Agassiz Peak, the second tallest mountain in Arizona, is named after Swiss Naturalist Louis Agassiz.
Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in Switzerland on May 28, 1807. As was common for many nineteenth century naturalists, he was educated in the medical profession and trained to be a physician.
Agassiz received doctorates of both philosophy and medicine while studying in Erlanger and Munich. He then moved to Paris in the early 1830s to study comparative anatomy under Geroges Cuvier, the notable naturalist who established the field of vertebrate paleontology.
In the early stages of his career Agassiz focused his studies on fossil fish, particularly their classification. While later expanding his work into other fields, he is today best remembered for his studies of glaciers. He was the first scientist to document that Earth had once experienced a great ice age, and for his efforts is known by many as the father of glaciology.
Louis Agassiz Moves to the United States
By the mid 1800s Agassiz was firmly established as one of the world’s leading scientists. In 1846, he was contacted by John A. Lowell of the Lowell Institute.
The Lowell Institute was founded in 1836 as an educational foundation offering free public lectures about various scientific, social and religious issues. Its founder, John Lowell, Jr., was the great uncle of Percival Lowell, who in 1894 founded his Observatory in Flagstaff, a couple dozen mile away from Agassiz Peak.
John A. Lowell invited Agassiz to lecture at the Institute and become a professor at Harvard. Agassiz accepted Lowell’s offer and moved to Massachusetts, where he helped found Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He soon became one of America’s first important scientists.
William Palmer Names Agassiz Peak
In 1867-1868, General William J. Palmer led an expedition along the 35th parallel in the western territories of the United States, surveying the area for a potential railroad route. He named Agassiz Peak, near Flagstaff, Arizona after Agassiz, who classified many of the fossils collected on the expedition. Palmer intended for the entire San Francisco Mountain to be renamed Mount Agassiz, but other people used the name specifically for the second highest peak of the mountain.
Agassiz was also the name of a short-lived community established in the Fort Valley area, near the San Francisco Peaks. When the first Boston party came to the region in May 1876, members of the party laid out a town site and named it Agassiz after the great scientist. Due to poor weather and lack of gold and other minerals in the mountains, the site was abandoned within a month.
Today, the Agassiz name lends itself not only to the peak but also a street in Flagstaff.
Louis’s son Alexander was also an important American scientist who spent much of his career associated with Harvard. Alexander’s son, George, was a good friend of Percival Lowell’s, traveling and corresponding with the astronomer for most of his life. Lowell Observatory still owns a telescope that George gave to Percival Lowell in the early twentieth century.
George took several trips to Flagstaff and enjoyed telescope viewing in the shadows of the peak named after his grandfather.
- Cline, Platt. 1976. They Came to the Mountain. Northern Arizona University with Northland Press.
- Weeks, Edward. 1966. The Lowells and Their Institute. Little, Brown.