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Chapter 3: 1828-1829: Aet. 21-22.

  • First important work in natural History.
  • -- Spix's Brazilian fishes. -- second vacation trip. -- sketch of work during University year. -- extracts from the Journal of Mr. Dinkel. -- home letters. -- hope of joining Humboldt's Asiatic expedition. -- diploma of philosophy. -- completion of first part of the Spix fishes. -- letter concerning it from Cuvier.

It was not without a definite purpose that Agassiz had written to his father some weeks before, ‘Should I during the course of my studies succeed in making myself known by a distinguished work, would you not then consent that I should study for one year the natural sciences alone?’ Unknown to his parents, for whom he hoped to prepare a delightful surprise, Agassiz had actually been engaged for months on the first work which gave him distinction in the scientific world; namely, a description of the Brazilian fishes brought home by Martius and Spix from their celebrated journey in Brazil. This was the secret to which allusion is made in the next [75] letter. To his disappointment an accident brought his undertaking to the knowledge of his father and mother before it was completed. He always had a boyish regret that his little plot had been betrayed before the moment for the denouement arrived. The book was written in Latin and dedicated to Cuvier.1

To his brother.

Munich, July 27, 1828.
. . . Various things which I have begun keep me a prisoner here. Probably I shall not stir during the vacation, and shall even give up the little trip in the Tyrol, which I had thought of making as a rest from occupations that bind me very closely at present, but from which I hope to free myself in the course of the holidays. Don't be angry with me for not telling you at once what they are. When you know, I hope to be forgiven for keeping you so long in the dark. I have kept it a secret from papa too, though in his last letter he asks me what is my especial work just now. A few months more of patience, and I will give you a strict account of [76] my time since I came here, and then I am sure you will be satisfied with me. I only wish to guard against one thing: do not take it into your head that I am about to don the fool's cap suddenly and surprise you with a Doctor's degree; that would be going a little too fast, nor do I think of it yet. . . . I want to remind you not to let the summer pass without getting me fishes according to the list in my last letter, which I hope you have not mislaid. You would give me great pleasure by sending them as soon as possible. Let me tell you why. M. Cuvier has announced the publication of a complete work on all the known fishes, and in the prospectus he calls on such naturalists as occupy themselves with ichthyology to send him the fishes of the country where they live; he mentions those who have already sent him collections, and promises duplicates from the Paris Museum to those who will send him more. He names the countries also from which he has received contributions, and regrets that he has nothing from Bavaria. Now I possess several specimens of all the native species, and have even discovered some ten not hitherto known to occur here, beside one completely new to science, which I have named Cyprinus [77] uranoscopus on account of the position of the eyes, placed on the top instead of the sides of the head,—otherwise very like the gudgeon. I have therefore thought I could not better launch myself in the scientific world than by sending Cuvier my fishes with the observations I have made on their natural history. To these I should like to add such rare Swiss species as you can procure for me. So do not fail.

From his brother.

Neuchatel, August 25, 1828.
. . . I received in good time, and with infinite delight, your pleasant letter of July 27th. Its mysteries have however been unveiled by Dr. Schinz, who came to the meeting of the Natural History Society in Lausanne, where he met papa and my uncle, to whom he pronounced the most solemn eulogiums on their son and nephew, telling them at the same time what was chiefly occupying you now. I congratulate you, my dear brother, but I confess that among us all I am the least surprised, for my presentiments about you outrun all this, and I hope soon to see them realized. In all frankness I can assure you that the stoutest antagonists of your natural history schemes begin to come [78] over to your side. Among them is my uncle here, who never speaks of you now but with enthusiasm. What more can be said? I gave him your letter to read, and since then he has asked me a dozen times at least if I had not forgotten to forward the remittance you asked for, saying that I must not delay it. The truth is, I have deferred writing till the last moment, because I have not succeeded in getting your fishes, and have always been hoping that I might be able to fulfill your commission. I busied myself on your behalf with all the zeal and industry of which I was capable, but quite in vain. The devil seemed to be in it. The season of Bondelles was over two months ago, and there are none to be seen; as to trout, I don't believe one has been eaten in the whole town for six weeks. I am forever at the heels of the fishermen, promising them double and treble the value of the fish I want, but they all tell me they catch nothing except pike. I have been to Cudrefin for lampreys, but found nothing. Rodolphe2 has been paddling in the brook every day without success. I went to Sauge,—no eels, no anything but perch and a few little cat-fish. Two mortal Sundays did I spend, rod in hand, trying to [79] catch bream, chubs, etc. I did get a few, but they were not worth sending. Now it is all over for this year, and we may as well put on mourning for them; but I promise you that as soon as the spring opens I will go to work, and you shall have all you want. If, in spite of everything, your hopes are not realized, I shall be very sorry, but rest assured that it is not my fault. . . .

To his sister Cecile.

