Louis Agassiz: Freshwater Fish of Central Europe


"Louis Agassiz was, without doubt, the greatest and most influential naturalist of nineteenth-century America. A Swiss by birth, he was the first great European theorist in biology to make America his home... {He} virtually established natural history as a discipline in America."

-Stephen Jay Gould



Had Louis Agassiz not been the most prominent scientist in his time to oppose the theory of evolution, the world today might know him as they do von Humboldt, Darwin and Audubon. As a young man, the Swiss scientist completed an astounding number of classification and publishing projects. My middle age he had immigrated to America, where he took the nation by storm with the breadth of his expertise and a charming enthusiasm for science. Yet in his later years, Agassiz’s opposition to Darwin’s theory detracted from his reputation.


Histoire naturelle des poissons d'eau douce de l'Europe centrale by Louis Agassiz and Carl Vogt. Neuchâtel: De Petitpierre, 1839. Preserved in contemporary blue portfolio with ties and original printer's illustrated title cover pasted onto front board.

In the early Agassiz work, Histoire naturelle des poissons d'eau douce de l'Europe centrale, one sees the developing career and philosophy of a great naturalist. Nearly 180 years since publication, the hand-painted scales of freshwater fish (and the words describing them) present the reader with the early perspective of a new breed of scientist. Each page presents the story of ichthyology and the development of zoological illustration, but the work also sets the scene for the life of a 19th-century scientist on his way to acclaim, controversy, and, eventually, posterity. As a lifelong champion of natural history as a professional, scientific study, Agassiz’s findings as zoologist and as geologist were important. His most profound gift to the world, though, can be seen in this book : Louis Agassiz observed, documented and communicated about nature in a way the world had not yet seen.  



Agassiz began studying freshwater fish as early as 1828 when he was a young student in Munich, employing the help of a friend to produce drawings of various species. While completing his education (doctorates in philosophy and medicine), he thrived under the patronage of such luminaries as von Humboldt and Cuvier. Securing a teaching position at Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1832, Agassiz turned the small apartment he shared with his wife and three small children into a publishing house, staffing and funding the production of bibliographies, dictionaries, and research publications at his own expense. Using the latest technology in photo duplication, the team of scientists and illustrators completed a number of immense projects throughout the 1830s, ranging from a historical catalog of zoological nomenclature to a study of the movement of glaciers. 

Biographer Edward Lurie’s Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science depicts the energy and the challenges of the enterprise:    


At Neuchâtel [Agassiz] lived in a frugal manner, devoting those sums not expended upon publications to the support of a staff of assistants which included at various times four artists, three naturalists, a lithographer, and a secretary…  Spurning the advice of family and friends who cautioned him against assuming too many financial obligations, Agassiz insisted on going ahead with his plans, rarely pausing to organize them on a sound fiscal basis. The costliest of these ventures was a lithography organized in 1837 to reproduce colored illustrations for scientific works. This enterprise was a great technical success, since the process of lithochromatic duplication developed by Agassiz's staff represented a marked improvement over previous methods.

A decade after he had started it, Agassiz’s team completed the first volume of the Histoire naturelle des poissons d'eau douce de l'Europe centrale. The rare, atlas-sized book depicts beautiful, delicate renderings of the varieties of Salmo trutta and Salmo fario (brown trout and brook trout) of Central Europe on 27 lithographic plates, 20 of them painstakingly hand-colored by assistants Dinkel, Sonrel and Nicolet, under the supervision of Agassiz and his colleague Carl Vogt. A number of the fish almost seem to take life, their color heightened with silver that catches the light. In the astounding visual beauty of the illustrations and the narrative of the descriptions, the reader cannot help but reflect on the early career of the scientist as he ensured every detail about the fish in the rivers of his homeland was noted and presented for study.


Lurie writes, “Agassiz’s Neuchâtel years were the most productive of his life, encompassing extraordinary activity in teaching, research, and instilling interest in natural history in the townsfolk.” Although the title of this classic ichthyological work suggests otherwise, the descriptions and illustrations in this volume depict the family Salmonidae only. While additional volumes (Embryologie des salmones and Anatomie des salmones) were completed in the following years, the overarching project was never finished. This is the most famous of the three for its luxurious printed plates. The incomplete state of the Histoire naturelle inadvertantly depicts several themes from this era of Agassiz’s prolific career: The volume and scale of publishing projects were more than budgets and time allowed. A space shared by a young family and a team of workers may not be conducive to such undertakings. Despite such limitations, Agassiz nevertheless harnessed his own curiosity and the immense talent around him to produce an astonishing quantity of work for the time.

