Lesquereux, Léo, 1806-1889

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Louis Agassiz (1807-1873, APS 1843) was a zoologist and geologist. A student of Georges Cuvier, Agassiz was renown for his six-volume work Poissons fossils, a study of more than 1,700 ancient fish. Equally important was his Ètudes sur les glaciers (1840). In 1845 Agassiz moved to the United States on a two-year study grant from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to compare the flora and fauna of the United States and Europe. While in the United States he was invited to deliver a course of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston. He took America and New England by storm and as a result in 1847 was appointed professor of zoology and geology at Harvard’s new Lawrence Scientific School.

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in Motier, Switzerland on May 26, 1807, the son of a Protestant minister Rodolphe Agassiz and his wife Rose Mayor. Despite family pressure to enter business, Agassiz early decided to devote himself to the study of nature. At the age of twenty-one he predicted that he would become “the first naturalist of his time, a good citizen and a good son.” His determination gained Agassiz an excellent education in the natural sciences at the Universities of Heidelberg and Munich. He also made important contacts in early life that formed his outlook and provided the basis for his early career. The naturalist Johann B. Spix allowed him to publish on a collection of fish from Brazil that Spix had gathered, while the anatomist Ignaz Döllinger trained him to use the microscope and introduced him to the field of embryology. Philosophically, Agassiz was influenced by the German idealism of Lorenz Okenfuss, who built a system of biological classification based upon increasing complexity of sense organs. Agassiz’s scientific thought and practice was characterized by two separate and often contradictory outlooks. One was exact and pragmatic; the other was transcendental. His approach was clearly influenced by French zoologist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier, who passed on to Agassiz his remarkable collection of fossil fish illustrations. He also impressed the geographer Alexander Humboldt, an adviser to the king of Prussia who arranged an appointment for him at the Collège de Neuchâtel in 1832, where he taught natural history for more than ten years. During these years (1832-42) he studied fossil fish in museums and private collections throughout Europe, resulting in his six-volume Poissons fossils that described more than 1,700 primeval fish, that he analyzed according to Cuvier’s comparative method. The work, which won high praise from major Bristish naturalists Sir Charles Lyell and Richard Owen, provided the basis for Agassiz’s scientific fame and fortune. His natural philosophy was infused with the belief in an all-powerful diety, who planned and created every single living being, plant and animal, undercutting any genetic connection between ancient and modern creatures.

In addition to his work on fish, between 1837 and 1843 Agassiz did ground breaking work on glacial geology, presented in a paper presented to the Sociètè Helvétique des Sciences naturelles (July 1837) and in his book Etudes sur les glaciers in which he theorized that a massive glacier had once covered all of Europe. Although the idea had first been suggested by Swiss naturalist Jean de Charpentier, Agassiz was the first to publicize the idea and to apply it to all of Europe. A prolific writer, who wished to be personally involved with the production of his works, Agassiz developed a publishing house in Neuchâtel, that employed the latest technology in photo duplication and produced bibliographies, dictionaries and monographs by Agassiz and his assistants. In the spring of 1845 Agassiz’s fortunes abruptly shifted. His wife Cécile Braun Agassiz left her husband and Neuchâtel, his printing business closed due to accumulated debts, and he was forced to leave the Collège de Neuchâtel. Just as his luck seemed to run out, he received word of a 2-year grant secured for him by Humboldt from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia for $3,000 to do a comparative study of the flora and fauna of the United States and Europe.

