previous next

Chapter 4: 1829-1830: Aet. 22-23.

  • Scientific meeting at Heidelberg.
  • -- visit at home. -- illness and death of his grandfather. -- return to Munich. -- plans for future scientific publications. -- takes his degree of medicine. -- visit to Vienna. -- return to Munich. -- home letters. -- last days at Munich. -- Autobiographical review of school and University life.

To his parents.

Heidelberg, September 25, 1829.
. . . The time of our meeting is almost at hand. Relieved from all anxiety about the subjects I had wished to present here, I can now be quietly with you and enjoy the rest and freedom I have so long needed. The tension of mind, forced upon me by the effort to reach my goal in time, has crowded out the thoughts which are most present when I am at peace. I will not talk to you of what I have been doing lately, (a short letter from Frankfort will have put you on my track), nor of the relations I have formed at the Heidelberg meeting, nor of the manner in which [118] I have been received, etc. These are matters better told than written. . . . I intend to leave here to-morrow or the day after, according to circumstances. I shall stay some days at Carlsruhe to put my affairs in order, and from there make the journey home as quickly as possible. . . .

The following month we find him once more at home in the parsonage of Orbe. After the first pleasure and excitement of return, his time was chiefly spent in arranging his collections at Cudrefin, where his grandfather had given him house-room for them. In this work he had the help of the family in general, who made a sort of scientific Fete of the occasion. But it ended sadly with the illness and death of the kind old grandfather, under whose roof children and grandchildren had been wont to assemble.

Agassiz to Braun.

Orbe, December 3, 1829.
. . . I will devote an hour of this last evening I am to pass in Orbe, to talking with you. You will wonder that I am still here, and that I have not written. You already know that I have been arranging my collections at Cudrefin, [119] and spending very happy days with my grandfather. But he is now very ill, and even should we have better news of him to-day, the thought weighs heavily on my heart, that I must take leave of him when he is perhaps on his death-bed. . . . I have just tied up my last package of plants, and there lies my whole herbarium in order,—thirty packages in all. For this I have to thank you, dear Alex., and it gives me pleasure to tell you so and to be reminded of it. What a succession of glorious memories came up to me as I turned them over. Free from all disturbing incidents, I enjoyed anew our life together, and even more, if possible, than in actual experience. Every talk, every walk, was present to me again, and in reviewing it all I saw how our minds had been drawn to each other in an ever-strengthening union. In you I see my own intellectual development reflected as in a mirror, for to you, and to my intercourse with you, I owe my entrance upon this path of the noblest and most lasting enjoyment. It is delightful to look back on such a past with the future so bright before us. . . .

Agassiz now returned to Munich to add the title of Doctor of Medicine to that of Doctor [120] of Philosophy. A case of somnambulism, which fell under his observation and showed him disease, or, at least, abnormal action of the brain, under an aspect which was new to him, seems to have given a fresh impulse to his medical studies, and, for a time, he was inclined to believe that the vocation which had thus far been to him one of necessity, might become one of preference. But the naturalist was stronger than the physician. During this very winter, when he was preparing himself with new earnestness for his profession, a collection of fossil fishes was put into his hands by the Director of the Museum of Munich. It will be seen with what ardor he threw himself into this new investigation. His work on the ‘Poissons Fossiles,’ which placed him in a few years in the front rank of European scientific men, took form at once in his fertile brain.

To his brother.

Munich, January 18, 1830.
. . . My resolve to study medicine is now confirmed. I feel all that may be done to render this study worthy the name of science, which it has so long usurped. Its intimate alliance with the natural sciences and the enlightenment it promises me regarding them [121] are indeed my chief incitements to persevere in my resolution. In order to gain time, and to strike while the iron is hot (don't be afraid it will grow cold; the wood which feeds the fire is good), I have proposed to Euler, with whom I am very intimate, to review the medical course with me. Since then, we pass all our evenings together, and rarely separate before midnight,—reading alternately French and German medical books. In this way, although I devote my whole day to my own work about fishes, I hope to finish my professional studies before summer. I shall then pass my examination for the Doctorate in Germany, and afterward do the same in Lausanne. I hope that this decision will please mama. My character and conduct are the pledge of its accomplishment.

