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Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science

3.20  ·  Rating details ·  44 ratings  ·  14 reviews
Charismatic and controversial, Louis Agassiz is our least known revolutionary—some fifty years after American independence, he became a founding father of American science.

One hundred and seventy-five years ago, a Swiss immigrant took America by storm, launching American science as we know it. The irrepressible Louis Agassiz, legendary at a young age for his work on mount
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published February 5th 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published January 1st 2013)
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3.20  · 
Rating details
 ·  44 ratings  ·  14 reviews

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Sara Van Dyck
Jan 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Irmscher admits in the introduction that Agassiz is a difficult man to love. I have always seen him as at best misguided and self-promoting. But this biography shows a complex and accomplished man – if still not lovable. He tried to teach students “how to observe,” instead of relying on reading, and he himself wrote the most careful, detailed descriptions of his specimens, living or pickled. He founded the great Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. By putting Agassiz in the context of his t ...more
Jan 22, 2016 rated it it was ok
I would have never predicted writing this sentence, but I felt the author was too much of a Darwinist for my tastes. English professors are the most strident defenders of Darwin in the academy, so when you commission an EngProf to write about this topic it will lack balance. If your sympathies for Darwinian thought overshadow your interest in its predecessors, by all means, read this book and sneer. If you are genuinely interested in Agassiz and his work, look elsewhere.
Feb 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is taken from my review appearing in the March 14, 2013 issue of the Christian Science Monitor.

In the introduction to his wonderful new biography Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science, Christoph Irmscher carefully lists some of the more “undelightful” aspects of the life and work of the eminent Swiss zoologist, glaciologist, and paleontologist: “his shabby treatment of his first wife, whom he left when he traveled to the new world; his relentless resistance to Darwinism; and perhaps mo
Deborah Cramer
Apr 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Elegant, insightful, compelling. From Rebecca Stott's New York Times Book Review: "During the California earthquake of 1906, the marble statue of Louis Agassiz toppled off the second story of Stanford University’s zoology building and plunged headfirst into the ground. The great scientist, with his head buried in concrete, his upturned body sticking up into air, became an iconic image of the earthquake. Agassiz is often remembered as a fallen man, Christoph Irmscher tells us. His rejection of Da ...more
W. Nikola-Lisa
Feb 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I'm sure I read about Louis Agassiz in high school, probably required reading in biology class. But I never really had a sense of the full person. Christoph Irmscher gives us that picture. Agassiz is not a pleasant fellow always: a charmer, yes, but don't cross his path (and be careful of how much of your own research you share with him). An anti-Darwinian evolutionist to the end, Agassiz had his own views of things, which he cultivated in his own domain: Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School. Fo ...more
May 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Very well written biography. Even with this sympathetic treatment by Irmscher, it wasn't easy to like Aggasiz. The interplay between Agassiz and contemporary luminaries, including Asa Gray, Thoreau, etc. is fascinating. And, then, of course, there is Darwin.
Mar 14, 2013 rated it it was ok
Louis Agassiz was instrumental in establishing a tradition of "reading nature, not books", that continues, in a way, today. It is vital that new and established scientists make their own observations rather than rely just on the observations of others.

The legacy of Louis Agassiz is in the fact that he promoted this view to professionals and amateur naturalists alike, and that he established one of the first field schools of natural history in the USA - why didn't the author include more on this?
Don Friedman
Nov 06, 2016 rated it it was ok
Biography of Louis Agassiz - I knew almost nothing about him, so I learned quite a lot about him, about his nearly rock star status and influence in science in the 19th century, his key role in change the nature of science education, his stature at Harvard and role in the development of science instruction and research there. Also about his not great treatment of his first wife, and the very significant role played by his second wife, Elizabeth, who helped create a market for popular science wri ...more
Feb 17, 2014 rated it liked it
This is a biography of the absolute now: its methods feel incredibly current, from the way is seeks to "read" the glacial scratches that Agassiz identifies, to the textual exegesis is gives to Agassiz's comments on race, interpreting them not only as themselves but also as a part of a discourse of white supremacy (it's like the grad school answer to claims "you had to unerstand the times," and it's even harsher for that), or the way it very symapthetically, and a little playfully, reads Elizabet ...more
Margaret Sankey
Sep 14, 2013 rated it liked it
Solid scientific and social biography of the 19th century Swiss founder of the professionalization of American science. Irmscher is committed to showing his subject, warts and all--from the traits a 21st century reader would regard as progressive (his second wife's work in science writing, promotion of education, abolitionism) to the less acceptable (his treatment of his first wife, 19th century racial hierarchy, opposition to Darwin), all within the context of his carefully built network of pat ...more
Jun 21, 2013 rated it liked it
An interesting and literary perspective on a scientific icon whose legacy is shaded by Agassiz's racism, ego, and competitiveness. By profiling Agassiz's second wife, students and peers, Irmscher provides multiple perspectives, which at times makes the book itself feel like it has multiple personality disorder. This is not an intimate biography from the view inside Agassiz's head, but a sketch made from a distance. Still, it is a valuable contribution to the history of contemporary science.
Christoph Irmscher
Apr 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
From the New York Times Review by Rebecca Stott:"Irmscher is a richly descriptive writer with an eye for detail, the complexities and contradictions of character, and the workings of institutional and familial power structures. This is a book not just about a man of science but also about a scientific culture in the making." Read the full review here.
Vagabond Geologist
Aug 25, 2015 rated it did not like it
What a disappointing book! After slogging through this book about the "creator of American science" I know little more about the man or his contributions to the development if scientific thought in America (or anywhere else) than I did before I opened the book. I'm afraid this one will go into the box of books destined for Goodwill.
May 21, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: science-nature
I've always wanted to read a bio on Louis Agassiz but hadn't found one until now. So it turns out he was pretty much a jerk, but he did love nature and felt one could become closer to the divine by studying it. It's hard to find out someone you've heard so much about doesn't live up to the hype.
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