Shortly after the arrival of Agassiz in the United States, John Amory Lowell, manufacturer and head of the Lowell Institute in Boston, invited him to deliver a course of public lectures. New Englanders found the Swiss naturalist, who spoke enthusiastically about primitive fish and prehistoric glaciers, intriguing. New England scientific luminaries such as Harvard botanist Asa Gray and Yale chemist Benjamin Silliman lauded Agassiz as “full of knowledge on all subjects of science.” His lectures created such a demand for speaking engagements, that within less than two years Agassiz was able to repay $20,000 in European debt. In the fall of 1847 Harvard University offered him a chair of zoology and geology at its newly established Lawrence Scientic School. In July 1848, after his wife’s death, he arranged for his children to join him in the United States. These events, together with his 1850 marriage to a bright well-connected Bostonian Elizabeth Cabot Carey, sixteen years Agassiz’s junior, permanently anchored the Swiss scientist in America. Soon afterward Agassiz’s home in Cambridge became a center of intellectual life. As a Harvard professor he badgered the University continually for funds to build a major natural history museum to instruct the public and help to train advanced students. His efforts paid off in November 1859, when the Museum of Comparative Zoology opened its doors. The Museum provided a unique resource for American students to gain unrestricted, first hand access to natural specimens. Many practicing American naturalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were trained by Agassiz and worked in his museum. The Museum testified to Agassiz’s passion for collecting and identifying the “entire natural kingdom all at once,” a desire that quickly filled the repository to overflowing with specimens. From a philosophical perspective Agassiz planned the Museum as a demonstration of the “master plan” that the diety had executed in the creation of the natural world, displaying the “type plan” of different classes and stressing the separate creation of each species. Agassiz’s core belief in the special creation of species by God undergirded his quest to locate new species. However, some colleagues criticized him as “species mad,” arguing that his museum and his methods added little to the conceptual understanding of natural history.

Agassiz’s reputation took a major hit in a series of Boston debates on evolution, after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Agassiz made a poor defense of special creation against Darwin’s defenders Asa Gray and William Barton Rogers. Furthermore, Agassiz’s understanding of special creationism as applied to human beings led him to view various races as distinct species, a rationale quickly adopted by the proponents slavery, who asserted a scientific basis to white supremecy.

Concerned about the decline of his professional reputation in the 1850s, in 1855 Agassiz announced the forthcoming publication of a projected ten-volume entitled Contributions to the Natural History of the United States of America. A total of 2,500 subscribers made advanced purchases at $12.00 each. The initial volume entitled Essay on Classification elaborated Agassiz’s views on classification, the philosophy of nature and the species concept. Appearing two years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, the work drew mixed reviews. Many were put off by the author’s dogmatism, others thought his views dated and moribund. Three more volumes appeared, but the publication of the projected set was never completed.

Many years later in 1872 Agassiz did reconsider evolution, trying to understand Darwin’s views by making a trip around South America, retracing Darwin’s voyage. However, he only became more convinced that the concept of evolution was “a scientific mistake, untrue to the facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency.” To the dismay of the scientific community Agassiz authored strident attacks on Darwinism in the popular press, infuriating Asa Gray and James Dana. Consequently, Agassiz was increasingly excluded from the politics of American science.

Agassiz remained at Harvard University until the end of his life. When he died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was deeply mourned by his adopted country.

From the guide to the Louis Jean Rodolph Agassiz papers, 1833-1873, 1833-1873 1833-1873, (American Philosophical Society)

A bryologist and pioneering paleobotanist of the American coal measures, Leo Lesquereux was born in Fleurier, Switzerland, on November 18, 1806, the son of Aimé Lesquereux and his wife Marie Anne. From early in life, Leo exhibited an unusual propensity for enduring physical and financial adversity and overcoming it with aplomb. As a boy, for example, he suffered a fall while climbing rocks near home that left him mangled and comatose, but within months he recovered and resumed in his passion for the outdoors undeterred.

A shy and indifferent student, Lesquereux studied with the village priest in Fleurier and nearby Motiers until he was 13. Although he initially wished to follow his father's trade of watchmaker, he was instead sent to study for the ministry at the College at Neuchâtel, entering the second class with Arnold Guyot and August Agassiz (brother of Louis), who became fast friends. But while Guyot and Agassiz soon distinguished themselves academically, Lesquereux struggled with the demands of school, which were exacerbated by the need to work as a tutor for as much as four hours a day in order to earn his keep. He had only begun to hit his stride academically in the year before his graduation in 1827, only to find that his family's financial troubles would force him to suspend his plans for further study.

