Thinking with the Life of Louis Agassiz

Agassiz coverI use Christoph Irmscher’s very interesting biography of Louis Agassiz as a way of thinking about science and the humanities in my latest piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books. A selection:

The biography of Louis Agassiz written by Christoph Irmscher, Provost Professor at Indiana University, is a model of what a talented and erudite literary scholar can do with a scientific subject.

Agassiz was one of the most prominent scientists of mid-19th-century America. Today, his only lasting accomplishment is his articulation of the role glaciers played in Earth’s natural history, but at the time he wielded huge influence as the top naturalist at Harvard and a widely sought-after authority on scientific matters. In his later years, he mainly used that influence to rail against Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, earning him his present place of either infamy or obscurity in American intellectual history. Students of that history will be grateful for Irmscher’s biography, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.

Those who have mucked around in American letters have probably heard of Agassiz. William James was his student; Ralph Waldo Emerson was his friend; Henry David Thoreau once sent him a turtle. As Irmscher’s scholarship shows, Agassiz was also a leading cultural figure in his own time. His lectures were celebrated public events. His disputes with his students and fellow scientists were the talk of Boston society. And his death (and subsequent autopsy) were chronicled moment by moment in the nation’s newspapers.

Irmscher’s work would be a valuable historiographic contribution even if all it did was recapture the contemporary cultural significance of Agassiz. Indeed, he provides what the field needed: a rigorous, informed starting point for those working on any of the aspects of American science and society that Agassiz touched. Explorations of Agassiz’s views on race as well as the role of his second wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, also advance the discussion of the history of 19th-century American science. Ultimately, what is most special about Irmscher’s book is that he does all this while also keeping an eye on the significance of Agassiz’s story for science today. It’s the kind of synthesis that only an author thoroughly grounded in the tradition of the humanities could accomplish.

You can read the full review here.