Completed when he was 31 years old and still making a place for himself in scientific circles, the detail portrayed in the Histoire naturelle belies the philosophy that would become fundamental to Agassiz’s research and teaching, which would set him against the mainstream in his later years. Here, one can feel the man’s passionate belief that God had in mind every single fish species, with characteristics immutable by the surrounding ecosystem, and that to observe the differences between each was to glorify Him.

 Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, by John Adams Whipple, Albumen silver print, c. 1860. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, by John Adams Whipple, Albumen silver print, c. 1860. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.


This swarm of early scientific study and publication, as well as a gregarious nature, propelled Agassiz into public and academic notoriety upon his 1846 arrival in the United States. Original plans to study the natural history and geology of America were quickly set aside in favor of a popular traveling lecture series. Impressing everyone he encountered with his extensive knowledge as well as his personality, Agassiz was welcomed into scientific and social circles everywhere he went. By 1847 he had accepted a professorship of zoology at Harvard University, where he eventually established what would become the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The institution went on to shape generations of zoologists and museums and continues to be a leader in the field.

By 1859, when Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of the Species, Louis Agassiz was one of the most prominent scientists of his day. That same year, the revered professor published his Essay On Classification, voicing his disagreement with the scientific zeitgeist as it shifted from creationism towards a doctrine of evolution. He increasingly espoused outlandish and unpopular arguments that bolstered his religion-lined science, including an obsession with differences between the races. While other scientists were able to reconcile their theology with the indisputable evidence for evolution, Agassiz maintained that new species developed not because of adaption to a changing environment, but because of divine intervention.


This fundamental disagreement with the majority of his colleagues colored Agassiz’s later years and professional relationships therein. He could not have known which side of history he was on, nor that his legacy would not be primarily in his research and theses, but in the effect he had on American education and culture. His own early years as a student of nature taught him the value of first-hand observation. Unable to afford the books necessary for his interests in his student years, he taught himself to observe and learn independently, a method which had a profound influence on both his students and lecture audiences. In his thick French accent, Agassiz encouraged Americans to experience and appreciate their natural environment. He trained naturalists to gain information through extensive observation and comparison. He set a high scholarly standard in his work at Harvard, and was instrumental in gaining support for and awareness of the sciences nationwide.

We can see the imprint Agassiz left on the world less in his findings (or his faults) than in his impact on American pedagogy and the spirit of learning in science.  It is that spirit, and his attention to detail and observation, that is visible to the reader of this very rare volume.  As one pages through the delicately silvered fish and reads their descriptions in the Histoire naturelle des poissons d'eau douce de l'Europe centrale, the reader imagines Agassiz at the height of his energy, ambition and curiosity, when he was boldly pursuing a way of looking at the world and of teaching others to do so that would eventually alter the character of science education.



A fine copy of this extremely rare portfolio, with original printer’s illustrated title cover pasted onto front board.     $12,000

Contact Foxtail Books for information on the Histoire naturelle des poissons d'eau douce de l'Europe centrale by Louis Agassiz, and other rare books that tell the story of natural history. 


Britannica Academic, s.v. "Louis Agassiz," accessed March 26, 2018, https://academic-eb-com.proxy.lib.wy.us/levels/collegiate/article/Louis-Agassiz/3993.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, 1983.

Gould, Stephen Jay. "In a Jumbled Drawer."  Natural History, 97(8): 12-19. New York, 1988.

Lurie, Edward. Louis Agassiz And American Natural Science, 1846-1873, Northwestern University, Ann Arbor, 1956.

Lurie, Edward. “Agassiz, Louis (26 May 1807-14 Dec. 1873).” American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Marcou, Jules. Life, Letters, and Works of Louis Agassiz, Volume 1. New York: Macmillan and Company, 1896.

McCullough, David. Brave Companions: Portraits in History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

Christy Shannon Smirl