This, then, is my night-work. I have still to tell you what I do by day, and this is more important. My first duty is to complete my Brazilian Fishes. To be sure, it is only an honorary work, but it must be finished, and is an additional means of making subsequent works profitable. This is my morning occupation, and I am sure of bringing it to a close about Easter. After much reflection, I have decided that the best way to turn my Fresh- [122] Water Fishes to account, is to finish them completely before offering them to a publisher. All the expenses being then paid, I could afford, if the first publisher should not feel able to take them on my own terms, to keep them as a safe investment. The publisher himself seeing the material finished, and being sure of bringing it out as a complete work, the value of which he can on that account better estimate, will be more disposed to accept my proposals, while I, on my side, can be more exacting. The text for this I write in the afternoon. My greatest difficulty at first was the execution of the plates. But here, also, my good star has served me wonderfully. I told you that beside the complete drawings of the fishes I wanted to represent their skeletons and the anatomy of the soft parts, which has never been done for this class. I shall thereby give a new value to the work, and make it desirable for all who study comparative anatomy. The puzzle was to find some one who was prepared to draw things of this kind; but I have made the luckiest hit, and am more than satisfied. My former artist continues to draw the fishes, a second draws the skeletons (one who had already been engaged for several years in the same way, for a work [123] upon reptiles), while a young physician, who is an admirable draughtsman, makes my anatomical figures. For my share, I direct their work while writing the text, and thus the whole advances with great strides. I do not, however, stop here. Having by permission of the Director of the Museum one of the finest collections of fossils in Germany at my disposition, and being also allowed to take the specimens home as I need them, I have undertaken to publish the ichthyological part of the collection. Since it only makes the difference of one or two people more to direct, I have these specimens also drawn at the same time. Nowhere so well as here, where the Academy of Fine Arts brings together so many draughtsmen, could I have the same facility for completing a similar work; and as it is an entirely new branch, in which no one has as yet done anything of importance, I feel sure of success; the more so because Cuvier, who alone could do it (for the simple reason that every one else has till now neglected the fishes), is not engaged upon it. Add to this that just now there is a real need of this work for the determination of the different geological formations. Once before, at the Heidelberg meeting, it had been proposed to me; the [124] Director of the Mines at Strasbourg, M. Voltz, even offered to send me at Munich the whole collection of fossil fishes from their Museum. I did not speak to you of this at the time because it would have been of no use. But now that I have it in my power to carry out the project, I should be a fool to let a chance escape me which certainly will not present itself a second time so favorably. It is therefore my intention to prepare a general work on fossil ichthyology. I hope, if I can command another hundred louis, to complete everything of which I have spoken before the end of the summer, that is to say, in July. I shall then have on hand two works which should surely be worth a thousand louis to me. This is a low estimate, for even ephemeral pieces and literary ventures are paid at this price. You can easily make the calculation. They allow three louis for each plate with the accompanying text; my fossils will have about two hundred plates, and my fresh-water fishes about one hundred and fifty. This seems to me plausible. . . . .

This letter evidently made a favorable impression on the business heads of the family at Neuchatel, for it is forwarded to his parents, [125] with these words from his brother on the last sheet: ‘I hasten, dear father, to send you this excellent letter from my brother, which has just reached me. They have read it here with interest, and Uncle Francois Mayor, especially, sees both stability and a sound basis in his projects and enterprises.’

There is something touching and almost amusing in Agassiz's efforts to give a prudential aspect to his large scientific schemes. He was perfectly sincere in this, but to the end of his life he skirted the edge of the precipice, daring all, and finding in himself the power to justify his risks by his successes. He was of frugal personal habits; at this very time, when he was keeping two or three artists on his slender means, he made his own breakfast in his room, and dined for a few cents a day at the cheapest eating houses. But where science was concerned the only economy he recognized, either in youth or old age, was that of an expenditure as bold as it was carefully considered.

In the above letter to his brother we have the story of his work during the whole winter of 1830. That his medical studies did not suffer from the fact that, in conjunction with them, he was carrying on his two great works [126] on the living and the dead world of fishes may be inferred from the following account of his medical theses. It was written after his death, to his son Alexander Agassiz, by Professor von Siebold, now Director of the Museum in the University of Munich. ‘How earnestly Agassiz devoted himself to the study of medicine is shown by the theses (seventy-four in number), a list of which was printed, according to the prescribed rule and custom, with his “Einladung.” I am astonished at the great number of these. The subjects are anatomical, pathological, surgical, obstetrical; they are inquiries into materia medica, medicina forensis, and the relation of botany to these topics. One of them interested me especially. It read as follows. “Foemina humana superior mare.” I would gladly have known how your father interpreted that sentence. Last fall (1873) I wrote him a letter, the last I ever addressed to him, questioning him about this very subject. That letter, alas! remained unanswered.’

In a letter to his brother just before taking his degree, Agassiz says: ‘I am now determined to pursue medicine and natural history side by side. Thank you, with all my heart, for your disinterested offer, but I shall not [127] need it, for I am going on well with my publisher, M. Cotta, of Stuttgart. I have great hope that he will accept my works, since he has desired that they should be forwarded to him for examination. I have sent him the whole, and I feel very sure he will swallow the pill. My conditions would be the only cause of delay, but I hope he will agree to them. For the fresh-water fishes and the fossils together I have asked twenty thousand Swiss francs. Should he not consent to this, I shall apply to another publisher.’

