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Louis Agassiz and a brief history of early United States marine biology


Happy birthday, America, and happy Fourth of July to all of our readers! Today marks the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and many in the media are spending the day talking about life in the early United States. I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss an aspect of early American life that’s near and dear to my heart-  marine biology.

In today’s world, the United States of America is a leader in scientific advancement, but this wasn’t always the case. The story of early American science is a story of fascinating personalities, backroom political bargaining, triumph, and heartbreak. It is also a story about studying the oceans and the animals that live in them.



Agassiz at the museum of comparative zoology. Photo from Winsor


No story about early American science is complete without mentioning Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was a brilliant scientist from French Switzerland, and he moved to the United States in 1846. The significance of his arrival cannot be overstated- it is no accident the the leading History of U.S. Science textbook (The Launching of Modern American Science by Robert Bruce) starts the year that Agassiz moved here.

Agassiz is widely regarded as an all-around “naturalist”, and only a few histories mention that he dabbled in marine biology and ichthyology. This omission is startling, since Agassiz’s studies of fishes and coral reefs occupied much of his time and were the source of his fame. He should be known as a marine biologist who occasionally studied glaciers and geology rather than a general scientist who occasionally studied fishes.

One of Agassiz’s first jobs as a scientist, when he was still in Europe, was to describe fish specimens from a recent expedition to the Brazilian Amazon. His biographer and contemporary Jules Marcou said that this work earned him a reputation as “an Ichthyologist of the 1st rank, although he was only 22”. This job was the inspiration for Agassiz’s own expedition to the Amazon later in his life.

The work that truly launched Agassiz’s reputation was a massive, decade long survey on fossil fishes. The end result of this was “a masterful, five-volume work, Researches on the Fossil Fishes. It established him as a leading naturalist” (Bruce). For this research, he won the prestigious Wollaston medal at the age of 30- one of the youngest people to ever win this prize (Marcou). As a part of this project, he traveled all over Europe to study specimens in the field and in museums. One of the most productive of these trips was a visit to Britain, where the problem of fossil fish in the “Old Red Sandstone” formations had been vexing naturalists for many years. Agassiz resolved it in a few months.

In fact, “Agassiz’s three month visit in the British isles may be counted as his most successful period of happy and important discoveries… having first explained the complicated organization of the fossil flying-fishes of the old red sandstone” (Marcou).

This was a major accomplishment. Marcou believed that

“The ‘Monograph of the Fossil Fishes of the Old Red’ is more important for the embryological development, the zoological gradation… in the past and the present than ‘the Origin of Species’ by Darwin. It has remained, and will continue to remain, a landmark in zoological researches, because nothing in it is left to supposition. Instead of being a work of the imagination, a philosophical dissertation like ‘The Origin of Species’, it is simply a record of facts and very keen observations; and in science, and more especially in natural history, nothing is of value except exact observations”

Agassiz also had other marine biological research projects before he came to the United States. In 1839, he wrote a brief monograph on salmon that he later expanded into the extremely important 1845 “anatomie des salmonies” (Marcou). Also in 1845, he published:

“Monographie des myes” (clams), which was considered “an excellent and very useful work, containing a number of new, well defined genera, and which has since been used constantly in conchology” (Marcou).

In addition to fossil fishes, Agassiz was also considered an expert on fossil echinoderms. His work describing them, published in the late 1830’s, is considered to be :

“the starting point of all the publications on the echinoderms” (Marcou). Also, “The winter of 1839-1840 was employed in writing, besides the continuation of the fossil fishes… two monographs on the echinoderms, and on the Trigonia (bivalves)” (Marcou).

Once in the United States, Agassiz continued his studies of fishes and other denizens of our oceans and freshwater systems. In 1848, Agassiz embarked on an expedition to study Lake Superior and Niagara falls. The trip, and what he found there, had an enormous affect upon him. Marcou writes that

“The sight of so many zoological specimens, especially fishes, created in Agassiz an admiration and an enthusiasm difficult for anyone not a naturalist to realize, and from that moment he was resolute to consecrate the remainder of his life to the study of the natural history of the new world.” (Emphasis mine)

Agassiz so loved the ocean’s creatures that he kept a saltwater tank in his home. Whenever he had visitors (which was often) “he would take a fish or a big jellyfish and explain its way of swimming or its system of blood circulation” (Marcou).

