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Memorable Manitobans: Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873)

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Louis Agassiz
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Zoologist, geologist.

Born at Fribourg, Switzerland on 28 May 1807, he studied medicine and natural history, especially botany, at Zurich, Heidelberg, and Munich. Shortly after graduation, he was chosen to describe and classify the collection of freshwater fish brought to Europe by Spix and Martius in 1820. This work was completed and published in 1829. Concurrently, he classified the fish of Lake Neuchatel and, in 1830, published the prospectus for the History of the Fresh Water Fishes of Central Europe, although the first part of this major work was not issued until 1839. Agassiz became a professional ichthyologist and published many volumes on both modern and fossil fishes between 1830 and 1844. During this period he also published works on the fossil Echinoderms of Switzerland.

Agassiz became one of the great leaders of scientific research. The year 1840 witnessed the beginning of the scientific studies of glaciers by Charpentier and others. This subject attracted Agassiz’s attention, which he tackled with his usual enthusiasm. He made detailed studies of Swiss glaciers, living in a rough cabin on one for several months to better study glacial motion. He published Etudes sur les Glaciers, in which he first hypothesized a great ice sheet covering Switzerland many eons ago.

In 1846, he crossed the Atlantic for a lecture tour and to study the natural history and geology of the United States. He advantages, both scientific and pecuniary of the New World induced him to stay. He was appointed Professor of Zoology and Geology at Cambridge University in Massachusetts. From 1846 to his death, he produced a stream of volumes including such major works as the four-volume Natural History of the United States. At the same time he built up the Museum of Natural History at Cambridge and undertook major expeditions to Brazil and South America.

Although he proposed and retained his confidence in the past existence of vast continental ice sheets, and studied the distribution of fossils in rock strata, he steadfastly rejected the doctrine of evolution and affirmed his belief in independent creations.

His glacial work in North America was commemorated in the naming of glacial Lake Agassiz, which covered much of Canada thousands of years ago.

Agassiz died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA on 14 December 1873.

Sources:

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 10 August 2013

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