On the 3d of April he received his degree of Doctor of Medicine. A day or two later he writes to his mother that her great desire for him is accomplished.

To his mother.

Munich, April, 1830.
. . . My letter to-day must be to you, for to you I owe it that I have undertaken the work just completed, and I write to thank you for having encouraged my zeal. I am very sure that no letter from me has ever given you greater pleasure than this one will bring; and I can truly say, on my own part, that I have never written one with greater satisfaction. Yesterday I finished my medical examination, [128] after having satisfied every requirement of the Faculty. . . . The whole ceremony lasted nine days. At the close, while they considered my case, I was sent out of the room. On my return, the Dean said to me, ‘The Faculty have been very much’ (emphasized) ‘pleased with your answers; they congratulate themselves on being able to give the diploma to a young man who has already acquired so honorable a reputation. On Saturday, after having argued your thesis, you will receive your degree, in the Academic Hall, from the Rector of the University.’ The Rector then added that he should look upon it as the brightest moment of his Rectorship when he conferred upon me the title I had so well merited. Next Saturday, then, at the very time you receive this letter, at ten o'clock in the morning, the discussion will have begun, and at twelve I shall have my degree. Dear Mother, dismiss all anxiety about me. You see I am as good as my word. . . . Write soon; in a few days I go to Vienna for some months. . . .


From his mother.

Orbe, April 7, 1830.
I cannot thank you enough, my dear Louis, for the happiness you have given me in completing your medical examinations, and thus securing to yourself a career as safe as it is honorable. It is a laurel added to those you have already won; in my eyes the most precious of all. You have for my sake gone through a long and arduous task; were it in my power I would gladly reward you, but I cannot even say that I love you the more for it, because that is impossible. My anxious solicitude for your future is a proof of my ardent affection for you; only one thing was wanting to make me the happiest of mothers, and this, my Louis, you have just given me. May God reward you by giving you all possible success in the care of your fellow-beings. May the benedictions which honor the memory of a good physician be your portion, as they have been in the highest degree that of your grandfather. Why can he not be here to share my happiness to-day in seeing my Louis a medical graduate! . . .

Agassiz was recalled from Vienna in less [130] than two months by the arrival in Munich of his publisher, M. Cotta, a personal interview with whom seemed to him important. The only letter preserved from the Vienna visit shows that his short stay there was full of interest and instruction.

To his father.

Vienna, May 11, 1830.
. . . Since my arrival I have seen so much that I hardly know where to begin my narrative, and what I have seen has suggested reflections on many grave subjects, of a kind I had hardly expected to make here. Nowhere have I seen establishments on broader or more stately foundations, nor do I believe that anywhere are foreigners allowed more liberal use of like institutions. I speak of the university, the hospitals, libraries, and collections of all sorts. Neither have I seen anywhere else such fine churches, and I have more than once felt the difference between worshiping within bare walls, and in buildings more worthy of devotional purposes. In one word, I should be enchanted with my stay in Vienna if I could be free from the idea that I am always surrounded by an imperceptible net, ready to close upon me at the slightest signal. With [131] this exception, the only discomfort to a foreigner here, if he is unaccustomed to it, is that of being obliged to abstain from all criticism of affairs in public places; still more must he avoid commenting upon persons. I am especially satisfied with my visit from a scientific point of view. I have learned, and am still learning, the care of the eyes and how to operate upon them; as to medicine, the physicians, however good, do not surpass those I have already known; and as I do not believe it important that a young physician should familiarize himself with a great variety of curative methods, I try to observe carefully the patient and his disease rather than to remember the medicaments applied in special cases. Surgery and midwifery are poorly provided, but one has a chance to see many interesting cases.

During the last fortnight I have visited the collection of natural history often, generally in the afternoon. To tell you how I have been expected there from the moment I was known to be here, and how I was received on my first visit, and have been feted since (as Ichthyologus primus seculi,—so they say), would, perhaps, tire you and might seem egotistical in me, neither of which do I desire. [132] But it will not be indifferent to you to know that Cotta is disposed to accept my Fishes. He has been at Munich for some days, and Schimper has been talking with him, and has advanced matters more by a few words than I had been able to do by much writing. For this reason I intend returning soon to Munich to complete the business, since Cotta is to be there several weeks longer. Thus I shall have reached my aim, and be provided from this autumn onward with an independent maintenance. I was often very anxious this past winter, in my uncertainty about the means of finally making good such large outlays. If, however, Cotta makes no other condition than that of a certain number of subscribers, I shall be sure of them in six months. You may thus regard what I have done as a speculation happily concluded, and one which places me at the summit of my desires, for it leaves me free, at last, to work upon my projects. . .