Munich, October 29, 1828.
. . .I have never written you about what has engrossed me so deeply; but since my secret is out, I ought not to keep silence longer. That you may understand why I have entered upon such a work I will go back to its origin. In 1817 the King of Bavaria sent two naturalists, M. Martius and M. Spix, on an exploring expedition to Brazil. Of M. Martius, with whom I always spend my Wednesday evenings, I have often spoken to you. In 1821 these gentlemen returned to their country laden with new discoveries, which they published in succession. M. Martius issued colored illustrations of all the unknown plants he had collected on his journey, while M. Spix brought out several folio volumes [80] on the monkeys, birds, and reptiles of Brazil, the animals being drawn and colored, chiefly life-size, by able artists. It had been his intention to give a complete natural history of Brazil, but to the sorrow of all naturalists he died in 1826. M. Martius, desirous to see the completion of the work which his traveling companion had begun, engaged a professor from Erlangen to publish the shells, and these appeared last year. When I came to Munich there remained only the fishes and insects, and M. Martius, who had learned something about me from the professors to whom I was known, found me worthy to continue the work of Spix, and asked me to carry on the natural history of the fishes. I hesitated for a long time to accept this honorable offer, fearing that the occupation might withdraw me too much from my studies; but, on the other hand, the opportunity for laying the foundation of a reputation by a large undertaking seemed too favorable to be refused. The first volume is already finished, and the printing was begun some weeks ago. You can imagine the pleasure I should have had in sending it to our dear father and mother before they had heard one word about it, or knew even of [81] the proposition. But I hope the premature disclosure of my secret (indeed, to tell the truth, I had not imposed silence on M. Schinz, not dreaming that he would see any one of the family) will not diminish your pleasure in receiving the first work of your brother Louis, which I hope to send you at Easter. Already forty colored folio plates are completed. Will it not seem strange when the largest and finest book in papa's library is one written by his Louis? Will it not be as good as to see his prescription at the apothecary's? It is true that this first effort will bring me in but little; nothing at all, in fact, because M. de Martius has assumed all the expenses, and will, of course, receive the profits. My share will be a few copies of the book, and these I shall give to the friends who have the first claim.

To his father Agassiz only writes of his work at this time:

I have been very busy this summer, and I can tell you from a good source (I have it from one of the professors himself) that the professors whose lectures I have attended have mentioned me more than once, as one of the most assiduous and best informed students of the university; saying [82] also that I deserved distinction. I do not tell you this from ostentation, but only that you may not think I lose my time, even though I occupy myself chiefly with the natural sciences. I hope yet to prove to you that with a brevet of Doctor as a guarantee, Natural History may be a man's bread-winner as well as the delight of his life. . . .

In September Agassiz allowed himself a short interruption of his work. The next letter gives some account of this second vacation trip.

To his parents.

Munich, September 26, 1828.
. . .The instruction for the academic year closed at the end of August, and our professors had hardly completed their lectures when I began my Alpine excursion. Braun, impatient to leave Munich, had already started the preceding day, promising to wait for me on the Salzburg road at the first spot which pleased him enough for a halt. That I might not keep him waiting, I begged a friend to drive me a good day's journey, thinking to overtake Braun the first day on the pleasant banks of the Lake of Chiem. My traveling companions were the younger Schimper [Wilhelm], [83] of whom I have spoken to you (and who made a botanical journey in the south of France and the Pyrenees two years ago), and Mahir, who drove us, with whom I am very intimate; he is a medical student, and also a very enthusiastic physicist. He gave me private lessons in mathematics all winter, and was a member of our philomathic meetings. Braun had not set out alone either, and his two traveling companions were also friends of ours. One was Trettenbacher, a medical student greatly given to sophisms and logic, but allowing himself to be beaten in argument with the utmost good nature, though always believing himself in the right; a thoroughly good fellow with all that, and a great connoisseur of antiquities. The other was a young student, More, from the ci-devant department of Mt. Tonnerre, who devotes himself entirely to the natural sciences, and has chosen the career of traveling naturalist. You can easily imagine that this attracts me to him, but as he is only a beginner I am, as it were, his mentor.

On the morning of our departure the weather was magnificent. Driving briskly along we had various surmises as to where we should probably meet our traveling companions, [84] not doubting that, as we hoped to reach the Lake of Chiem the same day, we should come across them the day following on one of its pretty islands. But in the afternoon the weather changed, and we were forced to seek shelter from torrents of rain at Rosenheim, a charming town on the banks of the Inn, where I saw for the first time this river of Helvetic origin. I saluted it as a countryman of mine, and wished I could change its course and send it back laden with my greetings. The next day Mahir drove us as far as the shore of the lake. There we parted from him, and took a boat to the islands, where we were much disappointed not to find Braun and his companions. We thought the bad weather of the day before (for here it had rained all day) might have obliged them to make the circuit of the lake. However, in order to overtake them before reaching Salzburg, we kept our boatmen, and were rowed across to the opposite shore near Grabenstadt, where we arrived at ten o'clock in the evening. In the afternoon the weather had cleared a little, and the view was beautiful as we pulled away from the islands and watched them fade in the twilight. I also gathered much interesting information about the inhabitants [85] of the waters of this lake. Among others, I was much pleased to find a cat-fish, taken in the lake by one of the island fishermen, and also a kind of chub, not found in Switzerland, and called by the fishermen here ‘Our Lady's Fish,’ because it occurs only on the shore of an island where there is a convent, the nuns of which esteem it a great delicacy.