With the assistance of one of his instructors in philosophy, Lesquereux secured a position teaching French in an upper class household in Eisenach, Saxony, intending to earn the money himself to continue toward the ministry. Although his days were fully occupied with his duties, Lesquereux found that he had time to socialize in the afternoons and evenings, and he became accepted in the high society of the Saxon nobility. The most concrete outcome of this experience was his engagement to Sophia von Wolffskeel, the daughter of one a decorated Napoleonic General and one of Goethe's confidantes, Henriette von Wolffskeel.

With finances presenting an obstacle to marriage, Lesquereux returned home in the hopes of bettering himself. Taking a position as instructor at the college at La Chaux de Fonds in the Jura Mountains, he was well enough established by July 1830 to return to Eisenach to marry, but in a pattern repeated throughout his life, his moment of success was soon followed by hardship. Two years after marrying, Lesquereux took seriously ill and suffered partial impairment of hearing, and during the course of treatments for his condition, his Eustachian tubes burst. Left profoundly deaf, Lesquereux was forced to abandon teaching, and after a period of being supported by his wife, he joined his father engraving watches and tempering watch springs.

During these difficult years, Lesquereux developed a interest in natural history, and gained a small reputation in bryology as a diligent collector of rare mosses. In search of sphagnum and other species, Lesquereux became familiar with the peat deposits that line the high Jura valleys, and when he learned of a prize offered by his canton for the best essay on the origin and use of peat, he seized the opportunity. Joining the natural historical society of Neuchâtel recently founded by Louis Agassiz, Lesquereux devised a special augur for sampling peat, and began researching fundamental issues in its origin, composition, and development of peat deposits, taking careful measurements of internal temperatures, analyzing structures, and for the first time demonstrating the deformation of sphagnum under pressure. The cantonal commission which oversaw the prize, headed by Agassiz, awarded him a gold medal, and Lesquereux's report, Quelques Recherches sur les Marais Tourbeux en Général (1844) -- his first publication of any kind -- was given wide distribution.

Beginning in July 1845, with the money earned from this award, Lesquereux extended his studies to include peat deposits and low grade coal formations across northern Europe, winning additional support from the Prussian government interested in the economic potential. During this time, Lesquereux encountered specimens of fossil plants from the coal measures for the first time while visiting the laboratory of Wilhelm Schimper at Strasburg, and began to branch out in his interests.

When Lesquereux lost his position during the revolutions of 1848, he chose to follow Louis Agassiz and Guyot to the United States, bringing his family with him. After a brief stay in Cambridge, where Agassiz was unable to secure an appointment for him, Lesquereux settled in Columbus, Ohio, and returned to selling watches. After an initial period of financial duress, the now middle-aged paleobotanist set about earning the funds to enable his return to science. His impact on American bryology and paleobotany followed closely. Lesquereux's Musci Americani Exsiccata (1856), written with William S. Sullivant, was an important contribution to American bryology, and on the strength of this work, he and Sullivant were given the opportunity to describe the mosses collected on the Wilkes Expedition (1828-1842) and the Amiel Whipple Expedition along the 35th parallel (1853). His two volume Icones Muscorum (1864) was an important summary of mosses in the eastern United States.

In paleobotany, Lesquereux's contribution was equally fundamental. Working with the state geological surveys in the Midwest and south, he contributed pioneering analyses of the Paleozoic floras of Arkansas, Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, and the Dakotas, and his Catalogue of the Fossil ... from the Coal Measures of North America, prepared for the First Pennsylvania Geological Survey in 1858, was the first work to attempt a comprehensive survey of the rich Carboniferous flora of the state. His Description of the Coal Flora of the Carboniferous Formation (3 vols., 1879-1884), written for the second Geological Survey, became the standard work on the subject.

Lesquereux was elected a member of the APS in January 1861 and a member of the National Academy of Sciences three years later. He remained active in research well into his 70s, curtailing field work only when he retired in 1884. He died five years later on October 20, 1889.