A letter to his brother, of the 29th of May, just after his return to Munich, gives a retrospect of the Viennese visit, including the personal details which he had hesitated to write to his father. They are important as showing [133] the position he already, at twenty-three years of age, held among scientific men. ‘Everything,’ he says, ‘was open to me as a foreigner, and to my great surprise I was received as an associate already known. Was it not gratifying to go to Vienna with no recommendation whatever, and to be welcomed and sought by all the scientific men, and afterwards presented and introduced everywhere? In the Museum, not only were the rooms opened for me when I pleased, but also the cases, and even the jars, so that I could take out whatever I needed for examination. At the hospital several professors carried their kindness so far, as to invite me to accompany them in their private visits. You may fancy whether I profited by all this, and how many things I saw.’ After some account of his business arrangements with Cotta, he adds: ‘Meantime, be at ease about me. I have strings enough to my bow, and need not feel anxious about the future. What troubles me is that the thing I most desire seems to me, at least for the present, farthest from my reach,—namely, the direction of a great Museum. When I have finished with Cotta I shall begin to pack my effects, and shall hope to turn my face homeward somewhere about the end of August. I can [134] hardly leave earlier, because, for the sake of practice, I have begun to deliver zoological lectures, open to all who like to attend, and I want to complete the course before my departure. I lecture without even an outline or headings before me, but this requires preparation. You see I do not lose my time.’

The next home letter announces an important change in the family affairs. His father had been called from his parish at Orbe to that of Concise, a small town situated on the southwestern shore of the Lake of Nechatel.

From his mother.

Orbe, July, 1830.
. . . Since your father wrote you on the 4th of June, dear Louis, we have had no news from you, and therefore infer that you are working with especial zeal to wind up your affairs in Germany and come home as soon as possible. Whatever haste you make, however, you will not find us here. Four days ago your father became pastor of Concise, and yesterday we went to visit our new home. Nothing can be prettier, and by all who know the place it is considered the most desirable position in the canton. There is a vineyard, a fine orchard filled with fruit-trees in full bear. [135] ing, and an excellent kitchen garden. A never-failing spring gushes from a grotto, and within fifty steps of the house is a pretty winding stream with a walk along the bank, bordered by shrubbery, and furnished here and there with benches, the whole disposed with much care and taste. The house also is very well arranged. All the rooms look out upon the lake, lying hardly a gunshot from the windows. There are a parlor and a dining-room on the first floor, beside two smaller rooms; and on the same floor two doors lead out into the flower garden. The kitchen is small, and on one side is a pretty ground where we can dine in the open air in summer. The distribution of rooms in the upper story is the same, with a large additional room for the accommodation of your father's catechumens. A jasmine vine drapes the front of the house and climbs to the very roof. . . . .

To this quiet pretty parsonage Madame Agassiz became much attached. Her tranquil life is well described in a letter written many years afterward by one of her daughters. ‘Here mama returned to her spinning-wheel with new ardor. It was a work she much liked, and in which she was very skillful. In [136] former times at grandpapa's every woman in the house, whether mistress or maid, had her wheel, and the young ladies were accustomed to spin and make up their own trousseaus. Later, mama continued her spinning for her children, and even for her grandchildren. We all preserve as a precious souvenir, table linen of her making. We delighted to see her at her wheel, she was so graceful, and the thread of her thought seemed to follow, so to speak, the fine and delicate thread of her work as it unwound itself under her touch from the distaff.’

Agassiz was detained by his publishing arrangements and his work longer than he had expected, and November was already advanced before his preparations for leaving Munich were completed.

To his parents.

Munich, November 9, 1830.
. . . According to your wish [this refers to a suggestion about a fellow-student in a previous letter] I shall not bring any friend with me. I long to enjoy the pleasure of family life. I shall, however, be accompanied by one person, for whom I should like to make suitable arrangements. He is the [137] artist who makes all my drawings. If there is no room for him in the house he can be lodged elsewhere; but I wish you could give me the use of a well-lighted room, where I could work and he could draw at my side through the day. Do not be frightened; he is not at my charge; but it would be a great advantage to me if I could have him in the house. As I do not want to lose time in the mechanical part of my work, I would beg papa to engage for me some handy boy, fifteen years old or so, whom I could employ in cleaning skeletons and the like. Finally, you will receive several boxes for me; leave them unopened till I come, without even paying the freight upon them,—the most unsatisfactory of all expenses;—and I do not wish you to have an unpleasant association with my collections.