The third day we reached Traunstein, where, although it was Sunday, there was a great horse fair. We looked with interest at the gay Tyroleans, with the cock-feathers in their pointed hats, singing and jodeling in the streets with their sweethearts on their arms. Every now and then they let fall some sarcastic comment on our accoutrements, which were indeed laughable enough to these people, who had never seen anything beyond their own chalets, and for whom an excursion from their mountains to a fair in the nearest town is a journey. It was noon when we stopped at Traunstein, and from there to Salzburg is but five leagues. Before reaching the fortress, however, you must pass the great custom-house on the Bavarian frontier, and fearing we might be delayed there too long by the stupid Austrian officials, and thus be prevented [86] from entering the city before the gates were closed, we resolved to wait till the next morning and spend the night at Adelstaetten, a pretty village about a league from Salzburg, and the last Bavarian post. Night was falling as we approached a little wood which hid the village from us. There we asked a peasant how far we had still to go, and when he had answered our question he told us, evidently with kind intention, that we should find good company in the village, for a few hours earlier three journeymen laborers had arrived there; and then he added that we should no doubt be glad to meet comrades and have a gay evening with them. We were not astonished to be taken for workmen, since every one who travels here on foot, with a knapsack on his back, is understood to belong to the laboring class. . . . Arrived at the village, we were delighted to find that the three journeymen were our traveling companions. They had come, like ourselves, from Traunstein, where we had missed each other in the crowd, and they were going likewise to sleep at Adelstaetten, to avoid the custom-house. Finally, on Monday, at ten o'clock, we crossed the long bridge over the Saala, between the white coats with yellow trimmings on guard there. [87] On the Bavarian frontier we had hardly remembered that there was a custom-house, and the name of student sufficed to pass us without our showing any passports; here, on the contrary, it was another reason for the strictest examination. ‘Have you no forbidden books?’ was the first question. By good fortune, before crossing the bridge, I had advised Trettenbach to hide his song-book in the lining of his boot. I am assured that had it been taken upon him he would not have been allowed to pass. In ransacking Braun's bag, one of the officials found a shell such as are gathered by the basketful on the shores of the Lake of Neuchatel. His first impulse was to go to the office and inquire whether we should not pay duty on this, saying that it was no doubt for the fabrication of false pearls, and we probably had plenty more. We had all the difficulty in the world to make him understand that not fifty steps from the custom-house the shores of the river were strewn with them . . . . After all this we had to empty our purses to show that we had money enough for our journey, and that we should not be forced to beg in order to get through. While we underwent this inquisition, another officer made a tour of inspection around us, to observe our general [88] bearing, etc. . . . After having kept us thus on coals for two hours they gave us back our passports, and we went our way. At one o'clock we arrived at Salzburg as hungry as wolves, but at the gate we had still to wait and give up our passports again in exchange for receipts, in virtue of which we could obtain permits from the police to remain in the city. From our inn, we sent a waiter to get these permits, but he presently returned with the news that we must go in person to take them; there was, however, no hurry; it would do in three or four hours! We had no farther difficulty except that it was made a condition of our stay that we should not appear in student's dress. This dress, they said, was forbidden in Austria. They begged More to have his hair cut, otherwise it would be shortened gratis, and also informed us that at our age it was not becoming to dispense with cravats. Happily, I had two with me, and Braun tied his handkerchief around his neck. It astonished me, also, to see that we were not entered on the list of strangers published every evening. So it was also, as we found, with other students, though the persons who came with them by the same conveyance, even the children, were duly inscribed. It seems this is a precaution against any gathering of students. . . . .


The letter concludes in haste for the mail, and if the story of the journey was finished the final chapter has not been preserved. Some extracts from the home letters of Agassiz's friend Braun, which are in place here, throw light on their university life for the coming year.3

Alexander Braun to his father.

