Shaler and Agassiz


from The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler
(Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1907).

Here is an estimate of Louis Agassiz as a teacher. The writer is one of his former students, N. S. Shaler, who studied zoology under Agassiz as an undergraduate at Harvard and later became a Professor of Geology at the same University. The passage is taken from The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler pp 93-100.

When I sat me down before my tin pan, Agassiz brought me a small fish, placing it before me with the rather stern requirement that I should study it, but should on no account talk to any one concerning it, nor read anything relating to fishes, until I had his permission so to do. To my inquiry, "What shall I do?" he said in effect: "Find out what you can without damaging the specimen; when I think that you have done the work I will question you." In the course of an hour I thought I had compassed that fish; it was rather an unsavory object, giving forth the stench of old alcohol, then loathsome to me, though in time I came to like it. Many of the scales were loosened so that they fell off. It appeared to me to be a case for a summary report, which I was anxious to make and get on to the next stage of the business. But Agassiz, though always within call, concerned himself no further with me that day, nor the next, nor for a week.

At first, this neglect was distressing; but I saw that it was a game, for he was, as I discerned rather than saw, covertly watching me. So I set my wits to work upon the thing, and in the course of a hundred hours or so I thought I had done much--a hundred times as much as seemed possible at the start. I got interested in finding out how the scales went in series, their shape, the form and placement of the teeth, etc. Finally, I felt full of the subject, and probably expressed it in my bearing; as for words about it then, there were none from my master except his cheery "Good morning." At length, on the seventh day, came the question, "Well?" and my disgorge of learning to him as he sat on the edge of my table puffing his cigar. At the end of the hour's telling, he swung off and away, saying: "That is not right." Here I began to think that, after all, perhaps the rules for scanning Latin verse were not the worst infliction in the world. Moreover, it was clear that he was playing a game with me to find if I were capable of doing hard, continuous work without the support of a teacher, and this stimulated me to labor. I went at the task anew, discarded my first notes, and in another week of ten hours a day labor I had results which astonished myself and satisfied him. Still there was no trace of praise in words or manner. He signified that it would do by placing before me about a half a peck of bones, telling me to see what I could make of them, with no further directions to guide me. I soon found that they were the skeletons of half a dozen fishes of different species; the jaws told me so much at a first inspection. The task evidently was to fit the separate bones together in their proper order. Two months or more went to this task with no other help than an occasional looking over my grouping with the stereotyped remark: "That is not right." Finally, the task was done, and I was again set representing, perhaps, twenty species of the side-swimmers or Pleuronectidae.

I shall never forget the sense of power in dealing with things which I felt in beginning the more extended work on a group of animals. I had learned the art of comparing objects, which is the basis of the naturalist's work. At this stage I was allowed to read, and to discuss my work with others about me. I did both eagerly, and acquired a considerable knowledge of the literature of ichthyology, becoming especially interested in the system of classification, then most imperfect. I tried to follow Agassiz's scheme of division into the order of ctenoids and ganoids, with the result that I found one of my species of side-swimmers had cycloid scales on one side and ctenoid on the other. This not only shocked my sense of the value of classification in a way that permitted of no full recovery of my original respect for the process, but for a time shook my confidence in my master's knowledge. At the same time I had a malicious pleasure in exhibiting my "find" to him expecting to repay in part the humiliation which he had evidently tried to inflict on my conceit. To my question as to how the nondescript should be classified he said: "My boy, there are now two of us who know that."

At the time of the events narrated by Shaler (1859-1860) there were no written examinations on any subjects to be taken by candidates for the Scientific School (as the College of Science at Harvard was then called). Admission to a course of study was by permission of the professors in charge of the several departments who questioned candidates orally in order to determine their fitness to proceed for degree. The students who were accepted paid their fees directly to their teachers who depended on such additions to their salaries in order to live. (In 1859, for example, Agassiz was paid only $2,500 a year in salary by the University, a sum that Shaler himself calls "meager.") "Few or none," Shaler remarks, "who had any semblance of an education were denied admission to Agassiz's laboratory." But a number of those granted admission stayed there a good deal longer than the four years required for a degree. For Agassiz refused to recommend the graduation of "some who had been with him for many years, and had succeeded in their special work, giving as reason for his denial that they were 'too ignorant."

Shaler recalls that the preliminary examination Agassiz gave him "was directed first to find that I knew enough Latin and Greek to make use of those languages." Then came a test in German and French. He seemed not at all interested, Shaler states, "to find what I knew about fossils, rocks, animals and plants"--at which the student was, of course, "offended." On the day that Shaler sat him down before that tin pan, Agassiz's laboratory consisted of "one room about thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide" the whole of which was invariably "packed" with students. The rest of the "two story building was given over to storerooms in which Agassiz's "collections were crammed. In this, his second meeting with Agassiz, Shaler was simply assigned a place at a "small pine table." The tin pan before him he remembers distinctly as being very rusty.