On December 14, 1873, after a struggle that had taken several days, the great Louis Agassiz, easily the best-known naturalist of his time, died of a stroke in his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His colleague on the Harvard faculty, the equally brilliant botanist Asa Gray, apparently had Agassiz’s obituary all written, as if he had been waiting for that moment. His ambivalent tribute to him appeared in The Nation the day after the funeral. Of course, it was no secret around Harvard that there was no love lost between these two men, polar opposites not only physically (Agassiz, a good eater and dedicated drinker of wine, had always towered over the ascetic Gray) but also ideologically. Gray had ushered the American edition of The Origin of Species into print and fought Darwin’s battles in and around Cambridge so effectively that the staunch anti-evolutionist Agassiz was slinking around like a “well-cudgeled dog,” as Gray delightedly reported to his friend Darwin in Kent. Read More
Mar 02, 2013 8:15 AM EST
Gray seems to have sustained a magnanimous respect and even some fondness for his adversary. Affection was likely formed by the decades of shared experiences and Gray's appreciation of Agassiz's intellectual strength and conscientious beliefs (even if ill-founded and stubbornly maintained in the face of empiric evidence to the contrary). These, it would appear, Gray valued more highly than his antagonist's intellectual and personal attacks. Like two prize fighters embracing after the final bell, the recognition of mutually shared effort remains long after the malice has dissipated. As the elder statesman of natural science, Gray in 1886 (13 years after Agassiz's death) again portrayed Agassiz in a very favorable light in his January review (The Andover Review)of Elizabeth Agassiz's "Louis Agassiz, his Life and Correspondence".
- Dan Weinstock, M.D.