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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 [159] 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 [160] 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.

To his mother.

Carlsruhe, November, 1831.
. . . I returned day before yesterday from my trip in Wurtemberg, and though I already knew what precautions had been taken everywhere in anticipation of cholera, I do [161] not think my journey was a useless one, and am convinced that my observations will not be without interest,—chiefly for myself, of course, but of utility to others also I hope. Your letter being so urgent, I will not, however, delay my departure an instant. Between to-day and to-morrow I shall put in order the specimens lent me by the Museum, and then start at once. . . . In proportion to my previous anxiety is my pleasure in the prospect of going to Paris, now that I am better fitted to present myself there as I could wish. I have collected for my fossil fishes all the materials I still desired to obtain from the museums of Carlsruhe, Heidelberg, and Strasbourg, and have extended my knowledge of geology sufficiently to join, without embarrassment at least, in conversation upon the more recent researches in that department. Moreover, Braun has been kind enough to give me a superb collection, selected by himself, to serve as basis and guide in my researches. I leave it at Carlsruhe, since I no longer need it. . . . I have also been able to avail myself of the Museum of Carlsruhe, and of the mineralogical collection of Braun's father. Beside the drawings made by Dinkel, I have added to my work one hundred and seventy-one pages [162] of manuscript in French (I have just counted them), written between my excursions and in the midst of other occupations. . . . I could not have foreseen so rich a harvest.

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 [163] 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.

To his sister Olympe.

Paris, January 15, 1832.
. . .My expectations in coming here have been more than fulfilled. In scientific matters I have found all that I knew must exist in Paris (indeed, my anticipations were rather below than above the mark), and beside that I have been met everywhere with courtesy, and have received attentions of all sorts. M. Cuvier and M. Humboldt especially treat me on all occasions as an equal, and facilitate for me the use of the scientific collections so that I can work here as if I were at home. And yet it is not the same thing; this extreme, but formal politeness chills you instead of putting you at your ease; it lacks cordiality, [164] and, to tell the truth, I would gladly go away were I not held fast by the wealth of material of which I can avail myself for instruction. In the morning I follow the clinical courses at the Pitie. . . . At ten o'clock, or perhaps at eleven, I breakfast, and then go to the Museum of Natural History, where I stay till dark. Between five and six I dine, and after that turn to such medical studies as do not require daylight. So pass my days, one like another, with great regularity. I have made it a rule not to go out after dinner,—I should lose too much time. . . . On Saturday only I spend the evening at M. Cuvier's. . . .

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. [165]

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.

To Dr. Mayor.

Paris, February 16, 1832.
. . . I have also a piece of good news to communicate, which will, I hope, lead to very favorable results for me. I think I told you when I left for Paris that my chief anxiety was lest I might not be allowed to examine, and still less to describe, the fossil fishes and their skeletons in the Museum. Knowing that Cuvier intended to write a work on this subject, I supposed that he would reserve these specimens for himself: I half thought he might, on seeing my work so far advanced, propose to me to finish it jointly with him, —but even this I hardly dared to hope. It was on this account, with the view of increasing my materials and having thereby a better chance of success with M. Cuvier, that I [166] desired so earnestly to stop at Strasbourg and Carlsruhe, where I knew specimens were to be seen which would have a direct bearing on my aim. The result has far surpassed my expectation. I hastened to show my material to M. Cuvier the very day after my arrival. He received me with great politeness, though with a certain reserve, and immediately gave me permission to see everything in the galleries of the Museum. But as I knew that he had put together in private collections all that could be of use to himself in writing his book, and as he had never said a word to me of his plan of publication, I remained in a painful state of doubt, since the completion of his work would have destroyed all chance for the sale of mine. Last Saturday I was passing the evening there, and we were talking of science, when he desired his secretary to bring him a certain portfolio of drawings. He showed me the contents; they were drawings of fossil fishes and notes which he had taken in the British Museum and elsewhere. After looking it through with me, he said he had seen with satisfaction the manner in which I had treated this subject; that I had indeed anticipated him, since he had intended at some future time to do the same thing; [167] but that as I had given it so much attention, and had done my work so well, he had decided to renounce his project, and to place at my disposition all the materials he had collected and all the preliminary notes he had taken.

You can imagine what new ardor this has given me for my work, the more so because M. Cuvier, M. Humboldt, and several other persons of mark who are interested in it have promised to speak in my behalf to a publisher (to Levrault, who seems disposed to undertake the publication should peace be continued), and to recommend me strongly. To accomplish my end without neglecting other occupations, I work regularly at least fifteen hours a day, sometimes even an hour or two more; but I hope to reach my goal in good time.

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. [168] 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 [169] 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 [170] 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.

To his brother.

