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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

AGASSIZ.

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

LOUIS JOHN RUDOLPH AGASSIZ died Sunday evening, December 14, 1873, and there is no one in this country whose death will be more deeply mourned, either as that of a private citizen or of a man of science. Professor Agassiz, of Huguenot descent, was born in the parish of Mottier, near Lake Neufchatel, Switzerland, on May 28, 1807. His lineal ancestors, for six generations, were clergymen; his mother was the daughter of a physician, and to her his early education is due. While quite young he evinced a taste for scientific study, which he developed by attending the College of Lausanne, and the famous Medical School at Zurich, and afterward the Universities of Heidelberg and Munich, where his teachers were such men as Tiedmann, Bischoff Leuckart, Schelling, Oken, Dollinger, Martius, and others of equal celebrity. At Munich he received the degree of M. D., at the age of nineteen, and in the same year the degree of Ph. D., at Erlangen. After the return of a scientific expedition to Brazil he was called upon by Martius to assist in compiling for publication the discoveries relating to fishes, and to write the descriptions for the plates which this work contains. This was his first book. It appeared in 1829. The thorough manner in which he completed the task allotted him placed him at once among the leading naturalists of the day. In 1832 he was honored with a professorship in the College of Neufchatel. His first great work was published in 1839, entitled "Natural History of the Fresh-Water Fishes of Central Europe," and at the same time "Researches concerning Fossil Fishes" came out. On these works his reputation was securely established. It was while gathering information for them that he became acquainted with Cuvier, whose teachings had great influence over him, and also with Humboldt, to whose apartments he was always welcome, and to whose library he had free access. He greatly profited by this privilege, as his own store of books was but a scanty one.

In 1846 Agassiz came to the United States, sent by Prussia on a scientific expedition, but, obtaining a dismissal, he determined to remain. Shortly after he became a professor in the Lawrence Scientific School, and up to the time of his death, with the exception of two years during which he was associated with a medical college at Charleston, S. C., has been connected with Harvard. To describe Professor Agassiz's scientific labors since his arrival in this country is wellnigh impossible: he was always ready to lecture, sent valuable contributions to magazines, read instructive papers before scientific associations, was busy in the laboratory, observed and tried to solve the secrets of nature, gathered an immense store of specimens, undertook the publication of works requiring an almost incredible amount of labor for completion, and, in short, attempted more work than ten ordinary men could accomplish. Among his published works may be mentioned "Twelve Lectures on Comparative Embryology," "Systeme Glaceale," "Lake Superior," "The Structure of Animal Life," "A Journey to Brazil," "Methods of Study in Natural History," "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States," - of which but four volumes have appeared, published in monographic form, - and others which want of space prevents us from mentioning. To accomplish all this, extensive journeys had to be undertaken, and Professor Agassiz travelled throughout the length and breadth of the United States, until he became almost as familiar with their broad expanse of country as the husbandman with the few acres which he tills. Through all this great activity he ever kept in view the one object to which his efforts were directed: it was his earnest wish to gather specimens for a natural history of his adopted country, and to present them in classified form; this desire ultimately gave rise to the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

For a long time he worked alone, and alone bore the expense of collecting his materials, storing them at different places, of which the cellar of Harvard Hall was one. They were finally purchased by private subscription for the College, $12,000 being paid for them. Additions were made to this nucleus, until it finally assumed such proportions as warranted the further execution of his plan. In 1858 financial measures were first taken to establish the present Museum. Agassiz's untiring efforts to carry out his plan forced from the public an acknowledgment of the worth of that plan, and while others gave with a liberal hand, his own gift, his time and genius, was the one without which the Museum would never have been built. He lived to see his wishes consummated and to feel a just pride in knowing that no place could be found in Europe which afforded better facilities for gaining a knowledge of the animal kingdom than the institution of which he was the founder. Here he had brought together an able and a large corps of coworkers, who carried into the prosecution of their work that enthusiasm which he, above all others, could inspire. All, young and old, loved him as a child loves a father, and the tearful eyes of some, the sad faces of all, which the announcement of his death caused, as they were assembling Monday morning to begin their week's work, only faintly indicated the grief felt at the removal of the sustaining hand.

The establishment of the Natural History School at Penikese is due to Agassiz; it was to be an auxiliary of the Museum, and was founded for the purpose of enabling students to come into closer contact with Nature, and thus to make more critical observations of her works. Though hardly a year old, it can already be pronounced a success. When the students at this school for the first time came together in the lecture-room, there was a spirit of fault-finding prevalent among them, in consequence of the not over-sumptuous accommodations, but when they had listened to the introductory remarks of the Professor, made with his characteristic earnestness, discontent was turned into content, and all set cheerfully about their work, feeling that none ought to murmur since he who might did not. What the future of this school will be cannot be foretold; a great many have applied for admission to next summer's course, and the number to whom this privilege can be granted is, with the exception of two or three places, already filled.

At the time of his death Professor Agassiz was engaged in arranging and classifying the material of the Hassler trip, and hoped soon to state its scientific value; was carefully studying the Selachians, which work will probably now have to cease; and was also investigating the Echinoderms. It is believed that these investigations will be carried on by his son, Alexander Agassiz. He had made large collections of eggs for the purpose of examining the embryological growth of birds. It was his intention during the present winter to publish a text-book for the use of the undergraduates who take Natural History as an elective; this book was to contain simply a description of animals, leaving the student to draw his own inferences from their organization. He had, withal, contemplated writing a work which should show the affinities existing between the various animals of natural history.

It seems to have been a matter of surprise to some that Professor Agassiz, since he was an uncompromising opponent of Darwinism, did not produce a work in refutation of the theory of evolution. He had arranged with the publishers of the Atlantic Monthly for a series of articles on this subject, the first of which appears in the next number. A second, fortunately, has been dictated and taken down, but not finally revised; it will probably, however, be published. Perhaps he entered upon this work rather reluctantly, inasmuch as he always had held that a better understanding of nature, a closer investigation of the facts upon which the theory is based, would make many renounce it, and therefore has, with this point in view, pursued the policy of increasing our knowledge of nature, - believing that a more enlightened intelligence would set aright distorted facts.

The death of a man of science is a great loss at any time; that of Agassiz, just at the present, particularly so. Preferring to see for himself, rather than accept the statements of others, he spent much time in critical observation, and was preparing to record the results of his extensive researches for the benefit of the world. He felt this to be his solemn duty, and asserted the same recently in one of his lectures, and also remarked, that, although willing and ready to give information to any asking it, he yet desired that his time should not be taken up by senseless questionings. Overwork was perhaps the cause of his death. After his last lecture at Fitchburg he seemed completely exhausted, and wrote to discontinue some of his engagements; but he did not adopt this measure soon enough to give his system the rest it needed.

It seems that he could not endure inactivity, and when relieved of labor in one direction, at once imposed upon himself severer tasks in another. Instead of taking any part of that repose which declining years demand, he entered upon even greater undertakings than before.

The anxious fears entertained during his illness for his recovery were only too sadly confirmed by his death, intelligence of which was first conveyed to the students by the touching words which fell from the lips of our Chaplain. The depression of spirits which has overspread society in consequence of this event comes with peculiar force upon the College with which he was connected. It needs an eloquent pen to pay a fitting tribute to Agassiz, and it is impossible in these moments of general grief to assign him the place among the world's great naturalists which the future will give him. The last sad rites have been paid, and there is a vacancy to be filled in the halls of science. To Agassiz descended the mantle of Cuvier, and on whom will it now fall?

R. A. S.

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