cover image Louis Agassiz: 
Creator of American Science

Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

Christoph Irmscher. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35 (448p) ISBN 978-0-547-57767-8

Agassiz (1807–1873), a defining force in American science in the 19th century, was a complex man, as Irmscher demonstrates in this new biography: he was a brilliant scientist who rejected evolution, a man who valued friendship but abandoned his first wife. In Irmscher’s hands, Agassiz’s life and passions are embedded in the major intellectual ideas of his time, not only evolution but also the fight over abolition (he was an “incorrigible racist”). But Agassiz, from his position at Harvard, helped move the scientific enterprise toward reliance upon data and empirical observation. The methods he espoused remain important today even though his theories were outdated in his own time. Irmscher, an English professor at Indiana University (Longfellow Redux), sees Agassiz’s life as a cautionary tale: Agassiz lost objectivity as he permitted his own opinions to overshadow the data he loved so much. His attacks on Darwin and on racial equality often ran counter to basic scientific observations and led to his increasing marginalization later in life. The relationship between Agassiz and his second wife, Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, the first president of Radcliffe College, is also fascinating and illuminates the strength of one woman and the expanding opportunities for women in general in American society. Illus. (Feb.)