It was Charles William Eliot's misfortune to become involved with the Lazzaroni not as an active proponent of their aims but as a victim of their high-handed and, at times, ruthless quest for scientific excellence. Eliot was born into one of Boston's most prominent and wealthiest societies, the only son of Samuel Atkins Eliot and Mary Lyman. From the Eliots, Charles could identify with the cultural, political, and educational development of New England; from the Lymans, with the commerce and philanthropy of Boston. His upbringing and education were typically mid-nineteenth century Bostonian; from the rigid classicism of Boston Latin School to Harvard at the age of 15, he never left New England until the Lazzaroni did him the service of depriving him of a job in 1863.
At Harvard Eliot profited from the new scientific environment being created by the mathematician Benjamin Peirce, the newly arrived Louis Agassiz, the physicist Joseph Lovering, the anatomist Jeffries Wyman, and the chemist Josiah Parsons Cooke. As an undergraduate he worked in Cooke's primitive laboratory and carried on field work in chemistry and mineralogy. Before he had reached the legal age of independence, he had graduated from Harvard and been appointed tutor in mathematics ( 1854); in 1858 he was made assistant professor of chemistry and mathematics, married into the ministerial Peabody family, and began to devote his time to students, administration, thinking about education, and raising a family. When the Rumford Professorship in chemistry in the Lawrence Scientific School became available, he was certain that he would inherit it and with it, automatically, the deanship of the school since he was already acting dean. Thus, he was shocked when President Thomas Hill foreseeing the appointment of Wolcott Gibbs to the chair--a much "superior man" in Agassiz's opinion--tried to solace him with the offer of a temporary professorship with a hardly sufficient salary.