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Chapter 7: 1832-1834: Aet. 25-27.

  • Enters upon his professorship at Neuchatel.
  • -- first lecture. -- success as a teacher. -- love of teaching. -- influence upon the scientific life of Neuchatel. -- proposal from University of Heidelberg. -- proposal declined. -- threatened blindness. -- correspondence with Humboldt. -- marriage. -- invitation from Charpentier. -- invitation to visit England. -- Wollaston prize. -- first number of ‘Poissons Fossiles.’ -- review of the work.

The following autumn Agassiz assumed the duties of his professorship at Neuchatel. His opening lecture ‘Upon the Relations between the different branches of Natural History and the then prevailing tendencies of all the Sciences’ was given on the 12th of November, 1832, at the Hotel de Ville. Judged by the impression made upon the listeners as recorded at the time, this introductory discourse must have been characterized by the same broad spirit of generalization which marked Agassiz's later teaching. Facts in his hands fell into their orderly relation as parts of a connected whole, and were never presented [207] merely as special or isolated phenomena. From the beginning his success as an instructor was undoubted. He had, indeed, now entered upon the occupation which was to be from youth to old age the delight of his life. Teaching was a passion with him, and his power over his pupils might be measured by his own enthusiasm. He was intellectually, as well as socially, a democrat, in the best sense. He delighted to scatter broadcast the highest results of thought and research, and to adapt them even to the youngest and most uninformed minds. In his later American travels he would talk of glacial phenomena to the driver of a country stage-coach among the mountains, or to some workman, splitting rock at the road-side, with as much earnestness as if he had been discussing problems with a brother geologist; he would take the common fisherman into his scientific confidence, telling him the intimate secrets of fish-structure or fish-embryology, till the man in his turn grew enthusiastic, and began to pour out information from the stores of his own rough and untaught habits of observation. Agassiz's general faith in the susceptibility of the popular intelligence, however untrained, to the highest truths of nature, was [208] contagious, and he created or developed that in which he believed.

In Neuchatel the presence of the young professor was felt at once as a new and stimulating influence. The little town suddenly became a centre of scientific activity. A society for the pursuit of the natural sciences, of which he was the first secretary, sprang into life. The scientific collections, which had already attained, under the care of M. Louis Coulon, considerable value, presently assumed the character and proportions of a wellor-dered museum. In M. Coulon Agassiz found a generous friend and a scientific colleague who sympathized with his noblest aspirations, and was ever ready to sustain all his efforts in behalf of scientific progress. Together they worked in arranging, enlarging, and building up a museum of natural history which soon became known as one of the best local institutions of the kind in Europe.

Beside his classes at the gymnasium, Agassiz collected about him, by invitation, a small audience of friends and neighbors, to whom he lectured during the winter on botany, on zoology, on the philosophy of nature. The instruction was of the most familiar and informal character, and was continued in later [209] years for his own children and the children of his friends. In the latter case the subjects were chiefly geology and geography in connection with botany, and in favorable weather the lessons were usually given in the open air. One can easily imagine what joy it must have been for a party of little playmates, boys and girls, to be taken out for long walks in the country over the hills about Neuchatel, and especially to Chaumont, the mountain which rises behind it, and thus to have their lessons, for which the facts and scenes about them furnished subject and illustration, combined with pleasant rambles. From some high ground affording a wide panoramic view Agassiz would explain to them the formation of lakes, islands, rivers, springs, water-sheds, hills, and valleys. He always insisted that physical geography could be better taught to children in the vicinity of their own homes than by books or maps, or even globes. Nor did he think a varied landscape essential to such instruction. Undulations of the ground, some contrast of hill and plain, some sheet of water with the streams that feed it, some ridge of rocky soil acting as a water-shed, may be found everywhere, and the relation of facts shown perhaps as well on a small as on a large scale. [210]

When it was impossible to give the lessons out of doors, the children were gathered around a large table, where each one had before him or her the specimens of the day, sometimes stones and fossils, sometimes flowers, fruits, or dried plants. To each child in succession was explained separately what had first been told to all collectively. When the talk was of tropical or distant countries pains were taken to procure characteristic specimens, and the children were introduced to dates, bananas, cocoa-nuts, and other fruits, not easily to be obtained in those days in a small inland town. They, of course, concluded the lesson by eating the specimens, a practical illustration which they greatly enjoyed. A very large wooden globe, on the surface of which the various features of the earth as they came up for discussion could be shown, served to make them more clear and vivid. The children took their own share in the instruction, and were themselves made to point out and describe that which had just been explained to them. They took home their collections, and as a preparation for the next lesson were often called upon to classify and describe some unusual specimen by their own unaided efforts. There was no tedium in the class. Agassiz's [211] lively, clear, and attractive method of teaching awakened their own powers of observation in his little pupils, and to some at least opened permanent sources of enjoyment.

