Agassiz, Jean Louis Rodolphe (1807-1873)

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Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

Paleontologist, geologist, and glaciologist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in Môtier, in the canton of Fribourg, Switzerland, on 28 May 1807.

He spent his formative years attending school first at home, then at the secondary school at Bienne, and elementary studies at Lausanne.

From thence he studied at the universities of Zürich, Heidelberg, and Munich, being awarded the Doctor of Philosophy degree at Erlangen in 1829, and Doctor of Medicine at Munich in 1830.

In Paris, he was tutored by Alexander von Humboldt in the field of geology, and Georges Cuvier in zoology. It was at this point that his career took a definite turn to ichthyology. The subject soon became the focus of his life’s work, and remained thus throughout his remaining years.

Agassiz observed that the then ichthyological classification system was woefully inadequate, as it failed to account for the deficiencies in the fossil record. He developed a scheme that divided fish into Ganoids, Placoids, Cycloids, and Ctenoids, according to the nature of their scales and dermal appendages. Advanced for its time, it succeeded in putting ichthyology on a scientific footing.

In 1837 he was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as a foreign member. In the same year he proposed that much of the earth had experienced, in the past, an ice age. He was the scientist to do so, though Goethe, de Saussure, and others had concluded that the randomly placed alpine rocks in the Jura Mountains were signs of past glaciation. Agassiz set up a hut on one of the Aar glaciers, taking up residence there for a time so as to study the behavior of glacial ice. He then published, in 1840, a two volume report, Etudes sur les glaciers, in which he revealed his discoveries regarding glacial movement, moraines, the influence of glaciation on grooving and rounding of rocks, and the striations they etched in the process.

Armed with this experience, Agassiz, in collaboration with William Buckland, found evidence of ancient, widespread glaciation in the mountains of Scotland. This finding propelled him across the Atlantic in 1846 to study the natural history and geology of North America. There, recognizing the great potential for scientific discovery, combined with the promise of excellent financing for his investigations, he was induced stay. The Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard was established, Agassiz at the helm.

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