Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
alert featured

The complicated case of Louis Agassiz

More than a century ago, it took the gigantic grinding of tectonic plates — otherwise known as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — to topple the stately visage of Louis Agassiz, whose sculpted likeness took a header off the second floor of Stanford University’s zoology building during the shaking and landed with its noggin buried in brick.

Now, in the 21st century, it has taken a more enlightened view of race relations, not a violent act of nature, to topple Agassiz’s reputation from the heights of fame as a celebrated biological and geological scientist to a dismissed and even disgraced promoter of anti-evolution and thoroughly debunked theories of racial differences and separation.

Across America, and even in his native Switzerland, governments and institutions have considered — and, in some cases, approved — rechristening sites and awards to remove Agassiz’s name or likeness.

In and around Flagstaff, Agassiz’s name has long been prominent atop a peak that hovers over the city and on a downtown street bearing his name. Soon, though, the Flagstaff City Council’s action to rename Agassiz Street will come to fruition. After several virtual town hall meetings over the summer, last Tuesday was the deadline for citizen input on a new name, and among the options being considered are noted former Indigenous and Black leaders with ties to the area.

Flagstaff, actually, has come rather late to the trend of renaming Agassiz of landmarks.

In 2002, a school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, changed its name from Agassiz to Baldwin, in honor of the first Black principal in a mixed-race school in the state. In 2007, the Swiss National Council considered renaming the summit Agassizhorn, but eventually voted to retain the designation. Earlier this year, activists pressured Stanford to rename Jordan Hall because the university’s founding president, David Starr Jordan, a protege of Agassiz, was a promoter of eugenics; it also plans to remove the reconstructed statue of Agassiz, Jordan’s mentor at Harvard in the mid-1800s.

The city council’s move is not the first action taken in Flagstaff to reconsider the legacy of Agassiz, who among other problematic beliefs promoted polygenism, which posits that human racial groups have different ancestral origins and can be ranked by levels of development, with white Europeans at the top and Blacks at the bottom.

In 2015, after protests from the Black Student Union, Northern Arizona University changed the name of a room in the du Bois Center from Agassiz to Marshall, in honor of late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Last spring, Flagstaff High School’s Native American Club protested to the federal government in favor of renaming the San Francisco Peaks, of which Agassiz is the second highest. Federal action has yet to be considered. The new lift at the Arizona Snowbowl will not be called the Agassiz chairlift, as its predecessor was; the resort gave no reason for the name change.

This widespread reevaluation of Agassiz’s place in American history is, depending upon who is asked, a long overdue act of contrition or a misguided act of cultural erasure. Certainly, in this dawning era of calling white privilege to account and changing the narrative to be more inclusive and cleanse landmarks of remnants of a blatantly racist past, it is not surprising that Agassiz’s name and legacy has become a prime target.

What makes Agassiz notable

It is important, when looking at the controversy, to understand why a Swiss-born scientist who later taught at Harvard would even merit recognition throughout the nation — there are several summits bearing his name, as well as the largest Sequoia tree in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park — and what exactly his racially divisive beliefs entailed.

First, his popularity. Although it may seem incongruous today, once, scientists (not only geologists, either) were treated like rock stars in America. Agassiz came to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1846 with a burnished reputation in having popularized the theories of the Ice Age and also for groundbreaking work in fossil fish, jellyfish and the taxonomy of turtles.

He was, in short, a big deal.

This was a period before widespread media saturation, so many people flocked to lectures given by learned personages. Agassiz, by all accounts, was a charismatic speaker, punctuating his narratives about animal life with chalk drawings he’d conjure on the spot. He hit the road, touring, dazzling audiences eager for knowledge about the natural world. He was the subject of several hagiographic biographies at the time, his activities fodder for newspaper gossip, and palled around with cultural stars such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

As Christoph Irmscher writes in his 2013 reappraisal, “Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science,” he was widely viewed as “America’s greatest naturalist” with an ability to dazzle a non-academic audience with his vibrant verbiage that melded science with religion. His famous tagline, “study nature, not books,” struck a chord with the populace.

“We cannot today replicate the enthusiasm nineteenth-century Americans felt for him,” Irmscher writes.

Although, in a few decades, many of his beliefs would be disproved — Agassiz, for instance, rejected Darwin’s evolution research, and many years later Darwin would excoriate him for his nonfactual theories on racial hierarchies and he would be considered “a laughingstock,” as The Nation magazine bluntly put it — at the time he was feted as a celebrity.

And Agassiz apparently reveled in the attention, according to Irmsher, who calls Agassiz “self-mythologizing” and an “inveterate publicity seeker.”

His connection with northern Arizona came in 1867, seven years before Agassiz’s death. As part of his scientific barnstorming, he visited the West aboard a Pacific Railroad-sponsored fossil finding survey. Agassiz and Gen. W. J. Palmer, the survey leader, tramped around the mountain slopes, and Palmer, seemingly by fiat, decided to attach Agassiz’s name to the second-highest peak. It stuck.