His instructions to his older pupils were based on the same methods, and were no less acceptable to them than to the children. In winter his professional courses to the students were chiefly upon zoology and kindred topics; in the summer he taught them botany and geology, availing himself of the fine days for excursions and practical instruction in the field. Professor Louis Favre, speaking of these excursions, which led them sometimes into the gorges of the Seyon, sometimes into the forests of Chaumont, says: ‘They were fete days for the young people, who found in their professor an active companion, full of spirits, vigor, and gayety, whose enthusiasm kindled in them the sacred fire of science.’

It was not long before his growing reputation brought him invitations from elsewhere. One of the first of these was from Heidelberg.

Professor Tiedemann to Louis Agassiz.

Heidelberg, December 4, 1832.
. . . Last autumn, when I had the pleasure of meeting you in Carlsruhe, I proposed to [212] you to give some lectures on Natural History at this university. Professor Leuckart, who till now represented zoology here, is called to Freiburg, and you would therefore be the only teacher in that department. The university being so frequented, a numerous audience may be counted upon. The zoological collection, by no means an insignificant one, is open to your use. Professor Leuckart received a salary of five hundred florins. This is now unappropriated, and I do not doubt that the government, conformably to the proposition of the medical faculty, would give you the appointment on the same terms. By your knowledge you are prepared for the work of an able academical teacher. My advice is, therefore, that you should not bind yourself to any lyceum or gymnasium, as a permanent position; such a place would not suit a cultivated scientific man, nor does it offer a field for an accomplished scholar. Consider carefully, therefore, a question which concerns the efficiency of your life, and give me the result of your deliberation as soon as possible. Should it be favorable to the acceptance of my proposition, I hope you will find yourself here at Easter as full professor, with a salary of five hundred florins, and a fitting field of activity [213] for your knowledge. The fees for lectures and literary work might bring you in an additional fifteen hundred gulden yearly. If you accede to this offer send me your inaugural dissertation, and make me acquainted with your literary work, that I may take the necessary steps with the Curatorio. Consider this proposition as a proof of my high appreciation of your literary efforts and of my regard for you personally.

Agassiz's next letter to Humboldt is to consult him with respect to the call from Heidelberg, while it is also full of pleasure at the warm welcome extended to him in Neuchatel.

Agassiz to Humboldt.

December, 1832.
. . . At last I am in Neuchatel, having, indeed, begun my lectures some weeks ago. I have been received in a way I could never have anticipated, and which can only be due to your good — will on my behalf and your friendly recommendation. You have my warmest thanks for the trouble you have taken about me, and for your continued sympathy. Let me show you by my work in the years to come, rather than by words, that I am in earnest [214] about science, and that my spirit is not irresponsive to a noble encouragement such as you have given me.

You will have received my letter from Carlsruhe. Could I only tell you all that I have since thought and observed about the history of our-earth's development, the succession of the animal populations, and their genetic classification! It cannot easily be compressed within letter limits; I will, nevertheless, attempt it when my lectures make less urgent claim upon me, and my eyes are less fatigued. I should defer writing till then were it not that to-day I have something of at least outside interest to announce. It concerns the inclosed letter received to-day. (The offer of a professorship at Heidelberg.) Should you think that I need not take it into consideration, and you have no time to answer me, let me know your opinion by your silence. I will tell you the reasons which would induce me to remain for the present in Neuchatel, and I think you will approve them. First, as my lectures do not claim a great part of my time I shall have the more to bestow on other work; add to this the position of Neuchatel, so favorable for observations such as I propose making on the history of development in several classes [215] of animals; then the hope of freeing myself from the burden of my collections; and next, the quiet of my life here with reference to my somewhat overstrained health. Beside my wish to remain, these favorable circumstances furnish a powerful motive, and then I am satisfied that people here would assist me with the greatest readiness should my publications not succeed otherwise. As to the publication of my fishes, I can, after all, better direct the lithographing of the plates here. I have just written to Cotta concerning this, proposing also that he should advance the cost of the lithographs. I shall attend to it all carefully, and be content for the present with my small means. From the gradual sale he can, little by little, repay my expenses, and I shall ask no profit until the success of the work warrants it. I await his answer. This proposal seems to me the best and the most likely to advance the publication of this work.

Since I arrived here some scientific efforts have been made with the help of M. Coulon. We have already founded a society of Natural History,1 and I hope, should you make your promised visit next year, you will find this germ between foliage and flower at [216] least, though perhaps not yet ripened into seed. . . .

M. Coulon told me the day before yesterday that he had spoken with M. de Montmollin, the Treasurer, who would write to M. Ancillon concerning the purchase of my collection. . . . Will you have the kindness, when occasion offers, to say a word to M. Ancillon about it? . . . Not only would this collection be of the greatest value to the museum here, but its sale would also advance my farther investigations. With the sum of eighty louis, which is all that is subscribed for my professorship, I cannot continue them on any large scale.

