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Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science Hardcover – February 5, 2013

3.8 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* A budding nineteenth-century zoologist, Addison Verrill worshipfully regarded his Harvard mentor, Louis Agassiz, as “the great leader of the scientific world.” Aware of the low opinion scientists now hold of Agassiz, many twenty-first-century readers may find Verrill’s veneration for the Swiss-born naturalist inexplicable. With this compelling biography, Irmscher dispels the mystery, showing both how Agassiz established himself as America’s most prominent scientist and how he subsequently fell into professional ignominy. From a brisk yet detailed narrative, we learn of the intellectual gifts Agassiz deployed in explaining Ice Age glaciers, his theory finally overcoming Darwin’s doubts. We also learn of Agassiz’s indefatigable field research as a biologist and of his omnivorous commitment to collecting specimens for his Cambridge museum. But we soon realize how much Agassiz actually built his reputation on his prowess as a lecture-hall thespian and illustrator. Unfortunately, the talents that buoyed his popularity did not sustain his scientific credibility when he first attacked Darwin’s theory of evolution and then promulgated pseudoscientific theories of white racial superiority. Even his handling of personal relationships told against Agassiz, as his arrogant heedlessness alienated his first wife and then turned his most promising graduate student into an adversary. A masterful portrait illuminating the tangled human dynamics of science. --Bryce Christensen


"A model of what a talented and erudite literary scholar can do with a scientific subject."
-Los Angeles Review of Books

"Irmscher's book is the best biography of an American scientist I have read: warm and acerb, learned and witty, and always in style."
-The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists for Experimental Biology

"It's unlikely that Agassiz will get a better biography in our lifetime... An amazing performance." -Open Letters Monthly

"Christoph Irmscher's important new biography of this outsize figure provides a fresh evaluation of Agassiz's professional and personal life.... [Irmscher's] extensively sourced book provides a more critical evaluation of his subject's life and professional impact--both good and bad--than do many earlier biographies, whose authors had a close personal relationship with the Agassiz family or a longstanding professional affiliation with Harvard."
-Harvard Magazine


"Evocative new biography….Irmscher is a richly descriptive writer with an eye for detail, the compexities and contradictions of character, and the workings of institutional and familial power structures….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

"Compelling biography...A masterful portrait illuminating the tangled human dynamics of science."
Booklist, STARRED

"In Irmscher’s hands, Agassiz’s life and passions are embedded in the major intellectual ideas of his time…. The relationship between Agassiz and his second wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the first president of Radcliffe College, is also fascinating."
Publishers Weekly

"Christoph Irmscher's elegant, beautifully written account does the essential task of setting the mysterious Agassiz in his full social and historical context, where we can both appreciate his gifts and see his flaws clearly. His portrayal of Elizabeth Agassiz and her contributions is brilliant, and his exploration of Agassiz's stagnation, as the world turned without him, is both rigorous and poignant. Through the prism of Agassiz's life, much of 19th-century culture gleams freshly."
—Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal

"A biography as exuberant as its brilliant but wrong-headed subject, the unforgettable forgotten celebrity scientist Louis Agassiz. Christoph Irmscher is in his element detailing the exploits of this larger-than-life anti-hero of the Age of Darwin, whose feats of discovery took him from the Swiss Alps to the Amazon jungle and made him Harvard’s reigning eminence for decades."
—Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters and Margaret Fuller

"Christoph Irmscher has brought to life an essential figure in the history of American science and culture. Irmscher's expertise and talent for vivid prose open a fascinating window onto the origins of American science as we know it."
—Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club

"A thoroughly satisfying biography…Irmscher makes a convincing case that this egotistical, often wrongheaded figure deserves his reputation as a founder and first great popularizer of American science."
—Kirkus Reviews

"Reading this book is a pleasure - the writing is engaging and witty, while always intellectually rewarding …. Irmscher's account of Agassiz's life reminds us always to examine our own preconceptions concerning the nature of reality and man's place in the universe."
—Tom Cronin, Professor of Biology, University of Maryland


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (February 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547577672
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547577678
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #745,956 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Christoph Irmscher is the author of "Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science," the first new biography in several decades of the controversial 19th-century celebrity scientist Louis Agassiz, Darwin's nemesis. Inventor of scientific fieldwork, promoter of the Ice Age, describer of jellyfish, and self-appointed expert on racial classifications, Agassiz divides minds even today. This biography restores him to his central place in the history of science and sheds new light on his darker sides, too. Kirkus Reviews has declared "Agassiz" a "thoroughly satisfying biography," and Megan Marshall, author of "The Peabody Sisters," has called it "as exuberant as its brilliant but wrong-headed subject."

Christoph is a Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington. He is the author of several books, among them a biography of the poet Henry Wadworth Longfellow, "Longfellow Redux" (2006). He lives in Bloomington with his wife, the composer Lauren Bernofsky, his children Nick and Julia, and three extremely entitled cats, Jeremy, Oliver, and Annie (the latter named after the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley's "Little Orphant Annie").

