Alexander Agassiz

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Alexander Agassiz
Born(1835-12-17)December 17, 1835
Neuchâtel, Switzerland
DiedMarch 27, 1910(1910-03-27) (aged 74)
North Atlantic Ocean (aboard the RMS Adriatic)
NationalitySwiss, American
Alma materHarvard University (AB, BS)
Children3, including Rodolphe Louis Agassiz
AwardsAmerican Philosophical Society (1862)
Pour le Mérite (German order)
Scientific career
Author abbrev. (zoology)A. Agassiz, A. Ag.

Alexander Emmanuel Rodolphe Agassiz (December 17, 1835 – March 27, 1910), son of Louis Agassiz and stepson of Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, was an American scientist and engineer.[1]


Agassiz was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and immigrated to the United States with his parents, Louis and Cecile (Braun) Agassiz, in 1846.[2] He graduated from Harvard University in 1855, subsequently studying engineering and chemistry, and taking the degree of Bachelor of Science at the Lawrence Scientific School of the same institution in 1857; in 1859 became an assistant in the United States Coast Survey.[3] Thenceforward he became a specialist in marine ichthyology.[4] Agassiz was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1862.[5] Up until the summer of 1866, Agassiz worked as assistant curator in the museum of natural history that his father founded at Harvard.[2]

Agassiz c. 1860

E. J. Hulbert, a friend of Agassiz's brother-in-law, Quincy Adams Shaw, had discovered a rich copper lode known as the Calumet conglomerate on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan. Hulbert persuaded them, along with a group of friends, to purchase a controlling interest in the mines, which later became known as the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company based in Calumet, Michigan. That summer, he took a trip to see the mines for himself and he afterwards became treasurer of the enterprise.

Over the winter of 1866 and early 1867, mining operations began to falter, due to the difficulty of extracting copper from the conglomerate. Hulbert had sold his interests in the mines and had moved on to other ventures. But Agassiz refused to give up hope for the mines. He returned to the mines in March 1867, with his wife and young son. At that time, Calumet was a remote settlement, virtually inaccessible during the winter and very far removed from civilization even during the summer. With insufficient supplies at the mines, Agassiz struggled to maintain order, while back in Boston, Shaw was saddled with debt and the collapse of their interests. Shaw obtained financial assistance from John Simpkins, the selling agent for the enterprise to continue operations.

Agassiz continued to live at Calumet, making gradual progress in stabilizing the mining operations, such that he was able to leave the mines under the control of a general manager and return to Boston in 1868 before winter closed navigation. The mines continued to prosper and in May 1871, several mines were consolidated to form the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company with Shaw as its first president. In August 1871, Shaw "retired" to the board of directors and Agassiz became president, a position he held until his death. Until the turn of the century, this company was by far the largest copper producer in the United States, many years producing over half of the total.

Agassiz was a major factor in the mine's continued success and visited the mines twice a year. He innovated by installing a giant engine, known as the Superior, which was able to lift 24 tons of rock from a depth of 1,200 metres (3,900 feet). He also built a railroad and dredged a channel to navigable waters. However, after a time the mines did not require his full-time, year-round, attention and he returned to his interests in natural history at Harvard. Out of his copper fortune, he gave some US$500,000 to Harvard for the museum of comparative zoology and other purposes.[6]

Castle Hill Inn, Agassiz's Newport cottage

Shortly after the death of his father in 1873, Agassiz acquired a small peninsula in Newport, Rhode Island, which features views of Narragansett Bay. Here he built a substantial house and a laboratory for use as his summer residence. The house was completed in 1875 and today is known as the Inn at Castle Hill.

