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Louis Agassiz: a 19th-century scientist whose work embroiled Harvard in a controversial lawsuit

Louis Agassiz is back in the news.

A once-renowned Harvard scientist, Agassiz is responsible for commissioning photos that have pulled the university into a lawsuit questioning its right to the daguerreotypes of enslaved people forced to pose naked. Tamara Lanier, a retired chief probation officer in Norwich, Conn., filed the lawsuit because she says one of the people photographed is her ancestor, Papa Renty.

Here’s five things you should know about the man behind the images.

1. Agassiz was a staunch polygenist, and the photos he commissioned weren’t just of enslaved Americans.

Polygenism is the view that the human races are of different origins. In an effort to show what he saw as the physical differences among races and the superiority of the white race, Agassiz hired a South Carolina man named J.T. Zealy in 1850 to photograph nude African slaves.


And not only people of African origin. Fifteen years later, Agassiz led an expedition to Brazil where he forced native people to pose naked for photos, as well.

2. You know how there are cat people and dog people? Well, he was a bird person.

Agassiz, who was raised and educated in Switzerland and Germany, worked in the fields of geology and zoology.

He loved nature — as a student in Zurich, he kept more than 50 birds in the room he shared with his brother. He took extensive notes on the animals because he did not have the money to buy books about them. There is a tale that he was once asked at dinner to explain the difference between a frog and a toad, and in response, he pulled one out of each pocket to illustrate differentiations.

3. Agassiz’s ideas were widely celebrated in their time.

He was hired at Harvard after delivering very well-received lectures in Boston about a new discipline called “comparative zoology.” His talks postulated that the best way to classify living creatures was based on their structure.


His admirers named landmarks after him, including the Agassiz neighborhood and Agassiz Street in Cambridge, the Swiss mountain Agassizhorn, and Agassiz Peak in Arizona.

4. And his work is still somewhat embraced at Harvard today.

Agassiz founded the university’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The museum’s website has a page detailing the history of the institution, as well as Agassiz’s life. It describes him as “a great systematist, paleontologist and renowned teacher of natural history.” However, it only alludes to his polygenic ideas and doesn’t mention his belief that the white race was superior.

5. This isn’t the first time his legacy has come under fire.

In 2002, the Cambridge School Committee unanimously voted to remove Aggasiz’s name from a local elementary school due to the scientist’s racist beliefs. It was renamed after Maria L. Baldwin, the first African-American female principal in Massachusetts and the Northeast, and an educator at the school in the 19th century.

Ysabelle Kempe can be reached at