From the guide to the Leo Lesquereux Autobiography, 1864-1886, (American Philosophical Society)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn James, Thomas Potts, 1803-1882. Papers of Thomas Potts James, 1843-1882 (inclusive). Harvard University, Farlow Reference Library
referencedIn Lapham, Increase Allen, 1811-1875. Increase A. Lapham papers, 1825-1930. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
referencedIn Eaton, Daniel Cady, 1834-1895. Papers, 1854-1897 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
creatorOf Ward, Lester Frank, 1841-1913. Correspondence, 1865-1913, "King" to "Marcon." Brown University Archives, John Hay Library
referencedIn Smithsonian Institution. Office of the Secretary. Correspondence, 1865-1891 Smithsonian Institution Archives
referencedIn National Archives And Records Administration. Rg 57: Geological Survey.
referencedIn Fielding B. Meek Papers Smithsonian Institution Archives
referencedIn Lesley, J. Peter, 1819-1903. Papers, 1826-1898 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn National Academy Of Sciences, Archives. Deceased Members.
referencedIn Manuscripts of Thomas Potts James and Leo Lesquereux, 1879 Botany Libraries
referencedIn James, Thomas Potts, 1803-1882. Manuscripts of Thomas Potts James and Leo Lesquereux, 1879. Harvard University, Botany Libraries
referencedIn Stauffer, Jacob, 1808-1880. Correspondence, 1844-1879. American Philosophical Society Library
referencedIn Sullivant, William Starling, 1803-1873. Papers of William Starling Sullivant, 1818-1873 (inclusive). Harvard University, Farlow Reference Library
referencedIn American Philosophical Society. Arnold Guyot Papers.
referencedIn Jacob Stauffer Papers, 1844-1879, 1844-1879 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Administrative correspondence of the Gray Herbarium and Harvard University Herbaria, 1890-2019, bulk 1890-1955 Harvard University, Gray Herbarium
referencedIn Scientists Collection, 1563-1973 American Philosophical Society
creatorOf Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889. Letters to Henry N. Bolander, 1862-1878. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Leo Lesquereux Autobiography, 1864-1886 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Lesley, J. P. (J. Peter), 1819-1903. Papers, 1826-1898. American Philosophical Society Library
creatorOf Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889. Leo Lesquereux postcard to William M. Fontaine [manuscript] 1877 Jun 25. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Pettee, William Henry, 1838-1904. Papers of William Henry Pettee, 1847-1898 (bulk 1865-1878). Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens
referencedIn Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873. Correspondence and other papers, 1821-1877 Houghton Library
creatorOf Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889. Papers, 1883 May 2. Ohio History Connection, Ohio Historical Society
referencedIn Smithsonian Archives. Ru 52: Assistant Secretary, Incoming Correspondenc.
referencedIn LeConte, John L. (John Lawrence), 1825-1883. Papers, 1812-1897 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Eaton, Daniel Cady, 1834-1895. Daniel Cady Eaton (1834-1895) papers, 1854-1897 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn Agassiz, Elizabeth Cabot Cary, 1822-1907. Papers, 1838-1920 (inclusive), 1838-1908 (bulk). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873. Papers, 1833-1873. American Philosophical Society Library
referencedIn American Philosophical Society. John Peter Lesley Papers.
referencedIn LeConte, John L. (John Lawrence), 1825-1883. Papers, 1812-1897. American Philosophical Society Library
referencedIn Beattie, R. Kent (Rolla Kent), 1875-1960. Papers, 1899-1956 Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC)
creatorOf Louis Jean Rodolph Agassiz papers, 1833-1873, 1833-1873 1833-1873 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Arnold Guyot Collection, 1857-1882 American Philosophical Society
referencedIn Smithsonian Institution. Office of the Secretary. Correspondence, 1863-1879 Smithsonian Institution Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
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American Philosophical Society
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National Academy of Sciences
National Museum
Natural history
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Peat bogs
Physical geography
Science and technology
Scientific expeditions
Scientific publications
Smithsonian Exchange
Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Library
Smithsonian Publications
Surveys And Explorations, General
Zoological museums


Birth 1806-11-18

Death 1889-10-25




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