Chapters From an Autobiography



[The January Atlantic contained that portion of the late Professor Shaler’s autobiography which described his boyhood in Kentucky. After some account of his random schooling, which included lessons in German and fencing, Professor Shaler proceeds, in the chapter given in the following pages, to an account of his first experiences at Harvard. — THE EDITORS.]

IN 1858, when I was seventeen years old, it was determined that I should have a good education. My parents could well afford this, for my grandfather had left considerable property, and besides that there were other means. The plan was that I should have a liberal training, and then make up my mind as to what profession I would adopt. It was at first proposed that I should go to West Point, but my fancy for war had passed, and not even the argument that there was war to come and that soon, affected me. My desire, moved by my teacher Escher, was to go to Heidelberg; fortunately it was determined that I should begin my exploration of the realm of higher learning at Harvard College. We supposed that I was far enough along to enter the sophomore class in 1859, and that after graduating I should go to Germany for further study. For my own part I cared little where I went or what I did. There was need of enlargement, the resources about me were used up, and I was so shaped that if a change had not been made, I should have wandered away in search of adventures.

My father went with me to Cambridge, and as it was well on in the first term, I was placed under a tutor recommended by his classmate Dixwell. I was then a lank fellow, six feet high, very slender, nimble from a good though limited physical training, still rather feeble from attacks of malaria and megrims. As for my training, what has been said before shows that it was, from the schoolmaster’s point of view, a jumble of unrelated matters — a very poor basis for collegiate study, which took no account of a training in arms and equitation, and as little of philosophy and geology, or a knowledge of human nature. Still, on going me over, my tutor thought I could be put in the sophomore class in the autumn of 1859.

Although my studies interested me, — anything did, for I had then and ever since a capacity to be interested in anything put before me, — my tutor most commanded my attention. He was a senior in Harvard College, and had a welldeserved name for scholarship in the classics, as well as for a miscellaneous assortment of talents and knowledge. He was reputed to be the best player of the game of checkers in the country; knew the political history of the United States amazingly well; was learned in pugilism, having at his tongue’s end the story of all the prize fights of recent times; withal he was the merriest little man I have ever seen. His curly head and radiant visage charmed me at first, and remain as treasured recollections in a whole gallery of such memories. I well recall my first morning with him, when, after going over the best of what I could and could not do, he asked me if I could box. I pleaded guilty to some knowledge of that ignoble art. At that time I had not learned of his interest in it, and thought that I would be lowered in his eyes by the confession. To my surprise, indeed to my horror, for I had a swordsman’s contempt for the business, he insisted on my having a bout with him at once. I had learned boxing in Scherer’s school of arms, where it was taught by a competent man but classed as a very degrading form of fighting, ranking below quarterstaff. It was regarded as an ignoble, if sometimes necessary, means of defense, only to be resorted to in extremity when you were contending with common people and had no blessed steel at hand. The eager little man proved very unskillful. At the very first tap he tipped over, his head going against a window-pane, smashing the glass but happily not harming him. I shall never forget my mingled wonder and exasperation at this incident. My training with the reverend philosopher Escher had set up in my mind a category of the tutor into which this new-found specimen by no means fitted.

My work with my mentor went in a fair way for some months during the winter and spring in Cambridge, and during the summer in Keene, New Hampshire. In Cambridge, I found myself in an unhappy social position, for the reason that my station as a sub-freshman, as an inferior to the men of my own age already in college, was humiliating to my sense of self-importance, and in marked contrast to that I had won at home. In Keene, I found myself in a charming New England community, where the life resembled that to which I was native. There, the fact that I could ride, shoot, act in theatricals, spout poetry, and descant on philosophy, put me back into the class of men, so that I was myself again.

While in Keene, there came an odd incident in my education which, though but a trifle, proved most telling. My tutor, with whom I had read much Latin verse in a manner which he approved, for my scanning was uncommonly good, — I had a natural ear for it, — one day asked me the rule for the quantity of a syllable, only to find that I was absolutely ignorant of such written prescriptions. The long list of these rules was then produced — they were to be learned at once. Now I cannot by any contrivance manage to fix in my mind a succession of irrelevances. If he had commanded me to commit all of Ovid, I should willingly have set about the task; as it was, I asked him if in his opinion Horace had learned those precious rules. He was sure that he had not, and equally certain that I must learn them if I had any expectation of getting into Harvard College. On that issue we parted. I refused to spend time on an unnecessary bit of purely formal work.

