"The Agassiz legend"--as William James termed the popular response to the career and personality of Louis Agassiz--persisted long after the death of the naturalist in 1873. Agassiz's "passion for knowing living things," together with his romantic enthusiasm, boundless energy, and grand visions, endeared him and his scientific interests not only to the highly intellectual Boston community, which he had entered as a welcome foreigner in 1846, and which he made his own thereafter, but to Americans generally, who found in his selfless devotion to science a prototype of the romantic hero.
Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in French Switzerland, into a family of Protestant ministers, physicians, and businessmen. From early childhood, he revealed a very special sensitivity to the natural life that surrounded him in the Swiss cantons of Fribourg and Neuchâtel. Sent to Zurich, Heidelberg, and Munich to train for a career in medicine, the young Agassiz devoted most of his energies instead to the collecting and studying of animal and plant life, especially fossil and fresh-water fish. From student days to the end of his life, Agassiz's intellectual imagination was voracious, far outreaching at times his physical capacities. Louis's "mania for rushing full gallop into the future" (as his father explained his intellectual energies) was responsible for his undertaking at the age of 21 nothing less than a full- scale work on The Fishes of Brazil ( 1829), and soon thereafter, the study of the History of the Fresh Water Fishes of Central Europe ( 1839- 1842). A period of study in Paris under the tutelage of the famous naturalist Baron Cuvier was followed by the publication, from 1833 to 1844, of five volumes of Recherches sur les poissons fossiles, a work that constituted one of the first efforts in modern times to describe and analyze ancient fishes. "Agassiz's work," writes Edward Lurie, "was so singular and definitive that its scope and originality were not matched until late in the nineteenth century."