Munich, November 18, 1828.
. . .I will tell you how we have laid out our time for this term. Our human consciousness may be said to begin at half-past 5 o'clock in the morning. The hour from six to seven is appointed for mathematics, namely, geometry and trigonometry. To this appointment we are faithful, unless the professor oversleeps himself, or Agassiz happens to have grown to his bed, an event which sometimes occurs at the opening of the term. From seven to eight we do as we like, including breakfast. Under Agassiz's new style of housekeeping the coffee is made in a machine which is devoted during the day to the soaking of all sorts of creatures for skeletons, and in the evening again to the brewing of our [90] tea. At eight o'clock comes the clinical lecture of Ringseis. As Ringseis is introducing an entirely new medical system, this is not wholly without general physiological and philosophical interest. At ten o'clock Stahl lectures, five times a week, on mechanics as preliminary to physics. These and also the succeeding lectures, given only twice a week on the special natural history of amphibians by Wagler, we all attend together. From twelve to one o'clock we have nothing settled as yet, but we mean to take the lectures of Dollinger, in single chapters, as, for instance, when he comes to the organs of the senses. At one o'clock we go to dinner, for which we have at last found a comfortable and regular place, at a private house, after having dined everywhere and anywhere, at prices from nine to twenty kreutzers. Here, for thirteen kreutzers4 each, in company with a few others, mostly known to us, we are provided with a good and neatly served meal. After dinner we go to Dr. Waltl, with whom we study chemistry, using Gmelin's text-book, and are shown the most important experiments. Next week we are to begin entomology with Dr. Perty, from three to four, three times a week. [91] From one to two o'clock on Saturday we have a lesson in experimental physiology, plainly speaking, in animal dissection, from Dr. Oesterreicher, a young Docent, who has written on the circulation of the blood. As Agassiz dissects a great many animals, especially fishes, at the house, we are making rapid progress in comparative anatomy. At four o'clock we go usually once a week to hear Oken on ‘Natur-philosophie’ (a course we attended last term also), but by that means we secure a good seat for Schelling's lecture immediately after. A man can hardly hear twice in his life a course of lectures so powerful as those Schelling is now giving on the philosophy of revelation. This will sound strangely to you, because, till now, men have not believed that revelation could be a subject for philosophical treatment; to some it has seemed too sacred; to others too irrational. . . . This lecture brings us to six o'clock, when the public courses are at an end: we go home, and now begin the private lectures. Sometimes Agassiz tries to beat French rules and constructions into our brains, or we have a lesson in anatomy, or I read general natural history aloud to William Schimper. By and by I shall review the natural history of grasses [92] and ferns, two families of which I made a special study last summer. Twice a week Karl Schimper lectures to us on the morphology of plants; a very interesting course on a subject but little known. He has twelve listeners. Agassiz is also to give us lectures occasionally on Sundays upon the natural history of fishes. You see there is enough to do . . .

Somewhat before this, early in 1828, Agassiz had made the acquaintance of Mr. Joseph Dinkel, an artist. A day spent together in the country, in order that Mr. Dinkel might draw a brilliantly colored trout from life, under the immediate direction of the young naturalist, led to a relation which continued uninterruptedly for many years. Mr. Dinkel afterward accompanied Agassiz, as his artist, on repeated journeys, being constantly employed in making illustrations for the ‘Possons Fossiles’ and the ‘Poissons d'eau Douce,’ as well as for his monographs and smaller papers. The two larger works, the latter of which remained unfinished, were even now in embryo. Not only was Mr. Dinkel at work upon the plates for the Fresh-Water Fishes, but Mr. J. C. Weber, who was then [93] engaged in making, under Agassiz's direction, the illustrations for the Spix Fishes, was also giving his spare hours to the same objects. Mr. Dinkel says of Agassiz's student life at this time:5

‘I soon found myself engaged four or five hours almost daily in painting for him freshwater fishes from the life, while he was at my side, sometimes writing out his descriptions, sometimes directing me. . .. He never lost his temper, though often under great trial; he remained self-possessed and did everything calmly, having a friendly smile for every one and a helping hand for those who were in need. He was at that time scarcely twenty years old, and was already the most prominent among the students at Munich. They loved him, and had a high consideration for him. I had seen him at the Swiss students' club several times, and had observed him among the jolly students; he liked merry society, but he himself was in general reserved and never noisy. He picked out the gifted and highlylearned students, and would not waste his time [94] in ordinary conversation. Often, when he saw a number of students going off on some empty pleasure-trip, he said to me, “ There they go with the other fellows; their motto is, ‘Ich gehe mit den andern.’ I will go my own way, Mr. Dinkel,—and not alone: I will be a leader of others.” In all his doings there was an ease and calm which was remarkable. His studio was a perfect German student's room. It was large, with several wide windows; the furniture consisted of a couch and about half a dozen chairs, beside some tables for the use of his artists and himself. Dr. Alex. Braun and Dr. Schimper lodged in the same house, and seemed to me to share his studio. Being botanists, they, too, brought home what they collected in their excursions, and all this found a place in the atelier, on the couch, on the seats, on the floors. Books filled the chairs, one alone being left for the other artist, while I occupied a standing desk with my drawing. No visitor could sit down, and sometimes there was little room to stand or move about. The walls were white, and diagrams were drawn on them, to which, by and by, we artists added skeletons and caricatures. In short, it was quite original. I was some time there before I could discover [95] the real names of his friends: each had a nickname,—Molluscus, Cyprinus, Rhubarb, etc.’