I await now with anxiety Cotta's answer to my last proposition; but whatever it be, I shall begin the lithographing of the plates immediately after the New Year, as they must be carried on under my own eye and direction. This I can well do since my uncle, Dr. Mayor in Lausanne, gives me fifty louis toward it, the amount of one year's pay to Weber, my former lithographer in Munich. I have therefore written him to come, and expect him after New Year. With my salary I can also henceforth keep Dinkel, who is now in Paris, drawing the last fossils which I described. . . . [217]

No answer to this letter has been found beyond such as is implied in the following to M. Coulon.

Humboldt to M. Coulon, Fils.

Berlin, January 21, 1833.
. . . It gives me great pleasure to acknowledge the flattering welcome offered by you and your fellow-citizens to M. Agassiz, who stands so high in science, and whose intellectual qualities are enhanced by his amiable character. They write me from Heidelberg that they intend the place of M. Leuckart in zoology for my young friend. The choice is proposed by M. Tiedemann, and certainly nothing could be more honorable to M. Agassiz. Nevertheless, I hope that he will refuse it. He should remain for some years in your country, where a generous encouragement facilitates the publication of his work, which is of equal importance to zoology and geology.

I have spoken with M. Ancillon, and have left with him an official notice respecting the purchase of the Agassiz collection. The difficulty will be found, as in all human affairs, in the prose of life, in money. M. Ancillon writes me this morning: ‘Your paper in favor of M. Agassiz is a scientific letter of credit [218] which we shall try to honor. The acquisition of a superior man and a superior collection at the same time would be a double conquest for the principality of Neuchatel. I have requested a report from the Council of State on the means of accomplishing this, and I hope that private individuals may do something toward it.’ Thus you see the affair is at least on the right road. I do not think, however, that the royal treasury will give at present more than a thousand Prussian crowns toward it. . . .

Regarding the invitation to Heidelberg, Agassiz's decision was already made. A letter to his brother toward the close of December mentions that he is offered a professorship at the University of Heidelberg, but that, although his answer has not actually gone, he has resolved to decline it; adding that the larger salary is counterbalanced in his mind by the hope of selling his collection at Neuchatel, and thus freeing himself from a heavy burden.

Agassiz was now threatened with a great misfortune. Already, in Paris, his eyes had begun to suffer from the strain of microscopic work. They now became seriously impaired; [219] and for some months he was obliged to abate his activity, and to refrain even from writing a letter. During this time, while he was shut up in a darkened room, he practiced the study of fossils by touch alone, using even the tip of the tongue to feel out the impression, when the fingers were not sufficiently sensitive. He said he was sure at the time that he could bring himself in this way to such delicacy of touch that the loss of sight would not oblige him to abandon his work. After some months his eyes improved, and though at times threatened with a return of the same malady, he was able, throughout life, to use his eyes more uninterruptedly than most persons. His lectures, always delivered extemporaneously, do not seem to have been suspended for any length of time.

The following letter from Agassiz to Humboldt is taken from a rough and incomplete draught, which was evidently put aside (perhaps on account of the trouble in his eyes), and only completed in the following May. Although imperfect, it explains Humboldt's answer, which is not only interesting in itself, but throws light on Agassiz's work at this period. [220]

Agassiz to Humboldt.

Neuchatel, January 27, 1833.
. . . A thousand thanks for your last most welcome letter. I can hardly tell you what pleasure it gave me, or how I am cheered and stimulated to new activity by intercourse with you on so intimate a footing. Since I wrote you, some things have become more clear to me, as, for instance, my purpose of publishing the ‘Fossil Fishes’ here. Certain doubts remain in my mind, however, about which, as well as about other matters, I would ask your advice. Now that Cotta is dead, I cannot wait till I have made an arrangement with his successor. I therefore allow the ‘Fresh-Water Fishes’ to lie by and drive on the others. Upon careful examination I have found, to my astonishment, that all necessary means for the publication of such a work are to be had here: two good lithographers and two printing establishments, both of which have excellent type. I have sent for Weber to engrave the plates, or draw them on stone; he will be here at the end of the month. Then I shall begin at once, and hope in May to send out the first number. The great difficulty remains now in the distribution of the numbers, and in finding a sufficient [221] sale so that they may follow each other with regularity. I think it better to begin the publication as a whole than to send out an abridgment in advance. The species can be characterized only by good illustrations. A summary always requires farther demonstration, whereas, if I give the plates at once I can shorten the text and present the general results as an introduction to the first number. With twelve numbers, of twenty plates each, followed by about ten pages of text, I can tell all that I have to say. The cost of one hundred and fifty copies printed here would, according to careful inquiry, be covered by seventy subscriptions if the price were put at one louis-d'or the number.

Now comes the question whether I should print more than one hundred and fifty copies. On account of the expense I shall not preserve the stones. For the distribution of the copies and the collecting of the money could you, perhaps, recommend me to some house in Berlin or Leipzig, who would take the work for sale in Germany on commission under reasonable conditions? For England, I wrote yesterday to Lyell, and to-morrow I shall write to Levrault and Bossange.