My affairs are all in order with Cotta, and I have even concluded the arrangement more advantageously than I had dared to hope,— a thousand louis, six hundred payable on the publication of the first number, and four hundred in installments, as the publication goes on. If I had not been in haste to close the matter in order to secure myself against all doubt, I might have done even better. But I [138] hope I have reconciled you thereby to Natural History. What remains to be done will be the work of less than half a year, during which I wish also to get together the materials for my second work, on the fossils. Of that I have already spoken with my publisher, and he will take it on more favorable conditions than I could have dictated. Do your best to find me subscribers, that we may soon make our typographical arrangements . . .

His father's answer, full of fun as it is, shows, nevertheless, that the prospect of domesticating not only the naturalist and his collections, but artist and assistant also, was rather startling.

From his father.

Concise, November 16, 1830.
. . .You speak of Christmas as the moment of your arrival; let us call it the New Year. You will naturally pass some days at Nechatel to be with your brother, to see the Messrs. Coulon, etc.; from there to Cudrefin for a look at your collection; then to Concise, then to Montagny, Orbe, Lausanne, Geneva, etc.: M. le Docteur will be claimed and feted by all in turn. And during all [139] these indispensable excursions, for which, to be within bounds, I allow a month at least, it is as clear as daylight that regular work must be set aside, if, indeed, the time be now wholly lost. Now, for Heaven's sake, what will you do, or rather what shall we do, with your painter, in this interval employed by you elsewhere. Neither is this all. Though the date of Cecile's marriage is not fixed, it is more than likely to take place in January, so that you will be here for the wedding. If you will recollect the overturning of the paternal mansion when your outfit was preparing for Bienne, Zurich, and other places, you can form an idea of the state of our rooms above and below, large and small, when the work of the trousseau begins. Where, in Heaven's name, will you stow away a painter and an assistant in the midst of half a brigade of dress-makers, seamstresses, lace-makers, and milliners, without counting the accompanying train of friends? Where would you, or where could you, put under shelter your possessions (I dare not undertake to enumerate them), among all the taffetas and brocades, linens, muslin, tulles, laces, etc.? But what am I saying? I doubt if these names are still in existence, for quite other appellations are sounding [140] in my ears, each one of which, to the number of some hundred, signifies at least twenty yards in width, to say nothing of the length. For my part, I have already, notwithstanding the approach of winter, put up a big nail in the garret, on which to hang my bands and surplice. Listen, then, to the conclusion of your father. Give all possible care to your affairs in Munich, put them in perfect order, leave nothing to be done, and leave nothing behind except the painter. You can call him in from here, whenever you think you can make use of him.

To his parents.

Munich, November 26, 1830.
. . . When you receive this I shall be no longer in Munich; by means of a last draft on M. Eichthal I have settled with every one, and I hope to leave the day after to-morrow. I fully recognize the justice of your observations, my dear father, but as you start from a mistaken point of view, they do not coincide altogether with existing circumstances. I intend to stay with you until the approach of summer, not only with the aim of working upon the text of my book, but chiefly in order to take advantage of all the fossil collections [141] in Switzerland. For that purpose I positively need a draughtsman, who, thanks to my publisher, is not in my pay, and who must accompany me in future wherever I go. Since there is no room at home, please see how he can be lodged in the neighborhood. I have, at the utmost, to glance each day at what he has done. I can even give him work for several weeks in which my presence would be unnecessary. If there is a considerable collection of fossils at Zurich, I shall leave him there till he has finished his work, and then he will rejoin me; all that depends upon circumstances. In any case he must not be a charge to you, still less interfere with our family privacy. That I may spend all my time with you, I shall at present bring with me nothing that is not absolutely necessary. We shall see later where I shall place my museum. As to visits, they are not to be thought of until the spring. 1 could not bear the idea of interruption before the first number of my ‘Fishes’ is finished.

The artist in question was Mr. Dinkel. His relations with the family became of a truly friendly character. The connection between him and Agassiz, most honorable to both parties, [142] lasted for sixteen years, and was then only interrupted by the departure of Agassiz for America. During this whole period Mr. Dinkel was occupied as his draughtsman, living sometimes in Paris, sometimes in England, sometimes in Switzerland, wherever, in short, there were specimens to be drawn. In a private letter, written long afterward, he says, in speaking of the break in their intercourse caused by Agassiz's removal to America: ‘For a long time I felt unhappy at that separation. . . . He was a kind, noble-hearted friend; he was very benevolent, and if he had possessed millions of money he would have spent them for his researches in science, and have done good to his fellow-creatures as much as possible.’

Some passages from Braun's letters complete the chapter of these years in Munich, so rich in purpose and in experience, the prelude, as it were, to the intellectual life of the two friends who had entered upon them together. These extracts show how seriously, not without a certain sadness, they near the end. [143]

Braun to his father.

Munich, November 7, 1830.
Were I to leave Munich now, I must separate myself from Agassiz and Schimper, which would be neither agreeable nor advantageous for me, nor would it be friendly toward them. We will not shorten the time, already too scantly measured, which we may still spend so quietly, so wholly by ourselves, but rather, as long as it lasts, make the best use of it in a mutual exchange of what we have learned, trying to encourage each other in the right path, and drawing more closely together for our whole life to come. Agassiz is to stay till the end of the month; during this time he will give us lectures in anatomy, and I shall learn a good deal of zoology. Beside all this one thing is certain; namely, that we can review our medical work much more quietly and uninterruptedly here than in Carlsruhe. Add to this, the advantage we enjoy here of visiting the hospitals. . . . The time passes delightfully with us of late, for Agassiz has received several baskets of books from Cotta, among others, Schiller's and Goethe's complete works, the Conversations-Lexicon, medical works, and works on natural history. How many books [144] a man may receive in return for writing only one! They are, of course, deducted from his share of the profits. Yesterday we did nothing but read Goethe the whole day.

A brief account of Agassiz's university life, dictated by himself, may fitly close the record of this period. He was often urged to put together a few reminiscences of his life, but he lived so intensely in the present, every day bringing its full task, that he had little time for retrospect, and this sketch remained a fragment. It includes some facts already told, but is given almost verbatim, because it forms a sort of summary of his intellectual development up to this date.

I am conscious that at successive periods of my life I have employed very different means and followed very different systems of study. I may, therefore, be allowed to offer the result of my experience as a contribution toward the building up of a sound method for the promotion of the study of nature.

A first, when a mere boy, twelve years of age, I did what most beginners do. I picked up whatever I could lay my hands on, and tried, by such books and authorities as I had at my command, to find the names of these [145] objects. My highest ambition, at that time, was to be able to designate the plants and animals of my native country correctly by a Latin name, and to extend gradually a similar knowledge in its application to the productions of other countries. This seemed to me, in those days, the legitimate aim and proper work of a naturalist. I still possess manuscript volumes in which I entered the names of all the animals and plants with which I became acquainted, and I well remember that I then ardently hoped to acquire the same superficial familiarity with the whole creation. I did not then know how much more important it is to the naturalist to understand the structure of a few animals, than to command the whole field of scientific nomenclature. Since I have become a teacher, and have watched the progress of students, I have seen that they all begin in the same way; but how many have grown old in the pursuit, without ever rising to any higher conception of the study of nature, spending their life in the determination of species, and in extending scientific terminology! Long before I went to the university, and before I began to study natural history under the guidance of men who were masters in the science during the early part of [146] this century, I perceived that while nomenclature and classification, as then understood, formed an important part of the study, being, in fact, its technical language, the study of living beings in their natural element was of infinitely greater value. At that age, namely, about fifteen, I spent most of the time I could spare from classical and mathematical studies in hunting the neighboring woods and meadows for birds, insects, and land and freshwater shells. My room became a little menagerie, while the stone basin under the fountain in our yard was my reservoir for all the fishes I could catch. Indeed, collecting, fishing, and raising caterpillars, from which I reared fresh, beautiful butterflies, were then my chief pastimes. What I know of the habits of the fresh-water fishes of Central Europe I mostly learned at that time; and I may add, that when afterward I obtained access to a large library and could consult the works of Bloch and Lacedpede, the only extensive works on fishes then in existence, I wondered that they contained so little about their habits, natural attitudes, and mode of action with which I was so familiar.

The first course of lectures on zoology I attended was given in Lausanne in 1823. It [147] consisted chiefly of extracts from Cuvier's “Regne animal,” and from Lamarck's “Animaux sans Vertebres.” I now became aware, for the first time, that the learned differ in their classifications. With this discovery, an immense field of study opened before me, and I longed for some knowledge of anatomy, that I might see for myself where the truth was. During two years spent in the Medical School of Zurich, I applied myself exclusively to the study of anatomy, physiology, and zoology, under the guidance of Professors Schinz and Hirzel. My inability to buy books was, perhaps, not so great a misfortune as it seemed to me; at least, it saved me from too great dependence on written authority. I spent all my time in dissecting animals and in studying human anatomy, not forgetting my favorite amusements of fishing and collecting. I was always surrounded with pets, and had at this time some forty birds flying about my study, with no other home than a large pine-tree in the corner. I still remember my grief when a visitor, entering suddenly, caught one of my little favorites between the floor and the door, and he was killed before I could extricate him. Professor Schinz's private collection of birds was my daily resort, and I then described every [148] bird it contained, as I could not afford to buy even a text-book of ornithology. I also copied with my own hand, having no means of purchasing the work, two volumes of Lamarck's “Animaux sans Vertebres,” and my dear brother copied another half volume for me. I finally learned that the study of the things themselves was far more attractive than the books I so much coveted; and when, at last, large libraries became accessible to me, I usually contented myself with turning over the leaves of the volumes on natural history, looking at the illustrations, and recording the titles of the works, that I might readily consult them for identification of such objects as I should have an opportunity of examining in nature.

After spending in this way two years in Zurich, I was attracted to Heidelberg by the great reputation of its celebrated teachers, Tiedemann, Leuckart, Bronn, and others. It is true that I was still obliged to give up a part of my time to the study of medicine, but while advancing in my professional course by a steady application to anatomy and physiology, I attended the lectures of Leuckart in zoology, and those of Bronn in paleontology. The publication of Goldfuss's great work on the fossils [149] of Germany was just then beginning, and it opened a new world to me. Familiar as I was with Cuvier's “Regne animal,” I had not then seen his “Researches on fossil remains,” and the study of fossils seemed to me only an extension of the field of zoology. I had no idea of its direct connection with geology, or of its bearing on the problem of the successive introduction of animals on the earth. I had never thought of the larger and more philosophical view of nature as one great world, but considered the study of animals only as it was taught by descriptive zoology in those days. At about this time, however, I made the acquaintance of two young botanists, Braun and Schimper, both of whom have since become distinguished in the annals of science. Botany had in those days received a new impulse from the great conceptions of Goethe. The metamorphosis of plants was the chief study of my friends, and I could not but feel that descriptive zoology had not spoken the last word in our science, and that grand generalizations, such as were opening upon botanists, must be preparing for zoologists also. Intimate contact with German students made me feel that I had neglected my philosophical education; and when, in the [150] year 1827, the new University of Munich opened, with Schelling as professor of philosophy, Oken, Schubert, and Wagler as professors of zoology, Dollinger as professor of anatomy and physiology, Martius and Zuccarini as professors of botany, Fuchs and Kobell as professors of mineralogy, I determined to go there with my two friends and drink new draughts of knowledge. During the years I passed at Munich I devoted myself almost exclusively to the different branches of natural science, neglecting more and more my medical studies, because I began to feel an increasing confidence that I could fight my way in the world as a naturalist, and that I was therefore justified in following my strong bent in that direction. My experience in Munich was very varied. With Dollinger I learned to value accuracy of observation. As I was living in his house, he gave me personal instruction in the use of the microscope, and showed me his own methods of embryological investigation. He had already been the teacher of Karl Ernst von Baer; and though the pupil outran the master, and has become the pride of the scientific world, it is but just to remember that he owed to him his first initiation into the processes of embryological research. Dollinger [151] was a careful, minute, persevering observer, as well as a deep thinker; but he was as indolent with his pen as he was industrious with his brain. He gave his intellectual capital to his pupils without stint or reserve, and nothing delighted him more than to sit down for a quiet talk on scientific matters with a few students, or to take a ramble with them into the fields outside the city, and explain to them as he walked the result of any recent investigation he had made. If he found himself understood by his listeners he was satisfied, and cared for no farther publication of his researches. I could enumerate many works of masters in our science, which had no other foundation at the outset than these inspiriting conversations. No one has borne warmer testimony to the influence Dollinger has had in this indirect way on the progress of our science than the investigator I have already mentioned as his greatest pupil,—von Baer. In the introduction to his work on embryology he gratefully acknowledges his debt to his old teacher.