From this glimpse into ‘The Little Academy’ we return to the thread of the home letters, learning from the next one that Agassiz's private collections were assuming rather formidable proportions when considered as part of the household furniture. Brought together in various ways, partly by himself, partly in exchange for duplicates, partly as pay for arranging specimens in the Munich Museum, they had already acquired, when compared with his small means, a considerable pecuniary value, and a far higher scientific importance. They included fishes, some rare mammalia, reptiles, shells, birds, an herbarium of some three thousand species of plants collected by himself, and a small cabinet of minerals. After enumerating them in a letter to his parents he continues: ‘You can imagine that all these things are in my way now that I cannot attend to them, and that for want of room and care they are piled up and in danger of spoiling. You see by my list that the whole collection is valued at two hundred louis; and this is so low an estimate that even those who sell objects of natural history [96] would not hesitate to take them at that price. You will therefore easily understand how anxious I am to keep them intact. Can you not find me a place where they might be spread out? I have thought that perhaps my uncle in Neuchatel would have the kindness to let some large shelves be put up in the little upper room of his house in Cudrefin, where, far from being an annoyance or causing any smell, my collection, if placed in a case under glass, or disposed in some other suitable manner, would be an ornament. Be so kind as to propose it to him, and if he consents I will then tell you what I shall need for its arrangement. Remember that on this depends, in great part, the preservation of my specimens, and answer as soon as possible.’

Agassiz was now hurrying forward both his preparation for his degree and the completion of his Brazilian Fishes, in the hope of at last fulfilling his longing for a journey of exploration. This hope is revealed in his next home letter. The letter is a long one, and the first half is omitted since it concerns only the arrangements for his collections, the care to be taken of them, etc. [97]

To his father.

Munich, February 14, 1829.
. . . But now I must talk to you of more important things, not of what I possess, but of what I am to be. Let me first recall one or two points touched upon before in our correspondence, which should now be fully discussed.

1st. You remember that when I first left Switzerland I promised you to win the title of Doctor in two years, and to be prepared (after having completed my studies in Paris) to pass my examination before the ‘Conseil de Sante,’ and begin practice.

2d. You will not have forgotten either that you exacted this only that I might have a profession, and that you promised, should I be able to make my way in the career of letters and natural history, you would not oppose my wishes. I am indeed aware that in the latter case you see but one obstacle, that of absence from my country and separation from all who are dear to me. But you know me too well to think that I would voluntarily impose upon myself such an exile. Let us see whether we cannot resolve these difficulties to our mutual satisfaction, and consider what is [98] the surest road to the end I have proposed to myself ever since I began my medical studies. Weigh all my reasons, for in this my peace of mind and my future happiness are concerned. Examine my conduct with reference to what I propose in every light, that of son and Vaudois citizen included, and I feel sure you will concur in my views.

Here is my aim and the means by which I propose to carry it out. I wish it may be said of Louis Agassiz that he was the first naturalist of his time, a good citizen, and a good son, beloved of those who knew him. I feel within myself the strength of a whole generation to work toward this end, and I will reach it if the means are not wanting. Let us see in what these means consist. [Here follows the summing up of his reasons for preferring a professorship of natural history to the practice of medicine, and his intention of trying for a diploma as Doctor of Philosophy in Germany.] But how obtain a professorship, you will say,—that is the important point? I answer, the first step is to make myself a European name, and for that I am on the right road. In the first place my work on the fishes of Brazil, just about to appear, will make me favorably known. I [99] am sure it will be kindly received; for at the General Assembly of German naturalists and medical men last September, in Berlin, the part already finished and presented before the Assembly was praised in a manner for which I was quite unprepared. The professors also, to whom I was known, spoke of me there in very favorable terms.

In the second place there are now preparing two expeditions of natural history, one by M. de Humboldt, with whose reputation you are surely familiar,—the same who spent several years in exploring the equatorial regions of South America, in company with M. Bonpland. He has been for some years at Berlin, and is now about to start on a journey to the Ural Mountains, the Caucasus, and the confines of the Caspian Sea. Braun, Schimper, and I have been proposed to him as traveling companions by several of our professors; but the application may come too late, for M. de Humboldt decided upon this journey long ago, and has probably already chosen the naturalists who are to accompany him. How happy I should be to join this expedition to a country the climate of which is by no means unhealthy, under the direction of a man so generally esteemed, to whom the Emperor [100] of Russia has promised help and an escort at all times and under all circumstances. The second expedition is to a country quite as salubrious, and which presents no dangers whatever for travelers,—South America. It will be under the direction of M. Ackermann, known as a distinguished agriculturist and as Councillor of State to the Grand Duke of Baden. I should prefer to go with Humboldt; but if I am too late, I feel very sure of being able to join the second expedition. So it depends, you see, only on your consent. This journey is to last two years, at the end of which time, happily at home once more, I can follow with all desirable facilities the career I have chosen. If there should be a place for me at Lausanne, which I should prefer to any other locality, I could devote my life to teaching my young countrymen, awaken in them the taste for science and observation so much neglected among us, and thus be more useful to my canton than I could be as a practitioner. These projects may not succeed; but in the present state of things all the probabilities are favorable. Therefore, I beg you to consider it seriously, to consult my uncle in Lausanne, and to write me at once what you think. . . .