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
They lived at the same time, Charles Darwin and Louis Agassiz, but Agassiz was a Creationist and of course, Darwin was the father of Evolution. Agassiz refused to countenance Darwin's theories. The two great men are an interesting contrast, as Darwin was an introvert who eschewed the limelight and was a martyr to frequent debilitating illness. Agassiz was a bon vivant who relished life but was also the victim of frequent illness, and who used illness as a sort of romantic flamboyant adjunct to his personality. (I am reminded of their exact contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, whose writings often dealt with mortal illness. Consumption and other diseases were perhaps de rigueur in the Nineteenth century, and physical suffering somehow being elevated to a sort of romantic plane).

Irmscher's fine biography puts Agassiz across the table from you. He arrived in America from his native Switzerland full blown, with a PhD in paleontology and a Doctor of Medicine. He had spent many hours trudging up and down the Alps and examining mountain glaciers and writing extensively and excitingly about his observations. Just how well the world knew about Agassiz is illustrated by "Moby Dick". Melville describes the white whale's skin close-up as pock-marked and scratched like great rocks were as the ice crept along. Agassiz examined living and fossil fishes and those observations are classics as are his extensive writings about glaciers. Agassiz revolutionized geology, and believers in the Biblical flood had to re-think their position. However, his stubborn refusal to acknowledge Evolution did not apparently effect his reputation while he was alive, it certainly does now.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I don't have the credentials to judge the quality of the research done by the author, but the book reads as if it is in keeping with the times and character of those times. Agassiz was very popular in that age of conflict in the worlds of science and sociology. All sorts of issues were being studied and argued. The modern age of scientific inquiry and rigor was trying to break free from the era of gentleman scientists and faith based science. Often the result was a hybridization that tried to satisfy both groups.

Agassiz was not a fan of Darwin's version of the science of mankind and certainly would have lasted only a short time in an era of political correctness. What Irmscher spent a great deal of time and repetition on was Agassiz's views on the various races of humans. In the time of his prominence, many shared his views. The country (and world) spent many lives trying to convince others of the rightness of those views.

The book was well written as a study of Agassiz and his influence on the growth of "science". It is for those with a true interest in such. For those who enjoy popular science books, it will perhaps seem dry and lacking in "action".

I liked it. Per Amazon's definitions of their 1-5 star ratings, that is the meaning of 4 stars.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Louis Agassiz was one of the most visible scientists of nineteenth-century America, for reasons that seem a bit mysterious today. This biography emphasizes Agassiz’s non-scientific talents as a lecturer, fundraiser, and popularizer, an emphasize that explains his successes in some ways without really explaining how these nonscientific attributes contributed to his scientific prestige. The narrative reflects the fact that the author is a professor of English, not a scientist or a historian of science. This gives the book a fresh perspective but leaves unanswered any questions about the merits of Agassiz’s natural history. Simply put, we do not learn enough about Agassiz’s studies of mollusks or other species to judge whether the man’s field research produced any lasting contributions.

As this implies, Irmscher consistently deemphasizes Agassiz’s actual science. Even in the case of glaciers, where Agassiz’s contributions would seem to be most lasting (and least controversial), we don’t learn much about Agassiz’s scientific claims. Instead, the narrative focuses on Agassiz’s relationships, both personal and professional. Irmscher also downplays Agassiz’s contribution by emphasizing contemporaries who had similar insights but were slower to publicize them.

Irmscher’s claims here imply some deeper criticisms of science, which he explores in an extended discussion of intellectual property. I would have liked to see sharper distinctions between scientific property (“this is *my* theory of glaciers, which entitles me to recognition”) and commercial property (“this is *my* patent, which entitles me to profit”), but Irmscher’s interests in this discussion lie in an English professor’s critique of the modern research university.
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Format: Hardcover
Reading "Louis Agassiz, Creator of American Science" was instructive for me. Though I studied the sciences at university, I had not known much about the establishment of the scientific enterprise in the USA in the mid to late 1800s (prior to the work of Thomas Edison), a matter this book rectified.

In many respects, Christophe Irmscher is writing about a period in American science---and especially two major issues that confronted scientists and the public at large at that time: evolution vs. creationism and the biology of racial similarities and differences. It is remarkable that the first issue, while essentially settled among scientists, is still hotly debated by the American public (or at least by the media, which frankly are interested in keeping the debate going in the interest of driving readership numbers). The second issue concerning race remains such a delicate subject that scientists seem reluctant to address it, and for good reason, for it, too, remains unresolved in certain parts of the public arena; to investigate racial similarities may be acceptable but doing so tends to provoke discussion of racial differences and that is an understandable "no fly zone" for even scientists because of political and social sensitivities. That was not the case in the 1800s, as Irmscher explores at length in his book; the embarrassing results, of course, explain why the subject remains a difficult one to even rationally discuss more than a century later.

The book is very well (and deeply) researched. Because Louis Agassiz stood on the wrong side of both issues (evolution and race), something we now judge historically, his contributions to American science have become overshadowed in the historical record.
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