I was the more content to give up a training in Harvard College, for the reason that my stay in Keene had convinced me that I was more naturalist than humanist, in that I could not content myself with the book side of culture. The life of the fields, the brooks, and rocks. was nearer to me than that of the men and thoughts of long ago. Moreover, in some way I had come across Agassiz’s essay on classification, then just published, and in it I found something at once of science and philosophy. As I recall it, this essay was the introduction to Agassiz’s series, never completed, of contributions to the natural history of North America, the volume concerning the Testudinata. These creatures had interested me in my childhood; I had one of them among my first “pets ” when I was about ten years old, and fancied, I think with good reason, that he learned to know me and to come to my call. While at Keene, I became much interested in several aquatic species which were new to me. The essay and the descriptions in the memoir, along with the other contacts of nature in that lovely district, reawakened my enthusiasm for the world below man, so that the demand of my tutor that I should set me to learning rules for scanning Latin verse came most inopportunely for my college education.

At the time of my secession from the humanities, Agassiz was in Europe; he did not return, I think, until the autumn of 1859. I had, however, picked up several acquaintances among his pupils, learned what they were about, and gained some notion of his methods. After about a month he returned, and I had my first contact with the man who was to have the most influence on my life of any of the teachers to whom I am indebted. I shall never forget even the lesser incidents of this meeting, for this great master by his presence gave an importance to his surroundings, so that the room where you met him, and the furniture, stayed with the memory of him.

When I first met Louis Agassiz, he was still in the prime of his admirable manhood; though he was then fifty-two years old, and had passed his constructive period, he still had the look of a young man. His face was the most genial and engaging that I had ever seen, and his manner captivated me altogether. But as I had been among men who had a free swing, and for a year among people who seemed to me to be cold and superrational, hungry as I doubtless was for human sympathy, Agassiz’s welcome went to my heart, — I was at once his captive. It has been my good chance to see many men of engaging presence and ways, but I have never known his equal.

As the personal quality of Agassiz was the greatest of his powers, and as my life was greatly influenced by my immediate and enduring affection for him, I am tempted to set forth some incidents which show that my swift devotion to my newfound master was not due to the accidents of the situation or to any boyish fancy. I will content myself with one of those stories, which will of itself show how easily he captivated men, even those of the ruder sort.

Some years after we came together, when indeed I was formally his assistant, I believe it was in 1866, he became much interested in the task of comparing the skeletons of thorough-bred horses with those of common stock. I had at his request tried, but without success, to obtain the bones of certain famous stallions from my acquaintances among the racing men in Kentucky. Early one morning there was a fire, supposed to be incendiary, in the stables at the Beacon Park track, a mile from the College, in which a number of horses had been killed and many badly scorched. I had just returned from the place, where I had left a mob of irate owners and jockeys in a violent state of mind, intent on finding some one to hang. I had seen the chance of getting a valuable lot of stallions for the museum, but it was evident that the time was most inopportune for suggesting such a disposition of the remains. Had I done so, the results would have been, to say the least, unpleasant.

As I came away from the profane lot of horse-men gathered about the ruins of their fortunes or their hopes. I met Agassiz almost running to seize the chance of specimens. I told him to come back with me: that we must wait until the mob had spent its rage: but he kept on. I told him further that he risked spoiling his good chance, and, finally, that he would have his head punched: but he trotted on. I went with him, in the hope that I might protect him from the consequences of his curiosity. When we reached the spot, there came about a marvel: in a moment he had all those raging men at his command. He went at once to work with the horses which had been hurt but were savable. His intense sympathy with the creatures, his knowledge of the remedies to be applied, his immediate appropriation of the whole situation, of which he was at once the master, made those rude folks at once his friends. Nobody asked who he was, for the good reason that he was heart and soul of them. When the task of helping was done, then Agassiz skillfully came to the point of his business —the skeletons—and this so dexterously and sympathetically that the men were, it seemed, ready to turn over the living as well as the dead beasts for his service. I have seen a lot of human doing, much of it critically, as actor or near observer, but this was in many ways the greatest. The supreme art of it was in the use of a perfectly spontaneous and most actually sympathetic motive to gain an end. With others, this state of mind would lead to affectation; with him, it in no wise diminished the quality of the emotion. He could measure the value of the motive, but do it without lessening its moral import.

