Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Louis Agassiz
Nature Bulletin No. 756   May 16, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor

The father of natural science education in our modern schools was the great Swiss naturalist and teacher, Louis Agassiz. From 1848 until his death in 1873, he was the professor of zoology and geology in the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard. There, he not only trained a generation of zoologists and geologists, several of whom become famous: he gave a new slant, new purpose, and a powerful push to scientific education in America -- especially the study of natural history.

Agassiz was an inspiring teacher who preached and practiced a philosophy of education that was revolutionary in his day. He was passionately opposed to theories and conclusions obtained largely from books and attending lectures. Agassiz refused to be an oracle "imparting information" to his students. Instead, he required them to obtain it firsthand from specimens and their life histories. Thus, he made the study of natural science attractive and meaningful.

"Study nature, not books", was his slogan. In other words, take nothing for granted. He told his students: "Go to nature; take the facts in your hands; look, and see for yourself". "The book of nature is always open". "If I succeed in teaching you to observe, my aim will be obtained. .

Modern programs of Outdoor Education, such as ours in the Forest Preserve District, have the same viewpoint and are patterned after the methods introduced by Louis Agassiz. Their purpose is to entice people to become acquainted and friendly with the trees, the wildflowers, and the wild creatures. We hope that, eventually, our Cook County preserves will be used by all schools as laboratories where classes go on field trips and from which they bring back, to the classrooms, some of the out-of-doors -- what they saw and heard; what they smelled, tasted and touched; specimens they found. That is learning.

Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (pronounced "Ag-a-see"), born May 20, 1807, was the son of a Protestant pastor in Motier, a village on Lake Morat in western Switzerland. Until he was 10 years old, when he could read, write and speak Latin as well as French, his father had been his only teacher. Meanwhile his hobby had been collecting, dissecting and study of local fishes.

After four years at preparatory schools in Switzerland, he attended universities at Zurich, Heidelberg, Munich and Erlanger until he obtained the coveted degrees of Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Philosophy. Then, when he was only 19, came an opportunity which shaped his career: he was chosen to classify and catalog fishes collected in the Amazon river of Brazil by two Munich naturalists. This led to years of research and publications on the freshwater fishes of Europe, the fossil remains of extinct fish, and those of starfish and other marine animals.

From 1832 until 1846, Agassiz was professor of natural history at the University of Neuchatel. Meanwhile, after studying the movements and effects of glaciers in Switzerland, he announced his revolutionary concept of the Ice Age when glaciers covered much of the earth. By 1846, when he came to America to deliver a series of lectures, he had issued 175 publications including 20 books.

Agassiz was a burly man nearly six feet tall, with a broad handsome face and a sunny disposition. At a time when professors wore tall silk hats and a majestic dignity, Agassiz wore a shapeless felt and trotted across the Harvard Yard, puffing furiously on one of the big cigars that he also smoked in classes. He was adored by his students, the public, and everyone who knew him. Longfellow said, "he had a laugh that the Puritans forgot", but James Russell Lowell came closest to expressing the greatness of this many-sided scientist and teacher:

"His magic was not far to seek, -- he was so human!"

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