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North America

January 01, 2007


When Louis Agassiz went to America in 1846, he took with him, or was soon joined by, a whole retinue of Swiss protègès and assistants who in the preceding decade had turned his scientific work into a corporate, collective enterprise. Among the new arrivals were E. Desor, A. Guyot, L. Lesquereux, C. Girard, and L. Pourtalès—a labour pool that enabled Agassiz to re-assemble the Neuchâtel ‘scientific factory’ on American shores. Indeed, some of the troop immediately went to work under Agassiz's supervision, plunging eagerly into the rich new fields of investigation that America afforded them. Although it was seemingly productive, by 1850 the group had dispersed.

Some of the Neuchâtel naturalists, urged on by the egalitarian politics of the day, lost patience with Agassiz's domineering ways and determined to strike out on their own, fashioning independent careers. Others, still loyal to Agassiz, left to establish themselves in regular posts. All of these young naturalists struggled to adapt to American culture and make a go of it. Although Agassiz himself was hospitably received and well provided for, his followers found that they were looked down upon because of their foreign manners, broken English, and idealized scientific pursuits that appeared lacking in usefulness to their practically-minded hosts. Nor did they have abundant prospects for earning a living, obliged as they were to compete with native-born Americans for the few full-time scientific positions then available.

Nevertheless, in the end they were remarkably successful. Lesquereux in palaeobotany and Guyot in physical geography reached the top in their fields in America. These two, along with Pourtalès, were honoured by election to the National Academy of Sciences. As for the others, Desor was launched on a productive career as a Quaternary geologist, when a family matter recalled him to Switzerland, and Girard was building an excellent reputation in ichthyology and herpetology, when he was obliged to return to Europe because of his support for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Working in geology and natural history, where broad experience and comparative observation paid dividends, the Swiss turned their European background into an advantage.

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Geological Society, London, Special Publications

Four Centuries of Geological Travel: The Search for Knowledge on Foot, Bicycle, Sledge and Camel

P. N. Wyse Jackson
P. N. Wyse Jackson
Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
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Geological Society of London
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January 01, 2007




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