Reflex, Februar 2008

Louis Agassiz

BY GENEVIÈVE GRIMM-GOBAT

The bicentennial of his birth was an occasion not only to celebrate the founder of glaciology but to defrost some of the less attractive aspects of his personality.


What if the erratic boulders in the Jura and on the northern plateau of Switzerland were not carried there by floods but by glaciers? At the beginning of the 19th century it required a certain chutzpah to put forward such a hypothesis. Louis Agassiz, the son of a pastor, did just that. Agassiz first exposed his glacial theory to the annual meeting of the Swiss Society for Natural Science in Neuchâtel in July 1837, and it was received with a lot of opposition. The theory contradicted the conventional wisdom of the time, which was that the earth had a warmer climate during ancient geological periods. Taking as his slogan, “nature should be our only instruction book,” Agassiz sought scientific proof. He set up an interdisciplinary team on the medial moraine of the Aar glacier near the Grimsel Pass, under an enormous block of schist. The bivouac was baptized, “The hotel of the men from Neuchâtel”.

After many stays in this location, full of observations and discoveries, Agassiz felt he had enough to support his argument. In 1840 he published his “Study of Glaciers,” the book that gave birth to the science of glaciology, together with the first scientific glacier maps. He won international renown and in 1846 left Switzerland, his wife, his three children and his debts, to accept a chair at Harvard University. The man of science was also a big spender, a socialite, a seducer and religious.

Convinced that God had recreated life after each glacial period, he began criticizing Darwin’s theory of evolution just as soon as he had set foot in the New World, setting out a view that would inspire contemporary creationism. He also tried to give “scientific” backing to the institution of slavery at a time when he had major influence on American public opinion. His second wife, Elisabeth Carry Agassiz, arranged for this part of his story to disappear from his official biography. Now it is being told. On the bicentenary of his birth, light was thrown on the dark side of his character. In Switzerland, militants tried to have the Agassizhorn (3953 m) renamed after Renty, a slave whom Louis Agassiz had photographed to provide “science evidence” of the inferiority of the black race. They failed. In the U.S., several teaching institutions and public places that bore his name, most of them in Massachusetts, changed it to avoid sullying their reputations.

The Swiss scientist died on December 14, 1873, and his remains lie beneath a block of granite brought to Cambridge from the Aar glacier.