and good care taken to mark the [584] skulls in such a way that their origin cannot be mistaken. Beside this, every possible effort should be made to obtain perfect heads, preserved in alcohol, so that all their features may be studied minutely and compared. Where this cannot be done portraits or photographs may be substituted.

Trusting that you may help me in this way to bring together in Cambridge a more complete collection, illustrative of the natural history of mankind than exists thus far anywhere,4

I remain, ever truly your friend and brother,

The following letter to Mr. Ticknor is in the same spirit as previous ones to Mr. Haldeman and others, concerning the distribution of fishes in America. It is given at the risk of some repetition, because it illustrates Agassiz's favorite idea that a key to the original combination of faunae in any given system of fresh waters, might be reached through a closer study than has yet been possible of the geographical or local circumscription of their inhabitants. [585]

To Mr. George Ticknor.

Nahant, October 24, 1863.
my dear Sir,—Among the schemes which I have devised for the improvement of the Museum, there is one for the realization of which I appeal to your aid and sympathy. Thus far the natural productions of the rivers and lakes of the world have not been compared with one another, except what I have done in comparing the fishes of the Danube with those of the Rhine and of the Rhone, and those of the great Canadian lakes with those of the Swiss lakes.

I now propose to resume this subject on the most extensive scale, since I see that it has the most direct bearing upon the transmutation theory. . . . First let me submit to you my plan.

Rivers and lakes are isolated by the land and sea from one another. The question is, then, how they came to be peopled with inhabitants differing both from those on land and those in the sea, and how does it come that every hydrographic basin has its own inhabitants more or less different from those of any other basin? Take the Ganges, the Nile, and the Amazons. There is not a living being [586] in the one alike to any one in the others, etc. Now to advance the investigation to the point where it may tell with reference to the scientific doctrines at present under discussion, it is essential to know the facts in detail, with reference to every fresh-water basin on earth. I have already taken means to obtain the tenants of all the rivers of Brazil, and partly of Russia, and I hope you may be able to put me in the way of getting those of Spain, if not of some other country beside. The plan I propose for that country would be worthy of the Doctors of Salamanca in her brightest days. If this alone were carried out, it would be, I believe, sufficient to settle the whole question.

My idea is to obtain separate collections from all the principal rivers of Spain and Portugal, and even to have several separate collections from the larger rivers, one from their lower course, one from their middle course, and another from their head-waters. Take, for instance, the Douro. One collection ought to be made at Oporto, and several higher up, among its various tributaries and in its upper course; say, one at Zamora and Valladolid, one at Salamanca from the Tormes River, one at Leon from the Esla River, one [587] at Burgos and Palencia from the northern tributaries, one at Soria and Segovia from the southern tributaries. If this could be done on such a scale as I propose, it would in itself be a work worthy of the Spanish government, and most creditable to any man who should undertake it. The fact is that nothing of the kind has ever been done yet anywhere. A single collection from the Minho would be sufficient, say from Orense or Melgaqo. From the northern rivers along the gulf of Biscay all that would be necessary would be one thoroughly complete collection from one of the little rivers that come down from the mountains of Asturias, say from Oviedo.

The Ebro would require a more elaborate survey. From its upper course, one collection would be needed from Haro or Frias or Miranda; another from Saragossa, and one from its mouth, including the minnows common among the brackish waters near the mouth of large rivers. In addition to this, one or two of the tributaries of the Ebro, coming down from the Pyrenees, should be explored in the same manner; say one collection from Pampeluna, and one from Urgel, or any other place on the southern slope of the Pyrenees. A collection made at Barcelona from the river [588] and the brackish marshes would be equally desirable; another from the river at Valencia, and, if possible, also from its head-waters at Ternel; another from the river Segura at Murcia, and somewhere in the mountains from its head-waters. Granada would afford particular interest as showing what its mountain streams feed. A collection from the Almeria River at Almeria, or from any of the small rivers of the southern coast of Spain, would do; and it would be the more interesting if another from the river Xenil could be obtained at or near Granada, to compare with the inhabitants of the waters upon the southern slope of the Sierra Nevada.

Next would come the Guadalquivir, from which a collection should be made at San Lucar, with the brackish water species; another at Seville or Cordova, one among the head-waters from the Sierra Nevada, and another from the mountains of the Mancha. From the Guadiana a collection from Villa Real, with the brackish species; one from Badajoz, and one from the easternmost headwaters, and about where the river is lost under ground.

The Tagus would again require an extensive exploration. In the first place a thorough [589] collection of all the species found in the great estuary ought to be made with the view of ascertaining how far marine Atlantic species penetrate into the river basin; then one from Santarem, and another either from Talavera or Toledo or Aranjuez, and one from the head-waters in Guadalaxara, and another in Molina.

The collections made at different stations ought carefully to be kept in distinct jars or kegs, with labels so secure that no confusion or mistake can arise. But the specimens collected at the same station may be put together in the same jar. These collections require, in fact, very little care. (Here some details about mode of putting up specimens, transportation, etc.) If the same person should collect upon different stations, either in the same or in different hydrographic basins, the similarity of the specimens should not be a reason for neglecting to preserve them. What is aimed at is not to secure a variety of species, but to learn in what localities the same species may occur again and again, and what are the localities which nourish different species, no matter whether these species are in themselves interesting or not, new to science or known for ages, whether valuable for the [590] table or unfit to eat. The mere fact of their distribution is the point to be ascertained, and this, as you see, requires the most extensive collections, affording in themselves comparatively little interest, but likely to lead, by a proper discussion of the facts, to the most unexpected philosophical results. . . . Do, please, what you can in this matter. Spain alone might give us the materials to solve the question of transmutation versus creation. I am going to make a similar appeal to my friends in Russia for materials from that country, including Siberia and Kamschatka. Our own rivers are not easily accessible now. Ever truly your friend,

1 In the Laboratory with Agassiz, by S. H. Scudder.

2 An affectionate abbreviation which Sir Philip often used for him.

3 Publications of the Geological Survey of England.

4 All the ethnographical collections of the Museum of Comparative Zoology have now been transferred to the Peabody Museum, where they more properly belong.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: