Chapter 5: 1830-1832: Aet. 23-25.
- Year at home. -- leaves home for Paris. -- delays on the road. -- cholera. -- arrival in Paris. -- first visit to Cuvier. -- Cuvier's kindness. -- his death. -- poverty in Paris. -- home letters concerning embarrassments and about his work. -- singular dream.
On the 4th of December, 1830, Agassiz left Munich, in company with Mr. Dinkel, and after a short stay at St. Gallen and Zurich, spent in looking up fossil fishes and making drawings of them, they reached Concise on the 30th of the same month. Anxiously as his return was awaited at home, we have seen that his father was not without apprehension lest the presence of the naturalist, with artist, specimens, and apparatus, should be an inconvenience in the quiet parsonage. But every obstacle yielded to the joy of reunion, and Agassiz was soon established with his ‘painter,’ his fossils, and all his scientific outfit, under the paternal roof. Thus quietly engaged in his ichthyological studies, carrying on his work on the fossil  fishes, together with that on the fresh-water fishes of Central Europe, he passed nearly a year at home. He was not without patients also in the village and its environs, but had, as yet, no prospect of permanent professional employment. In the mean time it seemed daily more and more necessary that he should carry his work to Paris, to the great centre of scientific life, where he could have the widest field for comparison and research. There, also, he could continue and complete to the best advantage his medical studies. His poverty was the greatest hindrance to any such move. He was not, however, without some slight independent means, especially since his publishing arrangements provided in part for the carrying on of his work. His generous uncle added something to this, and an old friend of his father's, M. Christinat, a Swiss clergyman with whom he had been from boyhood a great favorite, urged upon him his own contribution toward a work in which he felt the liveliest interest. Still the prospect with which he left for Paris in September, 1831, was dark enough, financially speaking, though full of hope in another sense. On the road he made several halts for purposes of study, combining, as usual, professional with scientific  objects, hospitals with museums. He was, perhaps, a little inclined to believe that the most favorable conditions for his medical studies were to be found in conjunction with the best collections. He had, however, a special medical purpose, being earnest to learn everything regarding the treatment and the limitation of cholera, then for the first time making its appearance in Western Europe with frightful virulence. Believing himself likely to continue the practice of medicine for some years at least, he thought his observations upon this scourge would be of great importance to him. His letters of this date to his father are full of the subject, and of his own efforts to ascertain the best means of prevention and defense. The following answer to an appeal from his mother shows, however, that his delays caused anxiety at home, lest the small means he could devote to his studies in Paris should be consumed on the road.
Thus prepared, he arrived in Paris with his artist on the 16th of December, 1831. On the 18th he writes to his father: ‘. . . . Dinkel and I had a very pleasant journey, though the day after our arrival I was so fatigued that I could hardly move hand or foot,—that was yesterday. Nevertheless, I passed the evening very agreeably at the house of M. Cuvier, who sent to invite me, having heard of my arrival. To my surprise, I found myself not quite a stranger,—rather, as it were, among old acquaintances. I have already given you my address, Rue Copeau (Hotel du Jardin du Roi, No. 4). As it happens, M. Perrotet, a traveling naturalist, lives here also, and has at once put me on the right track about whatever I most need to know. There are in the house other well-known persons besides. I am accommodated very cheaply, and am at the same time within easy reach of many things, the neighborhood of which I can turn to good account. The medical school, for instance, is within ten minutes walk; the Jardin des  Plantes not two hundred steps away; while the Hospital (de la Pitie), where Messieurs Andral and Lisfranc teach, is opposite, and nearer still. To-day or to-morrow I shall deliver my letters, and then set to work in good earnest.’ Pleased as he was from the beginning with all that concerned his scientific life in Paris, the next letter shows that the young Swiss did not at once find himself at home in the great French capital.
The homesickness which is easily to be read between the lines of this letter, due, perhaps, to the writer's want of familiarity with society in its conventional aspect, yielded to the influence of an intellectual life, which became daily more engrossing. Cuvier's kind reception was but an earnest of the affectionate interest he seems from the first to have felt in him. After a few days he gave Agassiz and his artist a corner in one of his own laboratories, and often came to encourage them by a glance at their work as it went on.  This relation continued until Cuvier's death, and Agassiz enjoyed for several months the scientific sympathy and personal friendship of the great master whom he had honored from childhood, and whose name was ever on his lips till his own work in this world was closed. The following letter, written two months later, to his uncle in Lausanne tells the story in detail.
