Louis Agassiz

1807 - 1873

Louis Agassiz
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Louis Agassiz

Geologist and zoologist. Agassiz was born in Switzerland and educated at the Universities of Zurich, Erlangen, Heidelberg, and Munich, qualifying in medicine from the latter institution. Agassiz practised medicine briefly, but within a year he travelled to Paris, where he was able to undertake research in palaeontology (1831). This led to his appointment to the Chair of Natural History at the University of Neuchatel (1832), where he was able to continue his work on fossil fishes and also study glaciers and their deposits. His work 'Etudes sur les Glaciers' (1840) established the science of glaciology.

Agassiz was aware of the work of Hugh Miller (1802-56) on fossil fish and came to Scotland on two occasions. In Blackford Glen he was able to find the first evidence for the action of glaciers on the Scottish landscape (1840). Subsequently, he took a walking tour with eminent geologist William Buckland, and was able to find much further evidence. He visited Edinburgh and Glasgow, presenting papers on glaciation, but his suggestion that glaciers had once covered the country was thoroughly, although we now know erroneously, rejected.

In 1846, Agassiz travelled to the USA to give lectures on the recommendation of Charles Lyell (1767 - 1849), and was soon offered a Chair of Zoology and Geology at Harvard (1848). He remained in America, becoming a US citizen (1861), organising expeditions throughout the country and was one of the founders of the US National Academy of Science.

Despite his own evidence to the contrary, Agassiz opposed the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, believing instead that new species came about only through the intervention of God.

His son, Alexander, became a noted American oceanographer who also acquired interests in a successful copper mine and gave a substantial donation to Harvard University, where a Chair is named in his honour. Alexander also collaborated with Charles Wyville Thomson in the examination of specimens obtained during the Challenger Expedition of 1872-76.

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