Paris, March, 1832.
. . . Here is the book for which you asked me,—price, 18 francs. I shall be very sorry if it comes too late, but I could not help it. . . . . In the first place I had not money enough to pay for it without being left actually penniless. You can imagine that after the fuel bill for the winter is paid, little remains for other expenses out of my 200 francs a month, five louis of which are always due to my companion. Far from having anything in advance, my month's supply is thus taken up at once . . . Beside this cause of delay, you can have no idea what it is to hunt for anything in Paris when you are a stranger there. As I go out only in two or three directions leading to my work, and might not otherwise leave my own street for a month at a time, I naturally find myself astray when I am off this beaten track. . . . You have asked me several times how I have been received by those to whom I had introductions. Frankly, after [171] having delivered a few of my letters, I have never been again, because I cannot, in my position, spare time for visits. . . . Another excellent reason for staying away now is that I have no presentable coat. At M. Cuvier's only am I sufficiently at ease to go in a frock coat. . . . Saturday, a week ago, M. de Ferussac offered me the editorship of the zoological section of the ‘Bulletin;’ it would be worth to me an additional thousand francs, but would require two or three hours work daily. Write me soon what you think about it. In the midst of all the encouragements which sustain me and renew my ardor, I am depressed by the reverse side of my position.

This letter drew forth the following one.

From his mother.

Concise, March, 1832.
. . . Much as your letter to your uncle delighted us, that to your brother has saddened us. It seems, my dear child, that you are painfully straitened in means. I understand it by personal experience, and in your case I have foreseen it; it is the cloud which has always darkened your prospects to me. I want to talk to you, my dear Louis, of your [172] future, which has often made me anxious. You know your mother's heart too well to misunderstand her thought, even should its expression be unacceptable to you. With much knowledge, acquired by assiduous industry, you are still at twenty-five years of age living on brilliant hopes, in relation, it is true, with great people, and known as having distinguished talent. Now, all this would seem to me delightful if you had an income of fifty thousand francs; but, in your position, you must absolutely have an occupation which will enable you to live, and free you from the insupportable weight of dependence on others. From this day forward, my dear child, you must look to this end alone if you would find it possible to pursue honorably the career you have chosen. Otherwise constant embarrassments will so limit your genius, that you will fall below your own capacity. If you follow our advice you will perhaps reach the result of your work in the natural sciences a little later, but all the more surely. Let us see how you can combine the work to which you have already consecrated so much time, with the possibility of self-support. It appears from your letter to your brother that you see no one in Paris; the reason seems to me a sad one, but it [173] is unanswerable, and since you cannot change it, you must change your place of abode and return to your own country. You have already seen in Paris all those persons whom you thought it essential to see; unless you are strangely mistaken in their good-will, you will be no less sure of it in Switzerland than in Paris, and since you cannot take part in their society, your relations with them will be the same at the distance of a hundred leagues as they are now. You must therefore leave Paris for Geneva, Lausanne, or Nechatel, or any city where you can support yourself by teaching. . . . This seems to me the most advantageous course for you. If before fixing yourself permanently you like to take your place at the parsonage again, you will always find us ready to facilitate, as far as we can, any arrangements for your convenience. Here you can live in perfect tranquillity and without expense.

There are two other subjects which I want to discuss with you, though perhaps I shall not make myself so easily understood. You have seen the handsome public building in process of construction at Nechatel. It will be finished this year, and I am told that the Museum will be placed there. I believe the [174] collections are very incomplete, and the city of Neuchatel is rich enough to expend something in filling the blanks. It has occurred to me, my dear, that this would be an excellent opportunity for disposing of your alcoholic specimens. They form, at present, a capital yielding no interest, requiring care, and to be enjoyed only at the cost of endless outlay in glass jars, alcohol, and transportation, to say nothing of the rent of a room in which to keep them. All this, beside attracting many visitors, is too heavy a burden for you, from which you may free yourself by taking advantage of this rare chance. To this end you must have an immediate understanding with M. Coulon, lest he should make a choice elsewhere. Your brother, being on the spot, might negotiate for you. . . . Finally, my last topic is Mr. Dinkel. You are very fortunate to have found in your artist such a thoroughly nice fellow; nevertheless, in view of the expense, you must make it possible to do without him. I see you look at me aghast; but where a sacrifice is to be made we must not do it by halves; we must pull up the tree by the roots. It is a great evil to be spending more than one earns. . . .


To his mother.

