“This book is not just about a man of science but also about a scientific culture in the making—warts and all.” —The New York Times Book Review
Charismatic and controversial Swiss immigrant Louis Agassiz took America by storm in the early nineteenth century, becoming a defining force in American science. Yet today, many don’t know the complex story behind this revolutionary figure.
At a young age, Agassiz—zoologist, glaciologist, and paleontologist—was invited to deliver a series of lectures in Boston, and he never left. An obsessive pioneer in field research, Agassiz enlisted the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural specimens, dead or alive, for his ingeniously conceived museum of comparative zoology. As an educator of enduring impact, he trained a generation of American scientists and science teachers, men and women alike—and entered into collaboration with his brilliant wife, Elizabeth, a science writer in her own right and first president of Radcliffe College. But there was a dark side to his reputation as well.
Biographer Christoph Irmscher reveals unflinching evidence of Agassiz’s racist impulses and shows how avidly Americans at the time looked to men of science to mediate race policy. He also explores Agassiz’s stubborn resistance to evolution, his battles with a student—renowned naturalist Henry James Clark—and how he became a source of endless bemusement for Charles Darwin and esteemed botanist Asa Gray. “A wonderful . . . biography,” both inspiring and cautionary, it is for anyone interested in the history of American ideas (The Christian Science Monitor
“A model of what a talented and erudite literary scholar can do with a scientific subject.” —Los Angeles Review of Books