Alexander Agassiz



Occupation 1


Occupation 2

Harvard professor


NA/New England region


Age of Steam and Steel (1866-1920)






Marine biologist, oceanographer, and industrial entrepreneur

While a museum administrator, Agassiz was able to do significant research and publication in marine biology, especially in the study of Echinoderms (starfish, sand dollars, sea urchins, sea lilies, and related forms). The Embryology of the Starfish (1864) was an early mark of his capability in this new branch of science. It was followed by Revision of the Echini (1872-1874), a three-volume, beautifully illustrated work analyzing most known forms in Europe and America and detailing their geographical distribution, embryology, and natural history. The work remains his most distinguished contribution, and it won him many admirers in Europe and America.

Agassiz published more than 150 articles and books, mainly on his favorite echinoderms and related groups. In the 1870s Sir John Murray, scientific director of the world-renowned British expedition of HMS Challenger, asked Agassiz to describe and analyze the echini collected by Challenger in its exploration voyage around the world. The result, his Report on the Echinoidea (1881), was a primary contribution to both marine biology and knowledge of geographical distribution. Agassiz's works appeared mostly in the serial publications of the Harvard museum.

The great energy Agassiz brought to all his endeavors was most evident in his oceanographic work. He pioneered in the 1870s and 1880s several highly useful technological improvements for dredging marine specimens. Murray, who was a scientific confidant and biographer of Agassiz, affirmed in 1911 that all contemporary knowledge of "the great ocean basins and their general outlines" was due to Agassiz's work and his inspiration to others (Murray, p. 148). In ships of the U.S. Coast Survey, and in private vessels he rented or bought, Agassiz traveled hundreds of thousands of miles over the oceans of the world in the period from the mid-1870s through the early 1900s, each trip planned with meticulous care.

For nearly three decades at the end of his life, Agassiz's main interest related to studies of the origin and nature of coral reefs. This interest became an obsession; by the early 1900s "he had now visited practically all the coral reef regions of the world" (Agassiz, Letters and Recollections, p. 395), and his vessels sailed the Great Barrier Reef, the Pacific, and the Maldives with one central purpose: to overturn the views on coral reef formation put forth by Darwin and Dana in the 1840s. According to these naturalists, coral reef and atoll development was a continuous and universal process. Corals developed on the sides of sinking volcanic islands, slowly, and then marched upward until the island ultimately subsided and disappeared, leaving a coral reef or atoll in its place. Agassiz concentrated his attack on Darwin's work, calling it "twaddle" and "nonsense" and based on incomplete observation. For Agassiz, who conducted his observations across the world and over many years, reef and atoll formation and development was the result of building up or leveling down primarily through the local and unique actions of biological, chemical, and mechanical forces continuously in operation, understandable in different ways depending on the physical and geological conditions of specific regions. Universal explanations were impossible, Agassiz urged, affirming "I am glad that I always stuck to writing what I saw in each group and explained what I saw as best I could, without trying . . . to have an all embracing theory" (Murray, p. 151).

Agassiz's opposition to "all embracing" theory was similar to his complaint that radical evolutionists built "castles in the air" with their theories. Although naturalists like Murray made use of an early Darwin work in an effort to discredit the evolutionist, Agassiz claimed no such motive. But the vituperation of Agassiz's opposition and his Ahab-like quest to prove Darwin wrong may have been spurred by an effort to use his money and ships to attack Darwin on the comfortable ground of oceanography rather than the far more complex issues of evolution. But Agassiz never produced his "coral book," which was often promised as an overview of his researches, although he did describe specific sites.

Unfortunately for Agassiz's reputation, his determination to wrest explanation from the world's coral reefs had an unhappy effect. His observations proved often unreliable, his evidence weak, and many conclusions false; later scientists proved Darwin's theory correct. Yet, in the large view, Alexander Agassiz was a notable naturalist and entrepreneur, capable of breaking the paternal grip of his father's dominance, all the while honoring his name. In Henry Adams's words, "he was the best we ever produced, and the only one of our generation I would have liked to envy" (Agassiz, Letters and Recollections, p. 447). He died aboard the Adriatic while making a transatlantic voyage.

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Date: 1911
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Record ID: 11