In spite of the earnest desire for travel [101] shown in this letter it will be seen later how the restless aspirations of childhood, boyhood, and youth, which were, after all, only a latent love of research, crystallize into the concentrated purpose of the man who could remain for months shut up in his study, leaving his microscope only to eat and sleep,—a life as sedentary as ever was lived by a closet student.

From his father.

Orbe, February 23, 1829.
. . . It was not without deep emotion that we read your letter of the 14th, and I easily understand that, anticipating its effect upon us all, you have deferred writing as long as possible. Yet you were wrong in so doing; had we known your projects earlier we might have forestalled for you the choice of M. de Humboldt, whose expedition seems to us preferable, in every respect, to that of M. Ackermann. The first embraces a wider field, and concerns the history of man rather than that of animals; the latter is confined to an excursion along the sea-board, where there would be, no doubt, a rich harvest for science, but much less for philosophy. However that may be, your father and mother, while they grieve for the day that will separate them from their [102] oldest son, will offer no obstacles to his projects, but pray God to bless them. . . .

The subjoined letter of about the same date from Alexander Braun to his father tells us how the projects so ardently urged upon his parents by Agassiz, and so affectionately accepted by them, first took form in the minds of the friends.

Braun to his father.

Munich, February 15, 1829.
. . . Last Thursday we were at Oken's. There was interesting talk on all sorts of subjects, bringing us gradually to the Ural and then to Humboldt's journey, and finally Oken asked if we would not like to go with Humboldt. To this we gave warm assent, and told him that if he could bring it about we would be ready to start at a day's notice, and Agassiz added, eagerly, ‘Yes,—and if there were any hope that he would take us, a word from you would have more weight than anything.’ Oken's answer gave us but cold comfort; nevertheless, he promised to write at once to Humboldt in our behalf. With this, we went home in great glee; it was very late and a bright moonlight night. Agassiz rolled [103] himself in the snow for joy, and we agreed that however little hope there might be of our joining the expedition, still the fact that Humboldt would hear of us in this way was worth something, even if it were only that we might be able to say to him one of these days, ‘We are the fellows whose company you rejected.’

With this hope the friends were obliged to content themselves, for after a few weeks of alternate encouragement and despondency their bright vision faded. Oken fulfilled his promise and wrote to Humboldt, recommending them most warmly. Humboldt answered that his plans were conclusively settled, and that he had chosen the only assistants who were to accompany him,—Ehrenberg and Rose.

In connection with this frustrated plan is here given the rough draft of a letter from Agassiz to Cuvier, written evidently at a somewhat earlier date. Although a mere fragment, it is the outpouring of the same passionate desire for a purely scientific life, and shows that the opportunity suggested by Humboldt's journey had only given a definite aim to projects already full grown. From the contents it must have been written in 1828. After [104] some account of his early studies, which would be mere repetition here, he goes on:

Before finishing my letter, allow me to ask some advice from you, whom I revere as a father, and whose works have been till now my only guide. Five years ago I was sent to the medical school at Zurich. After the first few lectures there in anatomy and zoology I could think of nothing but skeletons. In a short time I had learned to dissect, and had made for myself a small collection of skulls of animals from different classes. I passed two years in Zurich, studying whatever I could find in the Museum, and dissecting all the animals I could procure. I even sent to Berlin at this time for a monkey in spirits of wine, that I might compare the nervous system with that of man. I spent all the little means I had in order to see and learn as much as possible. Then I persuaded my father to let me go to Heidelberg, where for a year I followed Tiedemann's courses in human anatomy. I passed almost the whole winter in the anatomical laboratory. The following summer I attended the lectures of Leuckart on zoology, and those of Bronn on fossils. When at Zurich, the longing to travel some day as a naturalist had taken possession of me, and at Heidelberg this desire [105] only increased. My frequent visits to the Museum at Frankfort, and what I heard there concerning M. Ruppell himself, strengthened my purpose even more than all I had previously read. I was, as it were, Ruppell's traveling companion: the activity, the difficulties to be overcome, all were present to me as I looked upon the treasures he had brought together from the deserts of Africa. The vision of difficulty thus vanquished, and of the inward satisfaction arising from it, tended to give all my studies a direction in keeping with my projects.

