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Agassiz continued to find evidence for his ice age hypothesis when he traveled to North America in 1846. He was welcomed warmly in America, and was soon put in charge of building the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, where he also assumed a professorship (Duffin, 2007). The museum opened in 1860, and had the distinction of being the first publicly funded museum of science in North America (Berkeley). Agassiz worked tirelessly to promote scientific education in the United States. In 1863, he was a founding member of the new National Academy of Sciences, and in the same year was appointed a regent of the Smithsonian Institution (Ibid.).
In 1873, just a few months before his death, Agassiz founded the first American marine biology laboratory on the island of Penikese in Massachusetts. The primary goal of the laboratory was two-fold: to be a venue for new research, and, more importantly to Agassiz, to teach methods of observation in natural history to secondary school teachers, ensuring the further dissemination and proliferation of this relatively young field (Benson, 1988). Agassiz endowed the project with his own passion and his own education philosophy, stenciling the door of the main laboratory with his own motto: "Study nature, not books" (Ibid.).
His sudden death doomed the project, which lasted only one year before closing. However, Agassiz's lab at Penikese is largely considered the "spiritual father" of the famous Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, which is now the premier marine laboratory in North America (Zirkle, 1946). The Penikese laboratory was the first institution in the Americas founded for the sole purpose of study marine biology in its natural habitat (Benson, 1988). In this sense, Agassiz can be considered the father not only of the natural history approach to marine biology, but also of marine biology education in the United States.
When he died in 1874, Agassiz was widely respected as a scientist, writer, and educator, and he continues to be to this day. However, there was one blemish in his legacy that has stymied his full acceptance into popular culture in the United States. Agassiz's whole-hearted commitment to the theory of special creation made him a lead dissenter in the debates about evolution in the mid and late 19th century. His theories had profound implications for racial theory and politics. Because he did not believe in the shared source of all species, Agassiz maintained that blacks and whites had been created separately, and were in fact separate species. Though Agassiz deplored the state of slaves in the United States, his reasoning was immediately adopted and referenced by the leaders of the pro-slavery argument in the South (Duffin, 2007). Despite rising popular opinion and scientific evidence against Agassiz's conclusion, he maintained his beliefs on the matter until his death.
Despite the eventual debunking of Agassiz's racial theories, and despite the social stigma his current reputation carries because of these theories, Agassiz did a tremendous amount both for the advancement of scientific knowledge and the promotion of scientific education, both in the United States and in Europe. His theory of the Ice Age alone makes him a giant in the world of 19th century scientific thought, but his vast collection and analysis of marine species also qualifies him to be rightly described as the father of modern marine biology. His legacy was continued through his second wife, Elizabeth, who was committed to the education of women and helped to found Radcliffe College, and through his son Alexander, who embarked on an extensive study of ocean marine life in the HMS Challenger expedition and later made important inroads in the field of systematic zoology (Berkeley).
Though he is not often recognized in popular culture for his achievements, Louis Agassiz is inarguably one of the most influential and prolific contributors to American science in the 19th century. Marine biology, paleontology, geology, zoology, and science education would look decidedly different without his passionate devotion to detailed observation, exhaustive categorization, and engaging teaching. Because of his legacy, America is now poised at the forefront of scientific research in marine biology, and we could learn much about how to promote excitement for science in our students by looking at his example.
Benson, K. (1988). "Laboratories on the New England Shore: the "somewhat different direction" of American marine biology." The New England Quarterly, 61(1), 55-78.
Duffin, C. (2007). "Louis Agassiz (1807-1873): a passion for fishes." Geology Today, 23(4), 133-142.
Levin, H. (2010).…[continue]
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