Both the magistrates and private individuals [222] here are now much interested in public instruction, and I am satisfied that sooner or later my collection will be purchased, though nothing has been said about it lately.2

For a closer description of my family of Lepidostei, to which belong all the ante-chalk bony fishes, I am anxious to have for dissection a Polypterus Bichir and a Lepidosteus osseus, or any other species belonging exclusively to the present creation. Hitherto, I have only been able to examine and describe the skeleton and external parts. If you could obtain a specimen of both for me you would do me the greatest service. If necessary, I will engage to return the preparations. I beg for this most earnestly. Forgive the many requests contained in this letter, and see in it only my ardent desire to reach my aim, in which you have already helped me so often and so kindly.

Humboldt to Agassiz.

Sans Souci, July 4, 1833.
. . . . I am happy in your success, my dear Agassiz, happy in your charming letter of May 22d, happy in the hope of having been [223] able to do something that may be useful to you for the subscription. The Prince Royal's name seemed to me rather important for you. I have delayed writing, not because I am one of the most persecuted men in Europe (the persecution goes on crescendo; there is not a scholar in Prussia or Germany having anything to ask of the King, or of M. d'altenstein, who does not think it necessary to make me his agent, with power of attorney), but because it was necessary to await the Prince Royal's return from his military circuit, and the opportunity of speaking to him alone, which does not occur when I am with the King.

Your prospectus is full of interest, and does ample justice to those who have provided you with materials. To name me among them was an affectionate deceit, the ruse of a noble soul like yours; I am a little vexed with you about it.3 [224]

Here is the beginning of a list. I think the Department of the Mines de Province will take three or four more copies. We have not their answer yet. Do not be frightened at the brevity of the list. . . . I am, however, the least apt of all men in collecting subscriptions, seeing no one but the court, and forced to be out of town three or four days in the week. On account of this same inaptitude, I beg you to send me, through the publisher, only my own three copies, and to address the others, through the publisher also, to the individuals named on the list, merely writing on each copy that the person has subscribed on the list of M. de Humboldt.

With all my affection for you, my dear friend, it would be impossible for me to take charge of the distribution of your numbers or the returns. The publishing houses of Dummler or of Humblot and Dunker would be useful to you at Berlin. I find it difficult to believe that you will navigate successfully among these literary corsairs! I have had a short eulogium of your work inserted in the Berliner Staats-Zeitung. You see that I do not neglect your interests, and that, for love of you, I even turn journalist. You have omitted to state in your prospectus whether [225] your plates are lithographed, as I fear they are, and also whether they are colored, which seems to me unnecessary. Have your superb original drawings remained in your possession, or are they included in the sale of your collection? . . .

I could not make use of your letter to the King, and I have suppressed it. You have been ill-advised as to the forms. ‘Erhabener Konig’ has too poetical a turn; we have here the most prosaic and the most degrading official expressions. M. de Pfuel must have some Arch-Prussian with him, who would arrange the formula of a letter for you. At the head there must be ‘Most enlightened, most powerful King,—all gracious sovereign and lord.’ Then you begin, ‘Your Royal Majesty, deeply moved, I venture to lay at your feet most humbly my warmest thanks for the support so graciously granted to the purchase of my collection for the Gymnasium in Neuchatel. Did I know how to write,’ etc. The rest of your letter was very good; put only ‘so much grace as to answer’ instead of ‘so much kindness.’ You should end with the words, ‘I remain till death, in deepest reverence, the most humble and faithful servant of your Royal Majesty.’ The whole on small folio, [226] sealed, addressed outside, ‘To the King's Majesty, Berlin.’ Send the letter, not through me, but officially, through M. de Pfuel.4

The letter to the King is not absolutely necessary, but it will give pleasure, for the King likes any affectionate demonstration from the country that has now become yours.5 It will be useful, also, with reference to our request for the purchase of some copies, which we will make to the King as soon as the first number has appeared. Had I obtained the King's name for you to-day (which would have been difficult, since the King detests subscriptions), we should have spoiled the sequence. It seems to me that a letter of acknowledgment [227] from you to M. Ancillon would be very suitable also. Do not think it is too late. One addresses him as ‘Monsieur et plus votre Excellence.’ I am writing the most pedantic letter in the world in answer to yours, so full of charm. It must seem to you absurd that I write you in French, when you, French by origin, or rather by language, prefer to write me in German. Pray tell me, did you learn German, which you write with such purity, as a child?

I am happy to see that you publish the whole together. The parceling out of such a work would have led to endless delays; but, for mercy's sake, take care of your eyes; they are ours. I have not neglected the subscriptions in Russia, but I have, as yet, no answer. At a venture, I have placed the name of M. von Buch on my list. He is absent; it is said that he will go to Greece this summer. Pray make it a rule not to give away copies of your work. If you follow that inclination you will be pecuniarily ruined.

I wish I could have been present at your course of lectures. What you tell me of them delights me, though I am ready to do battle with you about those metamorphoses of our globe which have even slipped into your title. [228] I see by your letter that you cling to the idea of internal vital processes of the earth, that you regard the successive formations as different phases of life, the rocks as products of metamorphosis. I think this symbolical language should be employed with great reserve. I know that point of view of the old ‘Naturphilosophie;’ I have examined it without prejudice, but nothing seems to me more dissimilar than the vital action of the metamorphosis of a plant in order to form the calyx or the flower, and the successive formation of beds of conglomerate. There is order, it is true, in the superposed beds, sometimes an alternation of the same substance, an interior cause, —sometimes even a successive development, starting from a central heat; but can the term life be applied to this kind of movement? Limestone does not generate sandstone. I do not know that there exists what physiologists call a vital force, different from, or opposed to, the physical forces which we recognize in all matter; I think the vital process is only a particular mode of action, of limitation of those physical forces; action, the nature of which we have not yet fully sounded. I believe there are nervous storms (electric) like those which set fire to the atmosphere, [229] but that special action which we call organic, in which every part becomes cause or effect, seems to me distinct from the changes which our planet has undergone. I pause here, for I feel that I must annoy you, and I care for you too much to run that risk. Moreover, a superior man like yourself, my dear friend, floats above material things and leaves a margin for philosophic doubt.

Farewell; count on the little of life that remains to me, and on my affectionate devotion. At twenty-six years of age, and possessed of so much knowledge, you are only entering upon life, while I am preparing to depart; leaving this world far different from what I hoped it would be in my youth. I will not forget the Bichir and the Lepidosteus. Remember always that your letters give me the greatest pleasure . . . .

[P. S.] Look carefully at the new number of Poggendorf, in which you will find beautiful discoveries of Ehrenberg (microscopical) on the difference of structure between the brain and the nerves of motion, also upon the crystals forming the silvered portion of the peritoneum of Esox lucius.


In October, 1833, Agassiz's marriage to Cecile Braun, the sister of his life-long friend, Alexander Braun, took place. He brought his wife home to a small apartment in Neuchatel, where they began their housekeeping after the simplest fashion, with such economy as their very limited means enforced. Her rare artistic talent, hitherto devoted to her brother's botanical pursuits, now found a new field. Trained to accuracy in drawing objects of Natural History, she had an artist's eye for form and color. Some of the best drawings in the Fossil Fishes and the Fresh-Water Fishes are from her hand. Throughout the summer, notwithstanding the trouble in his eyes, Agassiz had been still pressing on these works. His two artists, Mr. Dinkel and Mr. Weber, the former in Paris, the latter in Neuchatel, were constantly busy on his plates.

Although Agassiz was at this time only twenty-six years of age, his correspondence already shows that the interest of scientific men, all over Europe, was attracted to him and to his work. From investigators of note in his own country, from those of France, Italy, and Germany, from England, and even from America, the distant El Dorado of naturalists in those days, came offers of cooperation, [231] accompanied by fossil fishes or by the drawings of rare or unique specimens. He was known in all the museums of Europe as an indefatigable worker and collector, seeking everywhere materials for comparison.

Among the letters of this date is one from Charpentier, one of the pioneers of glacial investigation, under whose auspices, two years later, Agassiz began his inquiries into glacial phenomena. He writes him from the neighborhood of Bex, his home in the valley of the Rhone, the classic land of glacial work; but he writes of Agassiz's special subjects, inviting him to come and see such fossils as were to be found in his neighborhood, and to investigate certain phenomena of upheaval and of plutonic action in the same region, little dreaming that the young zoologist was presently to join him in his own chosen field of research.

Agassiz now began also to receive pressing invitations from the English naturalists, from Buckland, Lyell, Murchison, and others, to visit England, and examine their wonderful collections of fossil remains. [232]

From Professor Buckland to Agassiz.

Oxford, December 25, 1833.
. . . I should very much like to put into your hands what few materials I possess in the Oxford Museum relating to fossil fishes, and am also desirous that you should see the fossil fish in the various provincial museums of England, as well as in London. Sir Philip Egerton has a very large collection of fishes from Engi and Oeningen, which he wishes to place at your disposition. Like myself, he would willingly send you drawings, but drawings made without knowledge of the anatomical details which you require, cannot well represent what the artist himself does not perceive. I would willingly lend you my specimens, if I could secure them against the barbarous hands of the custom-house officials. What I would propose to you as a means of seeing all the collections of England, and gaining at the same time additional subscriptions for your work, is, that you should come to England and attend the British Association for the Advancement of Science in September next. There you will meet all the naturalists of England, and I do not doubt that among them you will find a good many [233] subscribers. You will likewise see a new mine of fossil fishes in the clayey schist of the coal formation at Newhaven, on the banks of the Forth, near Edinburgh. You can also make arrangements to visit the museums of York, Whitby, Scarborough, and Leeds, as well as the museum of Sir Philip Egerton, on your way to and from Edinburgh. You may, likewise, visit the museums of London, Cambridge, and Oxford; everywhere there are fossil fishes; and traveling by coach in England is so rapid, easy, and cheap, that in six weeks or less you can accomplish all that I have proposed. As I seriously hope that you will come to England for the months of August and September, I say nothing at present of any other means of putting into your hands the drawings or specimens of our English fossil fishes. I forgot to mention the very rich collection of fossil fishes in the Museum of Mr. Mantell, at Brighton, where, I think, you could take the weekly steam-packet for Rotterdam as easily as in London, and thus arrive in Neuchatel from London in a very few days. . . .


Agassiz to Professor Buckland.

. . . I thank you most warmly for the very important information you have so kindly given me respecting the rich collections of England; I will, if possible, make arrangements to visit them this year, and in that case I will beg you to let me have a few letters of recommendation to facilitate my examination of them in detail. Not that I question for a moment the liberality of the English naturalists. All the continental savants who have visited your museums have praised the kindness shown in intrusting to them the rarest objects, and I well know that the English rival other nations in this respect, and even leave them far behind. But one must have merited such favors by scientific labors; to a beginner they are always a free gift, wholly undeserved. . . .

A few months later Agassiz received a very gratifying and substantial mark of the interest felt by English naturalists in his work.

Charles Lyell to Louis Agassiz.

Somerset house, London, February 4, 1834.
. . It is with the greatest pleasure that I announce to you good news. The Geological [235] Society of London desires me to inform you that it has this year conferred upon you the prize bequeathed by Dr. Wollaston. He has given us the sum of one thousand pounds sterling, begging us to expend the interest, or about seven hundred and fifty francs every year, for the encouragement of the science of geology. Your work on fishes has been considered by the Council and the officers of the Geological Society worthy of this prize, Dr. Wollaston having said that it could be given for unfinished works. The sum of thirty guineas, or £ 31 10s. sterling, has been placed in my hands, but I would not send you the money before knowing exactly where you were and learning from you where you wish it to be paid. You will probably like an order on some Swiss banker.

I cannot yet give you the extract from the address of the President in which your work is mentioned, but I shall have it soon. In the mean time I am desired to tell you that the Society declines to receive your magnificent work as a gift, but wishes to subscribe for it, and has already ordered a copy from the publishers. . . .


Agassiz to Lyell.

Neuchatel, March 25, 1834.
. . .You cannot imagine the joy your letter has given me. The prize awarded to me is at once so unexpected an honor and so welcome an aid that I could hardly believe my eyes when, with tears of relief and gratitude, I read your letter. In the presence of a savant, I need not be ashamed of my penury, since I have spent the little I had, wholly in scientific researches. I do not, therefore, hesitate to confess to you that at no time could your gift have given me greater pleasure. Generous friends have helped me to bring out the first number of my ‘Fossil Fishes;’ the plates of the second are finished, but I was greatly embarrassed to know how to print a sufficient number of copies before the returns from the first should be paid in. The text is ready also, so that now, in a fortnight, I can begin the distribution, and, the rotation once established, I hope that preceding numbers will always enable me to publish the next in succession without interruption. I even count upon this resource as affording me the means of making a journey to England before long. If no obstacle arises I hope to accomplish this [237] during the coming summer, and to be present at the next meeting of the English naturalists.

I do not live the less happily on account of my anxieties, but I am sometimes obliged to work more than I well can, or ought in reason to do. . . . The second number of my ‘Fossil Fishes’ contains the beginning of the anatomy of the fishes, but only such portions as are to be found in the fossil state. I have begun with the scales; later, I treat of the bones and the teeth. Then comes the continuation of the description of the Ganoids and the Scomberoids, and an additional sheet contains a sketch of my ichthyological classification. The plates are even more successful than those of the first number. If all goes well the third number will appear next July. I long to visit your rich collections; I hope that whenever it becomes possible for me to do so, I shall have the good fortune to find you in London. . . .

I have thought a letter addressed to the President of the Society in particular, and to the members in general, would be fitting. Will you have the kindness to deliver it for me to Mr. Murchison?


The first number of the ‘Fossil Fishes’ had already appeared, and had been greeted with enthusiasm by scientific men. Elie de Beaumont writes Agassiz in June, 1834: ‘I have read with great pleasure your first number; it promises us a work as important for science as it is remarkable in execution. Do not let yourself be discouraged by obstacles of any kind; they will give way before the concert of approbation which so excellent a work will awaken. I shall always be glad to aid in overcoming any one of them.’