In short, a celebrity professor from Harvard and a Civil War general turned industrialist who founded the city of Colorado Springs breezed through Flagstaff once and left their signatures on the mountain and in the downtown area. Then again, Flagstaff was not alone; other cities embraced Agassiz's celebrity. There’s a Mount Agassiz in the Sierra Nevada range in central California and Agassiz schools throughout the Midwest, such as Chicago and Cleveland.

What he wrote about race

And for decades — nearly a century, actually — Agassiz’s name stood, even as almost all serious scientists discounted his work and lasting impact. Yet, in this era of racial reckoning, Agassiz’s distinct views on race would not be so easily glossed over.

The first to alert the greater public of Agassiz’s troubling doctrine of polygeny was noted Harvard biologist and best-selling author Stephen Jay Gould, who in his 1981 book, “The Mismeasure of Man,” in which he uncovered the original writings of Agassiz that previous researchers had either neglected or chose not to publicize in order to save Agassiz’s reputation.

Gould paints Agassiz as a “devout creationist” and Darwin critic who held forth on racial polygeny without presenting an iota of data or evidence as to its validity. “His conversion,” Gould writes, “followed an immediate visceral judgment and some persistent persuasion by (American) friends.”

The letters and writings of Agassiz that Gould unearthed in the archives cement the belief now that Agassiz was a racist. Agassiz had never seen a Black person until emigrating to the U.S. and wrote to his mother about his revulsion at a first meeting with a Black waiter in Philadelphia. In the letter, he called Blacks a “degraded and degenerate race” inferior to Europeans.

Agassiz wrote of his encounter: “In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their large curved nails, and especially the livid color of the palms of their hands, I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell to stay far away. … What unhappiness for the white race — to have tied their existence so closely to that of negroes in certain countries! God preserve us from such a contact!”

That missive was far from a one-off. Agassiz made it a mission to discourage “miscegenation,” the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types. He made a field trip to plantations in the South and aligned himself with Josiah Nott, an Alabama slaveholder who believed “blacks were incapable of self-government.”

He also commissioned a noted daguerreotypist to photograph images of naked slaves so that he could study their physiognomy and discern subtle differences, publishing his essays in the popular journal Christian Examiner. That got the attention of the federal government.

Agassiz was enlisted to advise Samuel Gridley Howe, heading the Lincoln-developed American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission, a result of Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. He wrote to Howe about miscegenation that if “the effeminate progeny of mixed races, half indian, half negro, sprinkled with white blood” were to be allowed, “I shudder from the consequences. … How shall we eradicate the stigma of a lower race when its blood has once been allowed to flow freely into that of our children.”

Agassiz’s assessment of Native Americans is not as vitriolic, but engages with stereotypes. He writes of the “indomitable, courageous, proud Indian” but ranks indigenous people well below whites and warns of “halfbreeds.” Agassiz also wrote glowingly about Dr. Samuel Morton’s “craniological collection” — 900 skulls from many indigenous tribes.

And what was Agassiz’s motivation for such blatant racism? Some, including Irmscher, promote the “he-was-a-man-of-his-time” defense, with Irmscher correctly saying that even Emerson and Walt Whitman agreed with some of Agassiz’s racial theories. But back in England during that period, Darwin himself dismissed Agassiz’s writings and lectures as racism, sarcastically writing to his cousin that Agassiz was “maintaining the doctrine of several species — much, I dare say, to the comfort of the slave-holding Southerns.”

Some, including Irmscher and even to an extent Gould, also suggest that Agassiz glommed onto race because it’s what people wanted to hear, and that Agassiz was all about maintaining his popularity with the masses.

“Taking a position on race also assured Agassiz of the continuing interest of a non-academic audience,” Irmscher writes. “… Measured by the standards of his time, his racial views were extreme mostly because he talked about them so frequently, so vehemently, and so publicly.”

Reevaluating his legacy

The general public may have welcomed Agassiz’s racist views in the mid-1800s.

Not so now.

The Flagstaff City Council chose to rename Agassiz Street rather than fall back on the argument that to renounce him would be tantamount to denying our history. It’s a dilemma that state, federal and local officials have grappled with frequently in the matter of whether to remove confederate monuments from city squares and buildings.

Oddly, one defender of preserving Agassiz’s name and likeness has been Irmscher.

Though he writes that Agassiz’s views were “reprehensible” and “like a bad odor, Agassiz’s views on race have attached themselves to his damaged reputation,” Irmscher gave a 2014 interview with NPR in which he hedged on such punitive measures against Agassiz.

“What I would like to see,” he told interviewer Heather Goldstone, “is for us to remember Agassiz as part of the cultural legacy that is with us today and to talk about it, take this as an occasion for debate.”


Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News

Breaking News (FlagLive!)