This trust from Cuvier proved to be a legacy. Less than three months after the date of this letter Agassiz went, as often happened, to work one morning with him in his study. It was Sunday, and he was employed upon something which Cuvier had asked him to do, saying, ‘You are young; you have time enough for it, and I have none to spare.’ They worked together till eleven o'clock, when Cuvier invited Agassiz to join him at breakfast.  After a little time spent over the breakfast table in talk with the ladies of the family, while Cuvier opened his letters, papers, etc., they returned to the working room, and were busily engaged in their separate occupations when Agassiz was surprised to hear the clock strike five, the hour for his dinner. He expressed his regret that he had not quite finished his work, but said that as he belonged to a student's table his dinner would not wait for him, and he would return soon to complete his task. Cuvier answered that he was quite right not to neglect his regular hours for meals, and commended his devotion to study, but added, ‘Be careful, and remember that work kills.’ They were the last words he heard from his beloved teacher. The next day, as Cuvier was going up to the tribune in the Chamber of Deputies, he fell, was taken up paralyzed, and carried home. Agassiz never saw him again.1 In order to keep intact these few data respecting his personal relations with Cuvier, as told in later years by Agassiz himself, the  course of the narrative has been anticipated by a month or two. Let us now return to the natural order. The letter to his uncle of course gave great pleasure at home. Just after reading it his father writes (February, 1832), ‘Now that you are intrusted with the portfolio of M. Cuvier, I suppose your plan is considerably enlarged, and that your work will be of double volume; tell me, then, as much about it as you think I can understand, which will not be a great deal after all.’ His mother's letter on the same occasion is full of tender sympathy and gratitude. Meanwhile one daily anxiety embittered his scientific happiness. The small means at his command could hardly be made, even with the strictest economy, to cover the necessary expenses of himself and his artist, in which were included books, drawing materials, fees, etc. He was in constant terror lest he should be obliged to leave Paris, to give up his investigations on the fossil fishes, and to stop work on the costly plates he had begun. The truth about his affairs, which he would gladly have concealed from those at home as long as possible, was drawn from him by an accidental occurrence. His brother had written to him for a certain book, and, failing to receive  it, inquired with some surprise why his commission was neglected. Agassiz's next letter, about a month later than the one to his uncle, gives the explanation.
This letter drew forth the following one.
Then follow several pages, addressed to his  father, in answer to the request contained in one of his last letters that Louis would tell him as much as he thinks he can understand of his work. There is something touching in this little lesson given by the son to the father, as showing with what delight Louis responded to the least touch of parental affection respecting his favorite studies, so long looked upon at home with a certain doubt and suspicion. The whole letter is not given here, as it is simply an elementary treatise on geology; but the close is not without interest as relating to the special investigations on which he was now employed.
The aim of our researches upon fossil animals is to ascertain what beings have lived at each one of these (geological) epochs of creation, and to trace their characters and their relations with those now living; in one word, to make them live again in our thought. It is especially the fishes that I try to restore for the eyes of the curious, by showing them which ones have lived in each epoch, what were their forms, and, if possible, by drawing some conclusions as to their probable modes of life. You will better understand the difficulty of my work when I tell you that in many species I have only a single tooth, a  scale, a spine, as my guide in the reconstruction of all these characters, although sometimes we are fortunate enough to find species with the fins and the skeletons complete. . . . I ask pardon if I have tired you with my long talk, but you know how pleasant it is to ramble on about what interests us, and the pleasure of being questioned by you upon subjects of this kind has been such a rare one for me, that I have wished to present the matter in its full light, that you may understand the zeal and the enthusiasm which such researches can excite.To this period belongs a curious dream mentioned by Agassiz in his work on the fossil fishes.3 It is interesting both as a psychological fact and as showing how, sleeping and waking, his work was ever present with him. He had been for two weeks striving to decipher the somewhat obscure impression of a fossil fish on the stone slab in which it was preserved. Weary and perplexed he put his work aside at last, and tried to dismiss it from his mind. Shortly after, he waked one night persuaded that while asleep he had seen his fish with all the missing features perfectly restored.  But when he tried to hold and make fast the image, it escaped him. Nevertheless, he went early to the Jardin des Plantes, thinking that on looking anew at the impression he should see something which would put him on the track of his vision. In vain,—the blurred record was as blank as ever. The next night he saw the fish again, but with no more satisfactory result. When he awoke it disappeared from his memory as before. Hoping that the same experience might be repeated, on the third night he placed a pencil and paper beside his bed before going to sleep. Accordingly toward morning the fish reappeared in his dream, confusedly at first, but at last with such distinctness that he had no longer any doubt as to its zoological characters. Still half dreaming, in perfect darkness, he traced these characters on the sheet of paper at the bedside. In the morning he was surprised to see in his nocturnal sketch features which he thought it impossible the fossil itself should reveal. He hastened to the Jardin des Plantes, and, with his drawing as a guide, succeeded in chiseling away the surface of the stone under which portions of the fish proved to be hidden. When wholly exposed it corresponded with his dream and his drawing, and he succeeded  in classifying it with ease. He often spoke of this as a good illustration of the well-known fact, that when the body is at rest the tired brain will do the work it refused before.