Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Runner of the Mountain Tops, by Mabel Robinson

The best image I could find of the cover comes courtesy of Lowry James's website.  The copy I borrowed has no jacket and therefore is much less interesting to look at.

A biography of some one I didn't know!  It was certainly interesting.  Louis Agassiz was raised in Switzerland, and from an early age he showed a great talent for learning about all kinds of wildlife.  Although his reasonably poor parents (a pastor and his wife) had wanted him to learn a business trade so he could work with his uncle, it was obvious that Louis's inclinations were elsewhere.  He instead went to college to seek a medical degree.  Over time it was clear that his recreation was more geared toward zoology (he even published a detailed, illustrated book on Brazilian freshwater fish), but his parents still demanded that he not return home until he had the coveted MD!

Agassiz attacked all of his work with amazing intensity and enthusiasm, but this did take his attention away from his financial obligations.  Money and opportunity seemed to come to him at just the right time, though, so he'd vacillate between periods of want and periods of comfort.  But over time, as his reputation became known, he was offered more steady work (such as professorships) that allowed him the flexibility to develop his collections of various species, as well as the means to marry and maintain a family (although his first family was unfortunately sadly neglected).

Because he found the two so very interrelated, Agassiz also developed an intense love of geology in addition to zoology.  This is where the title of the book comes from - he spent months on expeditions in the Alps and elsewhere developing theories of how the earth had formed.  Although he lived at more or less the same time as Darwin, he could not, however, espouse the man's theories of evolution because he felt it was in conflict with his religion.  Eventually Agassiz was called to chair both departments (geology and zoology) at Harvard, in Cambridge.  That remained his "home base" through the rest of his life, and he was buried there.

Louis Agassiz was fascinating to learn about, but I think I'd prefer a more well-rounded biography as a modern reader.  I'm finding that many of these older biographies are written in a somewhat indulgent tone that describes the subject's potential faults or failures in a way that makes them seem almost charming.  They also leave out the details I'd want to know (for example, Louis's first wife dies at home while he is away on one of his many long excursions, and the book doesn't bother letting us know the cause).   Wikipedia apparently didn't find the mother of his children interesting enough to mention, noting only the accomplishments of his second wife.   

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