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Department ofVertebrate Zoology

Division of Fishes

Spencer F. Baird
Spencer F. Baird circa 1875
© Smithsonian Institution

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

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Louis Agassiz
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Louis Agassiz was already a brilliant and highly regarded scientist when he came to the United States in 1847. Fishes were among his first interests, and he had already published major works on the fishes of central Europe and Brazil as well as his master work on fossil fishes. His theory of ice ages established him as one of the great original thinkers of his time.

Agassiz was one of the two great museum builders in mid-19th century America, the other being Spencer F. Baird. Although Agassiz never worked for the Smithsonian, he had considerable impact on it through his relationship with Baird. He was one of Baird's strongest supporters in his quest to become Assistant Secretary and persistently lobbied Secretary Joseph Henry on Baird's behalf. Agassiz and Baird maintained a steady correspondence over the next quarter century, although the road was not always smooth. Agassiz had an ego to match his scientific talents and easily took offense at real or imagined slights. For example, he never forgave Charles Girard for leaving Harvard to work for Baird at the Smithsonian, and later he strongly opposed Baird's election to the National Academy of Sciences. Throughout, Baird handled Agassiz masterfully, never allowing himself to be drawn into conflict and always letting hard feelings fade away. Agassiz always maintained a strong interest in the Smithsonian, delivering occasional lectures and serving on the Institution's Board of Regents. He was selected to describe and publish on the fishes of the Wilkes Expedition (1838-1842), but the project remained unfinished.

In 1849, Agassiz and Baird planned a joint monograph on American fishes, and engaged August Sonrel (d. 1879), a gifted lithographer and an associate of Agassiz, to prepare the drawings. Owing to Agassiz's busy schedule and perhaps the tension developed over Girard's employment at the Smithsonian, the project was never completed. When Baird sensed that Sonrel's drawings were likely to get lost, he acquired them from Sonrel but they were not published until after Baird's death. In 1889, the Smithsonian Institution issued the plates as a special edition, titled Natural History Illustrations, prepared under the Direction of Louis Agassiz and Spencer F. Baird, 1849: Six Species of North American Fresh-Water Fishes (City of Washington, 1889). David S. Jordan provided explanations of the plates, describing the fishes (minnows and pike). In the preface to the special issue, the Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley noted that the plates were being published "as a memorial of a project undertaken early in the history of American science, by two of the most eminent naturalists this country ever possessed."

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