Among the most fascinating of our professors was Oken. A master in the art of teaching, he exercised an almost irresistible influence over his students. Constructing the [152] universe out of his own brain, deducing from a priori conceptions all the relations of the three kingdoms into which he divided all living beings, classifying the animals as if by magic, in accordance with an analogy based on the dismembered body of man, it seemed to us who listened that the slow laborious process of accumulating precise detailed knowledge could only be the work of drones, while a generous, commanding spirit might build the world out of its own powerful imagination. The temptation to impose one's own ideas upon nature, to explain her mysteries by brilliant theories rather than by patient study of the facts as we find them, still leads us away. With the school of the physiophilosophers began (at least in our day and generation) that overbearing confidence in the abstract conceptions of the human mind as applied to the study of nature, which still impairs the fairness of our classifications and prevents them from interpreting truly the natural relations binding together all living beings. And yet, the young naturalist of that day who did not share, in some degree, the intellectual stimulus given to scientific pursuits by physio-philosophy would have missed a part of his training. There is a great distance [153] between the man who, like Oken, attempts to construct the whole system of nature from general premises and the one who, while subordinating his conceptions to the facts, is yet capable of generalizing the facts, of recognizing their most comprehensive relations. No thoughtful naturalist can silence the suggestions, continually arising in the course of his investigations, respecting the origin and deeper connection of all living beings; but he is the truest student of nature who, while seeking the solution of these great problems, admits that the only true scientific system must be one in which the thought, the intellectual structure, rises out of and is based upon facts. The great merit of the physio-philosophers consisted in their suggestiveness. They did much in freeing our age from the low estimation of natural history as a science which prevailed in the last century. They stimulated a spirit of independence among observers; but they also instilled a spirit of daring, which, from its extravagance, has been fatal to the whole school. He is lost, as an observer, who believes that he can, with impunity, affirm that for which he can adduce no evidence. It was a curious intellectual experience to listen day after day to the lectures [154] of Oken, while following at the same time Schelling's courses, where he was shifting the whole ground of his philosophy from its negative foundation as an a priori doctrine to a positive basis, as an historical science. He unfolded his views in a succession of exquisite lectures, delivered during four consecutive years.

Among my fellow-students were many young men who now rank among the highest lights in the various departments of science, and others, of equal promise, whose early death cut short their work in this world. Some of us had already learned at this time to work for ourselves; not merely to attend lectures and study from books. The best spirit of emulation existed among us; we met often to discuss our observations, undertook frequent excursions in the neighborhood, delivered lectures to our fellow-students, and had, not infrequently, the gratification of seeing our university professors among the listeners. These exercises were of the highest value to me as a preparation for speaking, in later years, before larger audiences. My study was usually the lecture-room. It would hold conveniently from fifteen to twenty persons, and both students and professors used to call [155] our quarters ‘The Little Academy.’ In that room I made all the skeletons represented on the plates of Wagler's ‘Natural System of Reptiles;’ there I once received the great anatomist, Meckel, sent to me by Dollinger, to examine my anatomical preparations and especially the many fish-skeletons I had made from fresh-water fishes. By my side were constantly at work two artists; one engaged in drawing various objects of natural history, the other in drawing fossil fishes. I kept always one and sometimes two artists in my pay; it was not easy, with an allowance of $250 a year, but they were even poorer than I, and so we managed to get along together. My microscope I had earned by writing.

I had hardly finished the publication of the Brazilian Fishes, when I began to study the works of the older naturalists. Professor Dollinger had presented me with a copy of Rondelet, which was my delight for a long time. I was especially struck by the naivete of his narrative and the minuteness of his descriptions as well as by the fidelity of his woodcuts, some of which are to this day the best figures we have of the species they represent. His learning overwhelmed me; I would gladly have read, as he did, everything that had been written before my time; but there were authors [156] who wearied me, and I confess that at that age Linnaeus was among the number. I found him dry, pedantic, dogmatic, conceited; while I was charmed with Aristotle, whose zoology I have read and re-read ever since at intervals of two or three years. I must, however, do myself the justice to add, that after I knew more of the history of our science I learned also duly to reverence Linnaeus. But a student, already familiar with the works of Cuvier, and but indifferently acquainted with the earlier progress of zoology, could hardly appreciate the merit of the great reformer of natural history. His defects were easily perceived, and it required more familiarity than mine then was with the gradual growth of the science, from Aristotle onward, to understand how great and beneficial an influence Linnaeus had exerted upon modern natural history.

I cannot review my Munich life without deep gratitude. The city teemed with resources for the student in arts, letters, philosophy, and science. It was distinguished at that time for activity in public as well as in academic life. The king seemed liberal; he was the friend of poets and artists, and aimed at concentrating all the glories of Germany in his new university. I thus enjoyed for a [157] few years the example of the most brilliant intellects, and that stimulus which is given by competition between men equally eminent in different spheres of human knowledge. Under such circumstances a man either subsides into the position of a follower in the ranks that gather around a master, or he aspires to be a master himself.

The time had come when even the small allowance I received from borrowed capital must cease. I was now twenty-four years of age. I was Doctor of Philosophy and Medicine, and author of a quarto volume on the fishes of Brazil. I had traveled on foot all over Southern Germany, visited Vienna, and explored extensive tracts of the Alps. I knew every animal, living and fossil, in the Museums of Munich, Stuttgart, Tubingen, Erlangen, Wurzburg, Carlsruhe, and Frankfort; but my prospects were as dark as ever, and I saw no hope of making my way in the world, except by the practical pursuit of my profession as physician. So, at the close of 1830, I left the university and went home, with the intention of applying myself to the practice of medicine, confident that my theoretical information and my training in the art of observing would carry me through the new ordeal I was about to meet.

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: