Louis Agassiz (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: Agassiz created an awareness of the importance of the study of natural history in the United States with his founding of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. He was an early pioneer in making scientific studies an integral part of the curriculum at American colleges and universities.
Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born May 28, 1807, in Motier-en-Vuly, Canton Fribourg, Switzerland. The son of a Protestant clergyman, Agassiz was one of four children. At the age of ten, Agassiz was sent to school at Bienne, where he spent much of his time observing freshwater fish, which fascinated him. In 1822, he entered the Academy of Lausanne. Upon graduation, out of deference to his parents, he enrolled in the school of medicine at the University of Zurich. After two years of studies in medicine, he enrolled in the University of Heidelberg, where he developed a special interest in natural history. The following year, he transferred to the University of Munich to study under Ignaz von Döllinger, a pioneer embryologist whom Agassiz credited as the source of his scientific training.
In 1829, he received a doctorate in philosophy at Erlanger and returned to Munich to complete his studies in medicine. The following year, he received a doctorate in medicine and thereafter never examined a patient; his mind was set on pursuing studies in ichthyology, paleontology, and glacial...
(The entire section is 2489 words.)
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Agassiz, Louis (1807-1873) (World of Earth Science)
Swiss-born American naturalist
Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in Motieren-Vuly, Switzerland, and grew up appreciating the beauty of the Swiss Alps. Agassiz's childhood was supervised by his minister father, who believed that supernatural powers created all natural wonders. Agassiz followed his family's wishes and pursued a degree in medicine. After attending the universities in Munich and Heidelberg, Germany, and Zurich, Switzerland, he eventually earned his Ph.D. in 1829.
Upon his graduation from the University of Munich, Agassiz published a monograph on the fish of Brazil that sparked the attention of the noted French anatomist Georges Cuvier. Although he possessed a strong interest in zoology, Agassiz went on to earn a medical degree. In 1832, he went to Paris to serve as an apprentice to Cuvier during that renowned scientist's last years.
Agassiz then accepted his first professional position as a professor of natural history at Neuchatel in Switzerland. For his first project, he published a five-volume work on fossil fish. This work helped establish his reputation as a naturalist and earned him the Wollaston Prize.
Agassiz then shifted his attention to the study of glaciers. Among many others, Agassiz was fascinated with the extreme heights of the Alps and the occasional sight of huge boulders that were thought to have been created by glacial movement. He spent his vacations in 1836 and 1837 exploring the glacial formations of Switzerland and compared them with the geology of England and central Europe.
The question of whether or not glaciers moved intrigued Agassiz, who discovered the answer in 1839 at a cabin that had been built on a glacier approximately 10 years earlier. In one decade it had moved nearly 1 mi (1.6 km) down the glacier from its original site. In a unique experiment, Agassiz drove a straight line of stakes deeply into the ice across the glacierhill and then observed their movement. After moving, the stakes formed a U shape as middle stakes had moved more quickly than the side ones. Agassiz concluded that the center stakes moved faster since the glacier was held back at the edges by friction with the mountain wall.
This experiment demonstrated not only that glacier moved, but that many thousands of years before massive ice blocks had probably moved across a great deal of the European land masses that now lacked the massive ice formations. The resulting conclusions led to the term Ice Age, which purported that glacial movement is responsible for modern geological configurations. One of the most significant developments that came out of his observations resulted when his discovery helped provide answers to studies pursued by such naturalists as Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell. These two men concluded that glaciation was a primary mechanism in causing the geographical distribution and apparent similarities of flora and fauna that were otherwise inexplicably separated by land and water masses. Despite the evidence with which he was presented, Agassiz's background prevented him from agreeing with such conclusions, and he continued to believe that supernatural forces were responsible for the similarities.
See also Glacial landforms; Ice ages