Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) was a Swiss-born natural scientist, a professor of zoology and geology in the predecessor of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and a prominent supporter of racial segregation and white supremacy. Agassiz was educated and spent his early career in Western Europe (Irmscher, 2013, p. 41-84). He began his scientific career cataloguing fish fossils, work for which he would later win the Wollaston Medal, the proto-Nobel Prize (Irmscher, 2013, p. 82-83). He became the first prominent proponent1 of the concept of Ice Ages (repeated periods of wide-scale glaciations in Earth’s past) in the 1830s, a sensational idea that captured the attention of the scientific community and the larger public. This professional success was accompanied by accusations of plagiarism (Irmscher, 2013, p. 64-68, 79-80). To start anew, Agassiz leveraged personal connections to secure a short-term position in Boston (1846) and then a permanent professorship at Harvard (Irmscher, 2013, p. 80).
Though Agassiz is not remembered today as a titan of nineteenth-century science, he enjoyed great renown among his contemporaries, particularly the public at large.2 He spent much of his time and funds during his tenure at Harvard creating what would come to be known as the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), then known as Agassiz’s museum (Windsor, 1991). This museum was intended to (a) make science more accessible to the public by showcasing the diversity of nature and (b) display evidence for his theory on the origins of species (Windsor, 1991, 9-12). Agassiz’s scientific career dwindled in his later years as he held fast to beliefs incompatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution (Windsor, 1991, p. 37-65; Irmscher, 2013, p. 311-336).
Agassiz believed science could be used to justify racism and white supremacy. He was a prominent advocate for polygenism (Lurie, 1954; Gould, 1996, p. 74), the idea that “different human races had biologically distinct origins” (Irmscher, 2013, p. 227). Agassiz used polygenism to argue that Black people were part of an inferior race (Gould, 1996, p. 74-77; Irmscher, 2013, 220-245). Agassiz also attempted to classify human races like the biological specimens in his museum. He commissioned photographs of enslaved peoples (in the American South and Brazil) and people of African, indigenious South American, and mixed racial descent (in Brazil) as evidence—in his eyes—of the inferiority of non-white peoples and the dangers of interracial children (Machado, 2010; L. Agassiz & E. Agassiz, 1868, Appendix V).
Agassiz’s pseudoscientific work on race influenced the development of formalized segregation in the United States. Samuel Gridley Howe, a leader of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, sought Agassiz’s professional opinion for the commission’s report to Congress on the future of liberated Blacks after the Emancipation Proclamation (Gould, 1996, p. 79-82; Irmscher, 2013, p. 245-262; Strickland, 2019). While Agassiz thought of himself as a supporter of abolition (Wallis, 1995), he strongly and unabashedly advocated for segregation and advocated against mixed-race children and social equality between whites and Blacks; Agassiz justified his position via pseudoscientific studies (Gould, 1996, p. 79-82; Agassiz, 1863a; Agassiz, 1863b; Agassiz, 1863c). The arguments from Agassiz’s letters can be seen in the final report to Congress (Irmscher, 2013, p. 260-262), a document regarded as the “blueprint for Reconstruction'' (Strickland, 2019).
As an educator at a prominent university and as the most high-profile popularizer of science of his day, Agassiz had a significant platform from which to advocate his racist ideologies, both among his students and in the broader academic and political community. His public writings and lectures touched both on the scientific question of human origins and on socio-political questions of racial equality (e.g., Agassiz, 1850; lectures as discussed in Lurie, 1954). Notably, he was a close mentor of Nathaniel S. Shaler, who went on to continue Agassiz’s legacy of scientific racism into the late 19th century (e.g., Irmscher, 2013, p. 263-265).
Harvard is working to revise its portrayal of Agassiz’s legacy to accurately acknowledge his contribution to racist thought. The MCZ Faculty Curators voted to remove the “Agassiz Museum” from MCZ letterhead, the Agassiz name from the MCZ conference room, and the busts and portraits of Louis Agassiz from public view in the Ernst Mayr Library in fall 2020. MCZ also plans to collaborate with the campus initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery to highlight the views and impact of Louis Agassiz.
Despite these efforts, Agassiz’s legacy remains significant at Harvard. “Agassiz'' is engraved above the main entrance to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. In addition, there is a sign marking the location of the home of the first President of Radcliffe College, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz who was married to Louis Agassiz, that makes reference to both of their achievements without noting his contributions to scientific racism. Tamara Lanier, a woman identifying as a descendant of one of the enslaved peoples depicted in Agassiz’s photos, sued Harvard University for ownership of the images and punitive damages in March 2019 (Hartocollis, 2019); Lanier’s lawsuit was recently dismissed but is subject to ongoing appeals (Hartocollis, 2021).
Attempts to address Agassiz’s legacy continue beyond the Harvard community. The Cambridge Maria L. Baldwin School, originally named after Agassiz, was renamed in 2002 (Dorgan, 2002). The Cambridge City Council voted to rename a neighborhood named after Agassiz in February 2020 (Schumer & Xu, 2020). The European Geophysical Union renamed the Louis Agassiz Medal, established in 2005 to recognize outstanding scientific contribution to the study of the cryosphere, to the Julia and Johannes Weertman Medal (EGU News, 2019). Numerous landmarks remain named after Agassiz.
1Multiple lines of preserved evidence exist that suggest Agassiz was not the originator of the Ice Age hypothesis but merely the most effective populizer (Irmscher, 2013, p. 64-68, 77). Improperly crediting associates for ideas (i.e., plagiarism) was an accusation repeatedly made against Agassiz throughout his career by colleagues and students (Irmscher, 2013; Windsor, 1991, p. 47-65).
2For example, his death and ill health in the days leading up to it were front-page news for the New York Times and many other periodicals (Irmscher, 2013, p. 25, 36-37).
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