Perhaps it is as well to give here a slight sketch of this work, the execution of which was carried on during the next ten years (1833-1843). The inscription tells, in few words, the author's reverence for Humboldt and his personal gratitude to him. ‘These pages owe to you their existence; accept their dedication.’ The title gives in a broad outline the comprehensive purpose of the work:

‘Researches on the Fossil Fishes: comprising an Introduction to the Study of these Animals; the Comparative Anatomy of Organic Systems which may contribute to facilitate the Determination of Fossil Species; a New Classification of Fishes expressing their Relations to the Series of Formations; the Explanation of [239] the Laws of their Succession and Development during all the Changes of the Terrestrial Globe, accompanied by General Geological Considerations; finally, the Description of about a thousand Species which no longer exist, and whose Characters have been restored from Remains contained in the Strata of the Earth.’

The most novel results comprised in this work were: first, the remodeling of the classification of the whole type of fishes, fossil and living, and especially the separation of the Ganoids from all other fishes, under the rank of a distinct order; second, the recognition of those combinations of reptilian and birdlike characters in the earlier geological fishes, which led the author to call them prophetic types; and third, his discovery of an analogy between the embryological phases of the higher present fishes and the gradual introduction of the whole type on earth, the series in growth and the series in time revealing a certain mutual correspondence. As these comprehensive laws have thrown light upon other types of the animal kingdom beside that of fishes, their discovery may be said to have advanced general zoology as well as ichthyology. [240]

The Introduction presents, as it were, the prelude to this vast chapter of natural history in the simultaneous appearance of the four great types of the animal kingdom: Radiates, Mollusks, Articulates, and Vertebrates. Then comes the orderly development of the class by which the vertebrate plan was first expressed, namely, the fishes. Underlying all its divisions and subdivisions, is the average expression of the type in the past and present; the Placoids and Ganoids, with their combination of reptilian and fishlike features, characterizing the earlier geological epochs, while in the later the simple bony fishes, the Cycloids and Ctenoids, take the ascendency. Here, for the first time, Agassiz presents his ‘synthetic or prophetic types,’ namely, early types embracing, as it were, in one large outline, features afterward individualized in special groups, and never again reunited. No less striking than these general views of structural relations are the clearness and simplicity with which the distribution of the whole class of fishes in relation to the geological formations, or, in other words, to the physical history of the earth, is shown. In reading this introductory chapter, one familiar with Agassiz as a public teacher will almost hear his voice marshaling the long [241] procession of living beings, as he was wont to do, in their gradual introduction upon the earth. Indeed, his whole future work in ichthyology, and one might almost say in general zoology, was here sketched.

The technicalities of this work, at once so comprehensive in its combinations and so minute in its details, could interest only the professional reader, but its generalizations may well have a certain attraction for every thoughtful mind. It treats of the relations, anatomical, zoological, and geological, between the whole class of fishes, fossil and living, illustrated by numerous plates, while additional light is thrown on the whole by the revelations of embryology.

‘Notwithstanding these striking differences,’ says the author in the opening of the fifth chapter on the relations of fishes in general, ‘it is none the less evident to the attentive observer that one single idea has presided over the development of the whole class, and that all the deviations lead back to a primary plan, so that even if the thread seem broken in the present creation, one can reunite it on reaching the domain of fossil ichthyology.’6

Having shown how the present creation has [242] given him the key to past creations, how the complete skeleton of the living fishes has explained the scattered fragments of the ancient ones, especially those of which the soft cartilaginous structure was liable to decay, he presents two modes of studying the type as a whole; either in its comparative anatomy, including in the comparison the whole history of the type, fossil and living, or in its comparative embryology. ‘The results,’ he adds, ‘of these two methods of study complete and control each other.’ In all his subsequent researches indeed, the history of the individual in its successive phases went hand in hand with the history of the type. He constantly tested his zoological results by his embryological investigations.

After a careful description of the dorsal chord in its embryological development, he shows that a certain parallelism exists between the comparative degrees of development of the vertebral column in the different groups of fishes, and the phases of its embryonic development in the higher fishes. Farther on he shows a like coincidence between the development of the system of fins in the different groups of fishes, and the gradual growth and differentiation of the fins in the embryo of the [243] higher living fishes.7 ‘There is, then,’ he concludes, ‘as we have said above, a certain analogy, or rather a certain parallelism, to be established between the embryological development of the Cycloids and Ctenoids, and the genetic or paleontological development of the whole class. Considered from this point of view, no one will dispute that the form of the caudal fin is of high importance for zoological and paleontological considerations, since it shows that the same thought, the same plan, which presides to-day over the formation of the embryo, is also manifested in the successive development of the numerous creation which have formerly peopled the earth.’ Agassiz says himself in his Preface: ‘I have succeeded in expressing the laws of succession and of the organic development of fishes during all geological epochs; and science may henceforth, in seeing the changes of this class from formation to formation, follow the progress of organization in one great division of the animal kingdom, through a complete series of the ages of the earth.’ This is not inconsistent with his position as the leading opponent of the development or Darwinian [244] theories. To him, development meant development of plan as expressed in structure, not the change of one structure into another. To his apprehension the change was based upon intellectual, not upon material causes. He sums up his own conviction with reference to this question as follows:

Such facts proclaim aloud principles not yet discussed in science, but which paleontological researches place before the eyes of the observer with an ever-increasing persistency. I speak of the relations of the creation with the creator. Phenomena closely allied in the order of their succession, and yet without sufficient cause in themselves for their appearance; an infinite diversity of species without any common material bond, so grouping themselves as to present the most admirable progressive development to which our own species is linked,— are these not incontestable proofs of the existence of a superior intelligence whose power alone could have established such an order of things? . . .

