Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz

“Colonnade of palms” from A Journey to Brazil

Born this day in 1822: Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (1822–1907), naturalist, education pioneer, author, first president of Radcliffe College

Agassiz was born Elizabeth Cabot Cary to a prominent family in Boston. She received no formal education, but the desultory teaching she received at home served her well enough to later become both a naturalist and educator. In 1850 she married the renowned Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, and the two formed a partnership that included science and education as well as family life.
Agassiz took careful notes of her husband’s lectures, which he then turned into works for publication. Although Elizabeth worried that her lack of formal training might compromise the result, she proved talented at science writing. She published several titles of her own, including A First Lesson in Natural History (1859), Seaside Studies in Natural History (with her stepson, Alexander Agassiz, 1865), and A Journey in Brazil (with her husband, 1867).
Elizabeth proved to have better managerial skills than her husband. She handled not only the family finances, but that of his work as well. She organized, managed, and kept notes for several of his major expeditions, including the Thayer Expedition to Brazil (learning Portuguese en route!). A Journey in Brazil was a recollection of that trip, taken from her journals and her husband’s scientific observations and including descriptions of their introduction to Brazilian society. The book was very popular with general audiences.
“I wish it were possible to give in words the faintest idea of the architectural beauty of this colonnade of palms, with their green crowns meeting to form the roof. Straight, firm, and smooth as stone columns, a dim vision of colonnades in some ancient Egyptian temple rises to the imagination as one looks down the long vista.” —A Journey in Brazil 
Agassiz ran a school for girls in Cambridge from 1855 to 1863. In 1873 the Agassizes founded a coeducational school of natural history, a marine laboratory located in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts. Mr. Aggasiz died in December of that year. In 1885 Elizabeth wrote his biography, Louis Agassiz, his Life and Correspondence.
Agassiz firmly believed that women should have access to the same education as men. In 1879 she established the “Harvard Annex,” a program of higher education for women, whereby they could be taught by Harvard Faculty. The annex was formally incorporated as the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women, and Agassiz became its first president. The college was named Radcliffe College in 1894 (to honor benefactor Ann Radcliffe, who established Harvard’s first scholarship in 1643).
Agassiz also enjoyed, and excelled at, the duties of home life. She raised three stepchildren and three grandchildren (her stepson’s wife died 8 days after Louis Agassiz died). Her stepson described her as “my mother, my sister, my companion and friend, all in one.”

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