I felt that to reach my aim more surely it was important to complete my medical studies, and for this I came to Munich eighteen months ago. Still I could not make up my mind to renounce the natural sciences. I attended some of the pathological lectures, but I soon found that I was neglecting them; and yielding once more to my inclination, I followed consecutively the lectures of Dollinger on comparative anatomy, those of Oken on natural history, those of Fuchs on mineralogy, as well as the courses of astronomy, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. I was confirmed in this withdrawal from medical studies by the proposition of M. de Martius [106] that I should describe the fishes brought back by Spix from Brazil, and to this I consented the more gladly because ichthyology has always been a favorite study with me. I have not, however, been able to give them all the care I could have wished, for M. de Martius, anxious to complete the publication of these works, has urged upon me a rapid execution. I hope, nevertheless, that I have made no gross errors, and I am the less likely to have done so, because I had as my guide the observations you had kindly made for him on the plates of Spix. Several of these plates were not very exact; they have been set aside and new drawings made. I beg that you will judge this work when it reaches you with indulgence, as the first literary essay of a young man. I hope to complete it in the course of the next summer. I would beg you, in advance, to give me a paternal word of advice as to the direction my studies should then take. Ought I to devote myself to the study of medicine? I have no fortune, it is true; but I would gladly sacrifice my life if, by so doing, I could serve the cause of science. Though I have not even a presentiment of any means with which I may one day travel in distant countries, I have, nevertheless, prepared [107] myself during the last three years as if I might be off at any minute. I have learned to skin all sorts of animals, even very large ones. I have made more than a hundred skeletons of quadrupeds, birds, reptiles, and fishes; I have tested all the various liquors for preserving such animals as should not be skinned, and have thought of the means of supplying the want in countries where the like preparations are not to be had, in case of need. Finally, I have trained as traveling companion a young friend,6 and awakened in him the same love of the natural sciences. He is an excellent hunter, and at my instigation has been taking lessons in drawing, so that he is now able to sketch from nature such objects as may be desirable. We often pass delightful moments in our imaginary travels through unknown countries, building thus our castles in Spain. Pardon me if I talk to you of projects which at first sight seem puerile; only a fixed aim is needed to give them reality, and to you I come for counsel. My longing is so great that I feel the need of expressing it to some one who will understand me, and your sympathy would make me the happiest of mortals. I am so pursued by this thought of a scientific [108] journey that it presents itself under a thousand forms, and all that I undertake looks toward one end. I have for six months frequented a blacksmith's and carpenter's shop, learning to handle hammer and axe, and I also practice arms, the bayonet and sabre exercise. I am strong and robust, know how to swim, and do not fear forced marches. I have, when botanizing and geologizing, walked my twelve or fifteen leagues a day for eight days in succession, carrying on my back a heavy bag loaded with plants or minerals. In one word, I seem to myself made to be a traveling naturalist. I only need to regulate the impetuosity which carries me away. I beg you, then, to be my guide.

The unfinished letter closes abruptly, having neither signature nor address. Perhaps the writer's courage failed him and it never was sent. An old letter (date 1827) from Cuvier to Martius, found among Agassiz's papers of this time, and containing the very notes on the Spix Fishes to which allusion is here made, leaves no doubt, however, that this appeal was intended for the great master who exercised so powerful an influence upon Agassiz throughout his whole life.

In the spring of 1829 Agassiz took his [109] diploma in the faculty of philosophy. He did this with no idea of making it a substitute for his medical degree, but partly in deference to Martius, who wished the name of his young colleague to appear on the title-page of the Brazilian Fishes with the dignity of Doctor, and partly because he believed it would strengthen his chance of a future professorship. Of his experience on this occasion he gives some account in the following letter:—

To his brother.

Munich, May 22, 1829.
. . . As it was necessary for me to go through with my examination at once, and as the days for promotion here were already engaged two months in advance, I decided to pass it at Erlangen. That I might not go alone, and also for the pleasure of their company, I persuaded Schimper and Michahelles to do the same. Braun wanted to be of the party, but afterward decided to wait awhile. We made our request to the Faculty in a long Latin letter (because, you know, among savants it is the thing to speak and write the language you know least), requesting permission to pass our examination in writing, and to go to Erlangen only for the colloquium and [110] promotion. They granted our request on condition of our promise (jurisjurandi loco polliciti sumus) to answer the questions propounded without help from any one and without consulting books. Among other things I had to develop a natural system of zoology, to show the relation between human history and natural history, to determine the true basis and limits of the philosophy of nature, etc. As an inaugural dissertation, I presented some general and novel considerations on the formation of the skeleton throughout the animal kingdom, from the infusoria, mollusks, and insects to the vertebrates, properly so called. The examiners were sufficiently satisfied with my answers to give me my degree the 23d or 24th of April, without waiting for the colloquium and promotion, writing to me that they were satisfied with my examination, and therefore forwarded my diploma without regard to the oral examination. . . . The Dean of the Faculty, in inclosing it to me, added that he hoped before long to see me professor, and no less the ornament of my university in that position than I had hitherto been as student. I must try not to disappoint him. . . .


A letter from his brother contains a few lines in reference to this. ‘Last evening, dear Louis, your two diplomas reached me. I congratulate you with all my heart on your success. I am going to send to grandpapa the one destined for him, and I see in advance all his pleasure, though it would be greater if the word medicine stood for that of philosophy.’