Paris, March 25, 1832.
. . . .It is true, dear mother, that I am greatly straitened; that I have much less money to spend than I could wish, or even than I need; on the other hand, this makes me work the harder, and keeps me away from distractions which might otherwise tempt me. . . . With reference to my work, however, things are not quite as you suppose, as regards either my stay here or my relations with M. Cuvier. Certainly, I hope that I should lose neither his good — will nor his protection on leaving here; on the contrary, I am sure that he would be the first to advise me to accept any professorship, or any place which might be advantageous for me, however removed from my present occupations, and that his counsels would follow me there. But what cannot follow me, and what I owe quite as much to him, is the privilege of examining all the collections. These I can have nowhere but in Paris, since even if he would consent to it I could not carry away with me a hundred quintals of fossil fish, which, for the sake of comparison, I must have before my eyes, nor thousands of fish-skeletons, which would alone [176] fill some fifty great cases. It is this which compels me to stay here till I have finished my work. I should add that M. Elie de Beaumont has also been kind enough to place at my disposition the fossil fishes from the collection at the Mining School, and that M. Brongniart has made me the same offer regarding his collection, which is one of the finest among those owned by individuals in Paris. . . .

As to my collections, I had already thought of asking either the Vaudois government or the city of Nechatel to receive them into the Museum, merely on condition that they should provide for the expenses of exhibition and preservation, making use of them, meanwhile, for the instruction of the public. I should be sorry to lose all right to them, because I hope they may have another final destination. I do not despair of seeing the different parts of Switzerland united at some future day by a closer tie, and in case of such a union a truly Helvetic university would become a necessity; then, my aim would be to make my collection the basis of that which they would be obliged to found for their courses of lectures. It is really a shame that Switzerland, richer and more extensive than [177] many a small kingdom, should have no university, when some states of not half its size have even two; for instance, the grand duchy of Baden, one of whose universities, that of Heidelberg, ranks among the first in all Germany. If ever I attain a position allowing me so to do, I shall make every effort in my power to procure for my country the greatest of benefits: namely, that of an intellectual unity, which can arise only from a high degree of civilization, and from the radiation of knowledge from one central point.

I, too, have considered the question about Dinkel, and if, when I have finished my work here, my position is not changed, and I have no definite prospect, such as would justify me in keeping him with me,—well! then we must part! I have long been preparing myself for this, by employing him only upon what is indispensable to the publication of my first numbers, hoping that these may procure me the means of paying for such illustrations as I shall further need. As my justification for having engaged him in the first instance, and continued this expense till now, I can truly say that it is in a great degree through his drawings that M. Cuvier has been able to judge of my work, and so has been led to [178] make a surrender of all his materials in my favor. I foresaw clearly that this was my only chance of competing with him, and it was not without reason that I insisted so strongly on having Dinkel with me in passing through Strasbourg and subsequently at Carlsruhe. Had I not done so, M. Cuvier might still be in advance of me. Now my mind is at rest on this score; I have already written you all about his kindness in offering me the work. Could I only be equally fortunate in its publication!

M. Cuvier urges me strongly to present my book to the Academy, in order to obtain a report upon its contents. I must first finish it, however, and the task is not a light one. For this reason, above all, I regret my want of means; but for that I could have the drawings made at once, and the Academy report, considered as a recommendation, would certainly help on the publication greatly. But in this respect I have long been straitened; Auguste knows that I had at Munich an artist who was to complete what I had left there for execution, and that I stopped his work on leaving Concise. If the stagnation of the book-trade continues I shall, perhaps, be forced to give up Dinkel also; for if I cannot begin [179] the publication, which will, I hope, bring me some return, I must cease to accumulate material in advance. Should business revive soon, however, I may yet have the pleasure of seeing all completed before I leave Paris.

I think I forgot to mention the arrival of Braun six weeks after me. I had a double pleasure in his coming, for he brought with him his younger brother, a charming fellow, and a distinguished pupil of the polytechnic school of Carlsruhe. He means to be a mining engineer, and comes to study such collections at Paris as are connected with this branch. You cannot imagine what happiness and comfort I have in my relations with Alexander; he is so good, so cultivated and high-minded, that his friendship is a real blessing to me. We both feel very much our separation from the elder Schimper, who, spite of his great desire to join us at Carlsruhe and accompany us to Paris, was not able to leave Munich. . . .

P. S. My love to Auguste. To-day (Sunday) I went again to see M. Humboldt about Auguste's2 plan, but did not find him.

Then follow several pages, addressed to his [180] 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 [181] 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. [182] 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 [183] 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.

1 This warning of Cuvier, ‘Work kills,’ strangely recalls Johannes Muller's ‘Blood clings to work;’ the one seems the echo of the other. See Memoir of Johannes Muler, by Rudolf Virchow, p. 38.

2 Concerning a business undertaking in Mexico.

3 Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles. Cyclopoma spinosum Agassiz. Vol. IV. tab. 1, pp. 20, 21.

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