He was a member of the scientific-expedition to South America in 1875, where he inspected the copper mines of Peru and Chile, and made extended surveys of Lake Titicaca, besides collecting invaluable Peruvian antiquities,[2] which he gave to the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), of which he was first curator from 1874 to 1885 and then director until his death in 1910, his personal secretary Elizabeth Hodges Clark running the day-to-day management of the MCZ when his work took him abroad.[7][8][9] He assisted Charles Wyville Thomson in the examination and classification of the collections of the 1872 Challenger Expedition, and wrote the Review of the Echini (2 vols., 1872–1874) in the reports. Between 1877 and 1880, he took part in the three dredging expeditions of the steamer Blake of the Coast Survey, and presented a full account of them in two volumes (1888).[4] Also in 1875, he was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society.[10]

In 1896, Agassiz visited Fiji and Queensland and inspected the Great Barrier Reef, publishing a paper on the subject in 1898.

Of Agassiz's other writings on marine zoology, most are contained in the bulletins and memoirs of the museum of comparative zoology. However, in 1865, he published with Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, his stepmother, Seaside Studies in Natural History, a work at once exact and stimulating. They also published, in 1871, Marine Animals of Massachusetts Bay.[4]

He received the German Order Pour le Mérite for Science and Arts in August 1902.[11]

Agassiz served as a president of the National Academy of Sciences, which since 1913 has awarded the Alexander Agassiz Medal in his memory. He died in 1910 on board the RMS Adriatic en route to New York from Southampton.[12]

He and his wife Anna Russell (1840-1873) were the parents of three sons – George Russell Agassiz (1861–1951), Maximilian Agassiz (1866–1943) and Rodolphe Louis Agassiz (1871–1933).


Alexander Agassiz is commemorated in the scientific name of a species of lizard, Anolis agassizi, and a fish, Leptochilichthys agassizii.[13][14]

A statue of Alexander Agassiz erected in 1923 is located in Calumet, Michigan, next to his summer home where he stayed while fulfilling his duties as the President of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. The Company Headquarters, Agassiz' statue, and many other buildings and landmarks from the now defunct company are today administered and maintained by the Keweenaw National Historical Park, whose headquarters overlook the statue of Agassiz.[15]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Guide to Nature. 1910. Alexander Emmanuel Rudolph Agassiz, better known to the world as Alexander Agassiz, simply, was for nearly half a century, in portions of the 19th and 20th, one of the most remarkable scientists of his time, but, unlike nearly all others who have devoted their lives to original research, he was a man of wealth which counted among the millions.
  2. ^ a b c Wikisource One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainJohnson, Rossiter, ed. (1906). "Agassiz, Alexander Emmanuel Rudolph". The Biographical Dictionary of America. Vol. 1. Boston: American Biographical Society. pp. 59–60.
  3. ^ Leonard, John William; Marquis, Albert Nelson (eds.). Who's who in America. Vol. 5. Marquis Who's Who, Incorporated. p. 14.
  4. ^ a b c  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Agassiz, Alexander Emanuel". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 366–367.
  5. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived (PDF) from the original on May 10, 2011. Retrieved April 6, 2011.
  6. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  7. ^ About MCZ (History) – Archived May 18, 2018, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Museum of Comparative Zoology Harvard University Annual Report 2017-2018 -
  9. ^ Fossil Histories: Behind the Scenes in Harvard's Paleontology Collections -
  10. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved May 5, 2021.
  11. ^ "Court Circular". The Times. No. 36850. London. August 19, 1902. p. 8.
  12. ^ Staff writers (March 30, 1910). "Prof. Agassiz Dies on Liner at Sea". The New York Times.
  13. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Agassiz, A.E.", p. 2).
  14. ^ Garman, S. (September 6, 1899). "Reports on an exploration off the west coasts of Mexico, Central and South America, and off the Galapagos Islands, in charge of Alexander Agassiz, by the U.S. Fish Commission Steamer Albatross, during 1891, Lieut. Commander Z.L. Tanner, U.S.N., commanding. 26. The fishes". Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy, at Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass. 24: 1–431. doi:10.5962/bhl.part.27494.
  15. ^ "Alexander Agassiz Statue". The Alexander Agassiz Statue. Keweenaw National Historical Park. Retrieved February 25, 2021.

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