Sunday, April 11, 2010


NOT the tv show.

If you need something to listen to while you read the following, this song was playing in my head the whole time I wrote this bad boy.

We'll start here: who are the people in your life (or in history) whose words and actions really dictate in some way what your thoughts, words, and actions will be? They are probably people you think of as having their hearts set on the same kinds of treasures you do. A lot of my heroes are heroes because they perform the role of motherhood and womanhood so incredibly well; our treasures are conjoined at the family. Most of my other heroes are those who have an insatiable desire to make a difference in the world, who actually DID it. Or at least spent their lives trying valiantly. William Wilberforce comes to mind. My gosh I love Amazing Grace. Tangent.

As I related a few posts down, the big paper topic I'm working on this semester is Frederic Edwin Church, who was the cat's meow in American art from about 1850-1870. My (pseudo)professional opinion: he's a'ight, as far as art historical figures go... not my greatest hero though.

I got a very big research-ical shock last week while I was doing some reading about Church's 1859 voyage to Newfoundland; who should have accompanied him on the first leg of his journey to sketch icebergs and the arctic but (drumroll please...) Mr. Louis Agassiz himself!!!

... None of you found this revelation as exhilarating as I did. Louis Agassiz is one of my heroes, an important man in the history of science (aka'd "The Father of the Ice Age"), whose story has fallen a little bit by the wayside in this day and age, only to be picked up and examined now and again by scientific historians and pedagogues like myself. His is an incredible, and incredibly moving, story. I first learned about him from Vicki Jo Anderson's text The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff, and I will summarize her version of his story here. I'll bet as I tell it to you, you can see all the reasons why he makes a hero for me in particular:

Born in 1807 in Switzerland to a fifth-generation clergyman and a kind and stalwart mother, Louis Agassiz was never pushed beyond normal boundaries in education. His mother did hapen to notice and cultivate early on his intellectual tendencies and intense love of nature; most of his childhood was spent tenderly caring for a large range of animals housed within his estate, by permission of his parents. At age fourteen he was determined to memorize the Latin name of every single known animal and plant! He attended the University of Munich in pursuit of a medical degree, but his love of nature was already growing and taking a hold of his passion. He flourished under the tutelage of a philosophy professor named Schelling, who cemented in him the belief that the various animal forms could be understood as individual "thoughts" of a divine Creator.

Agassiz later describes himself as the "librarian of the works of God." <3 He wrote over 75 theses on topics in many different scientific disciplines, including anatomy, surgery, obstetrics, and pathology, and after moving to Paris, assisted one of Europe's most prodigious minds, Professor Georges Cuvier of the Center of Natural History at the Jardin des Plantes, in the work of establishing our basic classification system of animals (into four branches: the Radiatas, Mollusks, Articulata, and Vertebrata. FYI. :). When Cuvier died, Agassiz took up his work writing about fossilized fishes, and championed the idea held by his former master that nature was, again, the work of a Divine Intelligence. Notably, Agassiz never took the step in imagination that Charles Darwin would, linking fossils into a grand scheme of gradual evolution. Agassiz stated instead that "the whole history of geological succession shows us that the lowest in structure is by no means necessarily the earliest in time." Aka, according to Anderson, that, "Anatomically, evolution may have looked sound, but geologically it just couldn't work. The mere existence of the well-developed shark (Selachians) family is in direct contradiction to the idea of a gradual evolutionary development because the sharks are found abundantly in the earliest of the Palaeozoic fossil beds." Try again, Darwin. You're missing a link or two. Louis Agassiz instead puts forward the belief that "Facts are the words of God, and we may heap them together endlessly, but they will teach us little or nothing til we place them in their true relations, and recognize the thought that binds them together." This thought is the word of God, the world's greatest scientist, who made us, and the world, and all the animals, plants, and natural phenomena therein. Yes, these things may be in a state of continual conflict as Darwin illustrates, but this fact fully aligns with the Christian conception of the world as belonging to a fallen state. Tangent.

After Cuvier's death, the renowned naturalist Alexander von Humboldt took Agassiz under his wing, or rather, launched him into the sky, loaning him money to live on and securing him a professorship in Switzerland where he really began to perfect the craft of teaching. He established his city, Neuchatel, as a great European center of learning. Agassiz is known as one of history's most brilliant and passionate teachers (and this statement I have seen echoed in many other texts about education and even a devotional, not just Anderson's mini-biography). Agassiz preferred to take his students out of doors, sans textbooks, during the summer ("If you study nature in books, when you go out of doors you cannot find her"), and during the winter, he insisted on getting students each a specimen to examine. "Look at your fish"; that was his instructions at the beginning of one semester, and each week his students would bring him observations about their specific animal, and he would nod, smile, and simply say again, "Look at your fish." By the end, he had a classroom full of proud students who could rattle off intricate ideas about icthyology and fish anatomy and habits simply because they had to dig deeper and deeper for answers as they observed their single fish. Agassiz believed in obtaining knowledge for oneself, in cultivating a sharp eye and a quick, questioning mind. "The mind is made strong not through much learning," he said, "but by the thorough possession of something."