Other than his studies of fossil fishes, Amazon river creatures, salmon, fishes from the Great Lakes, salmon, clams, coral reefs, and echinoderms, a marine biology influence can be detected in Louis Agassiz’s most famous books. His extremely influential “Essay on classification” is mostly about the “radiata”, starfish and jellyfish. His well known “Methods of Study of Natural History” has 41 illustrations, 39 of which are of marine organisms. He was also an early pioneer and passionate advocate of aquaculture.

Besides the dozens of animals named Agassizi, Louis is best remembered for founding the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. This was one of the most important scientific institutions in the United States, and MCZ graduates had a major influence on American science for decades after Louis’ death.  Even the MCZ showed Agassiz’s love of marine organisms. Every new student was given a “Baptism by fish” (Winsor). A student of his, Nathan Shaler, wrote that:

“Agassiz brought me a small fish, placing it before me with the rather stern requirement that I should study it, but should on no account talk to anyone concerning it, nor read anything relating to fishes, until I had his permission to do so” (Winsor).

Though he was a brilliant man, Agassiz was far from perfect. He was an incredibly arrogant man- the sort of man who would cross an ocean partially so  he could be considered the most famous scientist on a whole continent. He was also an ardent creationist who believed until his dying day that still-living versions of fossil trilobites could be found in the deep sea (which was part of the reason that he was an early and vocal proponent of deep sea dredging for biological specimens), and therefore that trilobites were not extinct as evolutionists claimed. He was also quite racist.

Bache and the U.S. Coast Survey

Louis Agassiz’s first job in the United States was to work for the U.S. Coast Survey. Then managed by Alexander Dallas Bache, the Coast Survey was supposed to map the harbors and waterways of the United States to facilitate commerce. Bache used it to create the first organized scientific community in the United States. He hired and trained biologists and oceanographers and set them to work, promoting strong professional scientific standards along the way. Few did as much to promote American science as Alexander Dallas Bache, and marine biology was a large part of this effort.  According to Schlee, “In the 24 years that Bache led the Survey, he made the organization into the largest, most powerful scientific agency within the government”.

Bache ordered his survey ships to take biological samples whenever possible, and those samples were freely distributed to any interested American scientist. He worked particularly closely with Agassiz, offering him “the freedom of the Coast Survey if he will stay among us” (Marcou). The two remained close friends throughout their lives.

In 1871, Agassiz boarded a Coast Survey ship known as the Hassler. Their mission was to dredge for deep sea organisms. Sadly, the dredge failed to work, and he died before he got a chance to look again. It was his last research effort, and like so many others, it was dedicated to finding out what animals live in the oceans.

There’s an interesting side note to the story of the Hassler. Many students of marine biology have heard  of the HMS Challenger’s 1873 cruise, which is popularly referred to as “the birth of oceanography”. British scientists had been trying to get funding for this important cruise for years, but they were unsuccessful until the British government heard about the Hassler cruise. The British scientists capitalized on nationalism and international jealousy, writing:

“Having shown other nations the way to the treasures of knowledge which lie his in the recesses of the ocean, we are falling from the van into the rear, and leaving our rivals to gather everything up. Is this creditable to the Power which claims to be Mistress of the Sea [Britain]?” (Schlee)

The Hassler expedition failed, but the British government didn’t know that at the time that they funded the Challenger expedition. Agassiz and the early American scientific community therefore deserves at least some of the credit for one of the most important marine science expeditions of all time. It might not have happened without them.

This Fourth of July, as you eat frankfurters and hamburgers (originally from Frankfurt and Hamburg, Germany) and set off fireworks (originally from China), I hope that you enjoy this great American story. An immigrant came to this country seeking a better life, and his life’s work revolutionized a field and has influenced the whole world for over a century.

Bruce, R. (1987). The Launching of Modern American Science: 1846-1876. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Jackson, J., & Kimler, W. (1999). Taxonomy and the personal equation: The historical fates of Charles Girard and Louis Agassiz Journal of the History of Biology, 32 (3), 509-555 DOI: 10.1023/A:1004784904703

Marcou, J. (1896). Life, Letters, and Works of Louis Agassiz. New York, MacMillan and Company.

Reingold, N. (1970). Alexander Dallas Bache: Science and Technology in the American Idiom Technology and Culture, 11 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3102881

Schlee, S. (1973). The Edge of an Unfamiliar World: A History of Oceanography. New York, EP Dutton and Company.

Slotten, H. (1994). Patronage, Practice, and the Culture of American Science: Alexander Dallas Bache and the U.S. Coast Survey. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Winsor, M. (1991). Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the AgassizMuseum. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.