The first part of the work on the Brazilian Fishes was now completed, and he had the pleasure of sending it to his parents as his own forerunner. After joining a scientific meeting to be held at Heidelberg, in September, he was to pass a month at home before returning to Munich for the completion of his medical studies.

To his parents.

Munich, July 4, 1829.
. . . I hope when you read this letter you will have received the first part of my Brazilian Fishes from M.——, of Geneva, to whom Martius had to send a package of plants, with which my book was inclosed. I venture to think that this work will give me a name, and I await with impatience the criticism that I suppose it will receive from Cuvier. [112] . . . I think the best way of reaching the various aims I have in view is to continue the career on which I have started, and to publish as soon as possible my natural history of the fresh-water fishes of Germany and Switzerland. I propose to issue it in numbers, each containing twelve colored plates accompanied by six sheets of letter-press. . . . In the middle of September there is to be a meeting of all the naturalists and medical men of Germany, to which foreign savants are invited. A similar meeting has been held for the last two or three years in one or another of the brilliant centres of Germany. This year it will take place at Heidelberg. Could one desire a better occasion to make known a projected work? I could even show the original drawings already made of species only found in the environs of Munich, and, so to speak, unknown to naturalists. At Heidelberg will be assembled Englishmen, Danes, Swedes, Russians, and even Italians. If I could before then arrange everything and distribute the printed circulars of my work I should be sure of success. . . .

In those days of costly postage one sheet of writing paper was sometimes made to serve for several members of the family. The next [113] crowded letter contains chiefly domestic details, but closes with a postscript from Mme. Agassiz, filling, as she says, the only remaining corner, and expressing her delight in his diploma and in the completion of his book.

From his mother.

August 16, 1829.
. . .The place your brother has left me seems very insufficient for all that I have to say, dear Louis, but I will begin by thanking you for the happiness, as sweet as it is deeply felt, which your success has given us. Already our satisfaction becomes the reward of your efforts. We wait with impatience for the moment when we shall see you and talk with you. Your correspondence leaves many blanks, and we are sometimes quite ashamed that we have so few details to give about your book. You will be surprised that it has not yet reached us. Does the gentleman in Geneva intend to read it before sending it to us, or has he perhaps not received the package? Not hearing we are uneasy. . . . Good-by, my dear son; I have no room for more, except to add my tender love for you. An honorable mention of your name in the Lausanne Gazette has brought us many pleasant congratulations. . . .


To his father.

August, 1829.
. . . I hope by this time you have my book. I can the less explain the delay since M. Cuvier, to whom I sent it in the same way, has acknowledged its arrival. I inclose his letter, hoping it will give you pleasure to read what one of the greatest naturalists of the age writes me about it.

Cuvier to Louis Agassiz.

Paris, Au Jardin du Roi, August 3, 1829.
. . You and M. de Martius have done me honor in placing my name at the head of a work so admirable as the one you have just published. The importance and the rarity of the species therein described, as well as the beauty of the figures, will make the work an important one in ichthyology, and nothing could heighten its value more than the accuracy of your descriptions. It will be of the greatest use to me in my History of Fishes. I had already referred to the plates in the second edition of my ‘Regne Animal.’ I shall do all in my power to accelerate the sale among amateurs, either by showing it to such as meet at my house or by calling attention to it in scientific journals. [115]

I look with great interest for your history of the fishes of the Alps. It cannot but fill a wide gap in that portion of natural history, —above all, in the different divisions of the genus Salmo. The figures of Bloch, those of Meidinger, and those of Marsigli, are quite insufficient. We have the greater part of the species here, so that it will be easy for me to verify the characters; but only an artist, working on the spot, with specimens fresh from the water, can secure the colors. You will, no doubt, have much to add also respecting the development, habits, and use of all these fishes. Perhaps you would do well to limit yourself at first to a monograph of the Salmones.

With my thanks for the promised documents, accept the assurance of my warm regard and very sincere attachment.

At last comes the moment, so long anticipated, when the young naturalist's first book is in the hands of his parents. The news of its reception is given in a short and hurried note. [116]

From his father.

Orbe, August 31, 1829.
I hasten, my dear son, to announce the arrival of your beautiful work, which reached us on Thursday, from Geneva. I have no terms in which to express the pleasure it has given me. In two words, for I have only a moment to myself, I repeat my urgent entreaty that you would hasten your return as much as possible. . . . The old father, who waits for you with open heart and arms, sends you the most tender greeting. . . .

1 Selecta genera et species piscium quos collegit et pingendos curavit Dr. J. W. de Spix. Digessit, descripsit et observationibus illustravit Dr. L. Agassiz.

2 An experienced old boatman.

3 See Life of Alexander Braun, by his daughter, Madame Cecile Mettenius.

4 About nine cents of our money.

5 Extract from notes written out in English by Mr. Dinkel after the death of Agassiz and sent to me. The English, though a little foreign, is so expressive that it would lose by any attempt to change it, and the writer will excuse me for inserting his vivid sketch just as it stands.—E. C. A.

6 William Schimper, brother of Karl.

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