Agassiz, Peirce, and Patterson

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Description
Benjamin Peirce, Harvard professor of mathematics and third superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey, was on good terms with Louis Agassiz, the charismatic Swiss naturalist who taught at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School and served as the founding director of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Writing to Agassiz in February 1871, Peirce announced that the Coast Survey was about “to send a new iron steamer round to California” and asked if Agassiz would “go in her, and do deep-sea dredging all the way around?” Since Agassiz had conducted several research projects under the aegis of the Coast Survey, Peirce expected that he would accept this new proposition. The new ship, the first iron-hulled vessel owned by the Survey, was designed to dredge at depths never before reached. Named the Hassler after the first superintendent of the Coast Survey, the ship's maiden voyage would be known as the Hassler Expedition.
The Coast Survey had the largest budget of any 19th-century American scientific organization, and employed more scientists, both directly and indirectly. But aware of Congressional concerns about how federal funds should be spent, the Survey tended to hide its science behind its more practical activities. Thus while the Hassler sailed from the East Coast where it was built to the Pacific Coast where it would see service, the ship` could transport Agassiz, his wife, and several colleagues and assistants. But Agassiz had to raise the $20,000 needed to preserve the many specimens they hoped to collect and send back to the States for further study. Most of these specimens went to the Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Smithsonian Institution.
The Hassler left the Boston Navy Yard on Dec. 4, 1871 and made land in San Francisco some nine months later. Despite equipment failure and various delays, much was accomplished on the Expedition. The Coast Survey aimed to discover the origin of the Gulf Stream, determine the greatest depth of the Atlantic, exploring the coasts of Patagonia, chart the dangerous currents in and around the Straits of Magellan, and trace Darwin’s steps in the Galapagos Islands. Agassiz was especially interested in evidence of glacial action in the Southern Hemisphere (which he found), and evidence that might disprove Darwin’s theory of evolution (which he did not).
The Hassler left the Boston Navy Yard on Dec. 4, 1871 and made land in San Francisco some nine months later. Despite equipment failure and various delays, much was accomplished on the expedition. The Coast Survey aimed to discover the origin of the Gulf Stream, determine the greatest depth of the Atlantic, explore the coasts of Patagonia, chart the dangerous currents in and around the Straits of Magellan, and trace Darwin’s steps in the Galapagos Islands. Agassiz was especially interested in evidence of glacial action in the Southern Hemisphere (which he found), and evidence that might disprove Darwin’s theory of evolution (which he did not).
This large, carefully posed and somewhat manipulated photograph was made while plans for the expedition were underway. Agassiz is seated at the left of a round table, Peirce stands behind the table, and Carlile Patterson, the Hydrographic Inspector of the Coast Survey (and the man who had planned the internal arrangements of the new ship) sits at right. These men seem to be discussing a chart attached to which an obviously enlarged piece of paper carries the hand-written inscription “Instructions for Expd.” and “To. Prof. L. Agassiz / from Captain C. Patterson / Yours respectfully / Benjamin Peirce / Superintendent.”
The text at bottom of the photograph reads “Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1871 by A. SONREL, in the Office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington, D.C.” This refers to the federal copyright act of 1870. That image is now in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. It is identical to our copy, but has an “A. Sonrel” signature in the lower left.
Antoine Sonrel (d. 1879) was an accomplished scientific illustrator who had worked with Agassiz in Neuchâtel, followed him to the United States, and prepared the lithographic plates for several of his publications. He was also an accomplished photographer who did commercial and scientific work. Several Agassiz cartes-de-visite photographs were taken by in Sonrel’s Boston studio. Another Sonrel photograph dated 1871, probably taken on the same day as our image, shows Agassiz and Peirce, the former seated in a chair, and the latter standing with his right hand on a globe pointing to Boston. And, as our image indicates, Sonrel, like many photographers then as now, enjoyed manipulating images. Another Sonrel photograph shows Agassiz talking to Agassiz across a table. Yet another shows an unidentified man playing chess with himself.
According to a note on the back of the frame, this photograph was purchased at an auction of the effects Mrs. John Cummings in 1928. The reference is to Mary Phelps Cowles (1839-1927), a woman of culture and wealth who was married to Adino Brackett Hall, a Boston physician, and then John Cummings, a landowner in Woburn, Ma.
Ref: Christoph Irmscher, Louis Agassiz. Creator of American Science (Boston, 2013).
David Dobbs, Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral (New York, 2005).
Edward Hogan, Of the Human Heart. A Biography of Benjamin Peirce (Bethlehem, 2008), pp. 270-280.
Location
Currently not on view
date made
1871
depicted (sitter)
Agassiz, Louis
place made
United States: Massachusetts, Boston
Physical Description
paper (overall material)
Measurements
overall: 16 in x 12 13/16 in; 40.64 cm x 32.512 cm
overall: 27 in x 23 1/2 in x 1 1/2 in; 68.58 cm x 59.69 cm x 3.81 cm
ID Number
1990.0326.01
catalog number
1990.0326.01
accession number
1990.0326
Credit Line
Harold Gordon
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Physical Sciences
Science & Mathematics
Prints from the Physical Sciences Collection
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

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