While in Switzerland, his attention turned from fossils to the mountains, particularly glaciers. Living, sleeping, and teaching on them, he was the first to discover that they were actually moving. Agassiz came up with this unheard-of idea that the continent was once covered in slowly moving ice (perhaps this idea came about after he almost lost his life in an underground river, which he fell into after he convinced his students to let him rappel 80 feet into an unstable glacial cavern). He presented his ice-sheet thesis to the leading scientists of the day at an annual meeting of the Helvetic Society, of which he happened to be the president. His remarks were received terribly; he was actually booed by the participants! His friend Humboldt encouraged him to have more research to back up such wild claims in order to avoid such a presentation disaster in the future. Agassiz took up the advice gladly, eventually proving the now concrete fact of science: that our Earth underwent an Ice Age that radically changed the face of its land formations.

In 1846 Agassiz went on a speaking tour of the United States, and the freedom--and uncultivation-- of education here impressed him so much that he relocated, despite invitations to teach by Emperor Napoleon III and the King of Prussia. His most notable American accomplishments include the establishment of the Museum of Comparative Anatomy at Harvard, the establishment of the Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian Institute, and his work in Washington to establish some governmental ground rules for effective, scholarly scientific work and publication. He chose to become a citizen in the midst of the Civil War, right about the time he was accompanying Frederic Edwin Church on a trip to the Arctic.

While teaching at Harvard, Agassiz and his wife, Elizabeth Cabot Cary, who was noted for her literary and executive talents, began a boarding house for female students. Agassiz arranged for professor friends from Harvard to teach the girls... and eventually Elizabeth and Louis reopened their school as the famous Radcliffe University. Louis was a great advocate for women's educational rights, even employing women in his museums. His student Clara Conant Gilson described her experience with this passionate man of science by saying, "His eyes ... would moisten with tears of emotion as thoughts of his Creator came rushing to mind, while he traced his [the creator's] footsteps in the science he studied. His eyes mirrored his soul. I think there was never but one pair of eyes such as Professor Louis Agassiz." Vicki Anderson notes that he was "easily moved to tears or laughter and made no attempt to hide his feelings." Quel sweetheart!

One of the biggest reasons why his impact is not well known today is because his works, so enriched by the belief in nature as a second Bible, or a thoughtful work of God, went against the grain of the wildly influential school of thought set in motion by Darwin's Origin of the Species, published in 1859. Agassiz spent the last fifteen years of his life defending his beliefs in "Nature's God," stating that "In our study of natural objects we are approaching the thoughts of the Creator, reading His conceptions, interpreting a system that is His and not ours." His stand on evolutionary issues still has a voice today, and I admire both the theological conviction behind his work and also his intense devotion to facilitating education-- good, solid, passionate education in his chosen discipline-- through research and personal, innovative, teaching methods.

(Most of the above can be found, better written, in Anderson's text, pgs 9-17).

K, hop off the soapbox now, Lindsey. Deep breath. Can you trace all the other reasons why he would be a hero of mine? I love this man. Someday I want to shake his hand in heaven and take an anatomy course from him. I am completely convinced that I will have the opportunity to do so, too. Vicki Anderson's The Other Eminent Men of Wildord Woodruff contains mini-biographies of the fifty other men besides the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the American Presidents who appeared in vision to Wilford Woodruff in the LDS St. George temple in 1877, requesting their temple work be completed. This event holds a lot of historical fascination for me, and I love reading these men's stories, thinking about the positive impact they had in many ways on my own life, and on the world I inherited.

I have many other heroes too, you know. I could go on all day. Many of them will read this blog, in fact. :) But Agassiz is one of my favorites, and I wanted to introduce you to him this Sunday, hoping that it may impel you to look around you, if you haven't already done so, and find those people whose passion, insight, and diligence directs your own. Heroes help us talk the talk and walk the walk because they have done so already. I'm grateful for the abundance of heroes I have in my own life.

Have a great week!


Judy Anne said...

Wow, thank-you for this introduction to one of your heros. Not only did he believe and teach of God, he believed and taught women...both concepts against the current 'in vogue' thoughts of his day. You are one of my heros!

MOM said...

Wow...what a wonderful man! Thank you for sharing his history. I feel really great scientist, the more they learn, the closer they come to believe their is a Divine Creator in this great universe of ours. If you have any way of watching "The Privileged Planet", a documentary of the incredible uniqueness of our planet and it's place in our galaxy, do so. (Yeah, Netflix) You will love it! These scientist are coming to know God more and more. :) Thanks for sharing your love of Him with us as well!