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Natural history popularizer Elizabeth Agassiz, from "excellent Massachusetts stock, " spent most of her childhood in her grandfather Perkins's large house at Temple Place, Boston, where together with her siblings and cousins she grew up in a pleasant atmosphere of controlled confusion. It was her parents' custom to have a governess teach both the boys and the girls until they turned fourteen, at which point they went to school. Since Elizabeth's health was considered delicate, she was the one sibling who was never sent to school. She took home lessons in languages, drawing, and music.
In 1846 Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), professor at the University of Neuchâtel, arrived in Boston to study North American natural history. While he was in Boston, he presented a popular series of lectures at the Lowell Institute. One Sunday after church, Elizabeth's mother reputedly remarked to her daughter, "I should like to know who it was who sat in the Lowells' pew this morning, for he's the first person I ever saw whom I should like you to marry" (G119 31). This person was Louis Agassiz, who had a wife and children in Switzerland. Agassiz, however, immigrated to the United States and accepted the chair of natural history at the Lawrence Scientific School, a newly acquired branch of Harvard University. His wife died, and his three children remained in school in Europe. Elizabeth, meanwhile, had been introduced in Boston intellectual circle by her sister, Mary, who had married Cornelius C. Felton, professor of Greek at Harvard. It was through the Feltons that Elizabeth met Agassiz, whom she married in 1850.
Agassiz's children came to the United States, and a special relationship developed between them and their stepmother. She was particularly close to Alexander Agassiz (who was to become an eminent marine zoologist); he wrote after her death that "she was my mother, my sister, my companion and friend, all in one" (G3 441).
In order to take some of the financial pressure from her husband, Elizabeth Agassiz set up a school for girls in her Cambridge home in 1856. Louis became involved in this project, and the school was operated successfully until 1863, when Agassizs were able to abandon the venture. During this time Elizabeth, with no previous scientific training, began to take notes on her husband's lectures. After reading them, Louis Agassiz commented, "my dear, these are most gratefully expressed, but from the point of view of science they are such nonsense as I never uttered" (G119 50).
In April 1865 Elizabeth accompanied her husband on a trip to Brazil to study fauna of that region for the benefit of the fledgling Museum of Comparative Zoology (Agassiz Museum) at Harvard; the Agassizs remained in Brazil until August 1866. As self-appointed clerk of the expedition, Elizabeth kept a detailed journal, including anecdotes about their companions, one of whom was the youthful psychologist William James (1842-1910).
In 1871 Louis Agassiz formed an expedition for deep-sea dredging along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Americas. The voyage, aboard the Coast Survey vessel Hassler, began in December of that year and ended in August 1872. Again Elizabeth accompanied him and maid detailed notes. In 1873, in their last project together, Elizabeth aided Louis in the planning and administration of the coeducational Anderson School of Natural History, both a summer school and a marine laboratory, on Penikese Island in Buzzard's Bay (G30).
After Louis's death in 1873, Elizabeth Agassiz entered a different phase in her life. Her natural history days over, she spent her time caring for the stepsons Alexander's three children (his young wife had died eight days after Louis) and working on a biography of her husband. During the later years Elizabeth returned to her earlier interest in the education of girls and women. She was active in the establishment of Radcliffe College, serving as its first president (1894-1903). She suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1904 and died of a second one in 1907.
Although Elizabeth Agassiz's interest in science derived from her husband's, she was important in preserving, elucidating, and popularizing his ideas. Totally without scientific training, she received all her information from her association with Louis. Her first book, Actaea, a First Lesson in Natural History (1859, was prepared under his direction. Its revision, Seaside Studies, published in 1865 in collaboration with Alexander Agassiz, is a well-written textbook and field guide on marine zoology. In addition to drawings of specimens (made by Alexander) with descriptions and accounts of the animals' geographical distribution, the book includes information on the best mode of catching jellyfish, a consideration of the embryology of echinoderms, a discussion of the distribution of life in the ocean, and a general description of the radiates. Elizabeth's preface states that she has endeavored to supply "a want often expressed for some seaside book of popular character, describing the marine animals common to our shores."
From her diary of the journey to Brazil, Elizabeth produced a short account for the Atlantic Monthly (October and November 1869) and a long account, A Journey in Brazil, written in collaboration with Louis. Her record-keeping abilities were important again when she accompanied Louis on the Hassler Expedition. Louis Agassiz had theorized that the entire South America land mass had once been covered by a vast ice sheet. His idea of a continuous former glacial chain extending from south to north was supported by the evidence of past glaciations encountered around the Straits of Magellan. The only published reports of these findings were Elizabeth's articles in the Atlantic Monthly in 1872 and 1873.
The two-volume biography of Louis that Elizabeth compiled after his death is an important source for his life. It has, however, as the author herself states, "neither the fullness of personal narrative, nor the closeness of scientific analysis, which its too comprehensive title might lead the reader to expect" (Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence, I:([iii]).
Little of the personality of the author, and few details of her life, appear in the narrative.
Elizabeth Agassiz was thrust into the world of science. Inclination and interest were less important factors than her love for Louis Agassiz and her desire for his approbation. Nevertheless, her role as scribe and popularizer made her important in the history of science.
E. Agassiz, "An Amazonian Picnic," The Atlantic Monthly 17 (March 1866): 313-323; "The Hassler Glacier in the Straits of Magellan," The Atlantic Monthly 30 (October 1872): 472-478. Other examples of her descriptive writings are also found in the Atlantic: "In the Straits of Magellan," 31 (January 1873); "A Cruise through the Gallapagos," 31 (May 1873). E. Agassiz, Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1885). E. Agassiz and A. Agassiz, Seaside Studies in Natural History. Marine Animals of Massachusetts Bay. Radiates, 2d printing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1871; a revision of Elizabeth's first book, Actaea, a First Lesson in Natural History , published in collaboration with her stepson, Alexander). L. Agassiz and E. Agassiz, A Journey in Brazil (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1868).