More than fifteen hundred species of fossil fishes, which I have learned to know, tell me that species do not pass insensibly one into [245] another, but that they appear and disappear unexpectedly, without direct relations with their precursors; for I think no one will seriously pretend that the numerous types of Cycloids and Ctenoids, almost all of which are contemporaneous with one another, have descended from the Placoids and Ganoids. As well might one affirm that the Mammalia, and man with them, have descended directly from fishes. All these species have a fixed epoch of appearance and disappearance; their existence is even limited to an appointed time. And yet they present, as a whole, numerous affinities more or less close, a definite coordination in a given system of organization which has intimate relations with the mode of existence of each type, and even of each species. An invisible thread unwinds itself throughout all time, across this immense diversity, and presents to us as a definite result, a continual progress in the development of which man is the term, of which the four classes of vertebrates are intermediate forms, and the totality of invertebrate animals the constant accessory accompaniment.

Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles, vol. i. chapter VI. pp. 171, 172. Essay on the classification of fishes.

The difficulty of carrying out comparisons so rigorous and extensive as were needed in order to reconstruct the organic relations between [246] the fossil fishes of all geological formations and those of the present world, is best told by the author.8 ‘Possessing no fossil fishes myself, and renouncing forever the acquisition of collections so precious, I have been forced to seek the materials for my work in all the collections of Europe containing such remains; I have, therefore, made frequent journeys in Germany, in France, and in England, in order to examine, describe, and illustrate the objects of my researches. But notwithstanding the cordiality with which even the most precious specimens have been placed at my disposition, a serious inconvenience has resulted from this mode of working, namely, that I have rarely been able to compare directly the various specimens of the same species from different collections, and that I have often been obliged to make my identification from memory, or from simple notes, or, in the more fortunate cases, from my drawings only. It is impossible to imagine the fatigue, the exhaustion of all the faculties, involved in such a method. The hurry of traveling, joined to the lack of the most ordinary facilities for observation, has not rendered my task more [247] easy. I therefore claim indulgence for such of my identifications as a later examination, made at leisure, may modify, and for descriptions which sometimes bear the stamp of the precipitation with which they have been prepared.’

It was, perhaps, this experience of Agassiz's earlier life which made him so anxious to establish a museum of comparative zoology in this country,—a museum so abundant and comprehensive in material, that the student should not only find all classes of the animal kingdom represented within its walls, but preserved also in such numbers as to allow the sacrifice of many specimens for purposes of comparison and study. He was resolved that no student should stand there baffled at the door of knowledge, as he had often done himself, when shown the one precious specimen, which could not be removed, or even examined on the spot, because unique.

1 Societe des Sciences Naturelles de Neuchatel.

2 His collection was finally purchased by the city of Neuchatel in the spring of 1833.

3 The few words which called forth this protest from Humboldt were as follows. After naming all those from whom he had received help in specimens or otherwise, Agassiz concludes:—

‘Finally, I owe to M. de Humboldt not only important notes on fossil fishes, but so many kindnesses in connection with my work that in enumerating them I should fear to wound the delicacy of the giver.’ This will hardly seem an exaggeration to those who know the facts of the case.

4 At the head there must be ‘Allerdurchlauchtigster, grossmiachtigster Konig,—allergnadigster Konig und Herr.’ Then you begin, ‘Euer koniglichen Majestat, wage ich meinen lebhaftesten Dank fur die allergnadigst bewilligte Unterstutzung zum Ankauf meiner Sammlung fur das Gymnasium in Neuchatel tief gerulhrt allerunterthanigst zu Fussen zu legen. Wusste ich zu schreiben,’ etc. The rest of your letter was very good,—put only, ‘so vieler Guade zu entsprechen’ instead of ‘so vieler Gute.’ You should end with the words, ‘Ich ersterbe in tiefster Ehrfurcht Euer Koniglicher Majestat aller unter thanigsten getreuester.’ The whole on small folio, sealed, addressed outside, ‘An des Konig's Majestat, Berlin.’

These forms are no longer in use. They belong to a past generation.

5 It may not be known to all readers that Neuchatel was then under Prussian sovereignty.

6 Vol. i. chapter v. pp. 92, 93.

7 Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles, vol. i. chapter v. p. 102.

8 Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles, vol. i. Addition à la Preface.

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