As my account of Agassiz’s quality should rest upon my experiences with him, I shall now go on to tell how and to what effect he trained me. In that day there were no written examinations on any subjects which candidates for the Lawrence Scientific School had to pass. The professors in charge of the several departments questioned the candidates and determined their fitness to pursue the course of study they desired to undertake. Few or none who had any semblance of an education were denied admission to Agassiz’s laboratory. At that time, the instructors had in addition to their meagre salaries — his was then $2500 per annum — the regular fees paid in by the students under their charge. So I was promptly assured that I was admitted. Be it said, however, that he did give me an effective oral examination, which, as he told me, was intended to show whether I could expect to go forward to a degree at the end of four years of study. On this matter of the degree he was obdurate, refusing to recommend 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.”

The examination Agassiz gave me was directed first to find that I knew enough Latin and Greek to make use of those languages; that I could patter a little of them evidently pleased him. He did n’t care for those detestable rules for scanning. Then came German and French, which were also approved: I could read both, and spoke the former fairly well. He did not probe me in my weakest place, mathematics, for the good reason that, badly as I was off in that subject, he was in a worse plight. Then, asking me concerning my reading, he found that I had read the essay on classification and had noted in it the influence of Schelling’s views. Most of his questioning related to this field, and the more than fair beginning of our relations then made was due to the fact that I had some enlargement on that side. So, too, he was pleased to find that I had managed a lot of Latin, Greek, and German poetry, and had been trained with the sword. He completed this inquiry by requiring that I bring my foils and mask for a bout. In this test he did not fare well, for, though not untrained, he evidently knew more of the Schläger than of the rapier. He was heavy-handed and lacked finesse. This, with my previous experience, led me to the conclusion that I had struck upon a kind of tutor in Cambridge not known in Kentucky.

While Agassiz questioned me carefully as to what I had read and what I had seen, he seemed in this preliminary goingover in no wise concerned to find what I knew about fossils, rocks, animals, and plants: he put aside the offerings of my scanty lore. This offended me a bit, as I recall, for the reason that I thought I knew, and for a self-taught lad really did know, a good deal about such matters, especially as to the habits of insects, particularly spiders. It seemed hard to be denied the chance to make my parade; but I afterwards saw what this meant, that he did not intend to let me begin my tasks by posing as a naturalist. The beginning was indeed quite different, and, as will be seen, in a manner that quickly evaporated my conceit. It was made and continued in a way I will now recount.

Agassiz’s laboratory was then in a rather small two-storied building, looking much like a square dwelling-house, which stood where the College Gymnasium now stands. The structure is still extant, though in forty-six years it has three times changed its site and uses, having been first a club-house for his students on Divinity Avenue, where the Peabody Museum has been built; it went thence to a site on Jarvis Street, where it served as the club-house and theatre for the Hasty Pudding Club; from there a little further west, to its present location, where, after being long the habitation for the department of French, it came to be a part of the little establishment for teaching students astronomy. Agassiz had recently moved into it from a shed on the marsh near Brighton bridge, the original tenants, the engineers, having come to riches in the shape of the brick structure now known as the Lawrence Building.

In this primitive establishment Agassiz’s laboratory, as distinguished from the store-rooms where the collections were crammed, occupied one room about thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide — what is now the west room on the lower floor of the edifice. In this place, already packed, I had assigned to me a small pine table with a rusty tin pan upon it. Of other students, all somewhat older than myself, there were Alpheus Hyatt, F. W. Putnam, A. E. Verrill, E. S. Morse, Richard Wheatland, Caleb Cook, and a person by the name of Lamb. Hereto also came from time to time, but not regularly, Theodore Lyman and Stimson. There was also, in some narrow quarters, a translator, a Swede, whose name is gone from me, and a sterling old person, Gugenheimer, who served as a preparator. Agassiz’s artists generally worked at his nearby dwelling or at his place at Nahant. One of the small rooms upstairs was a sleeping place for Putnam, who served as keeper of the establishment. I have given what may seem unnecessary details concerning this primitive laboratory and museum, in part for the reason that there is, so far as I know, no record of it, and also that it may be set over against the existing conditions of what used to be called Natural History in the University.

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 concerning 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 himdred hours or so 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., 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 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 that 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 upon alcoholic specimens, — this time a remarkable lot of specimens representing, perhaps, twenty species of the side-swimmers or pleuroneciidœ.

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.”

This incident of the fish made an end of my novitiate. After that, with a suddenness of transition which puzzled me, Agassiz became very communicative; we passed indeed into the relation of friends of like age and purpose; and he actually consulted me as to what I should like to take up as a field of study. Finding that I wished to devote myself to geology, he set me to work on the Brachiopoda as the best group of fossils to serve as data in determining the Paleozoic horizons. So far as his rather limited knowledge of the matter went, he guided me in the field about Cambridge, in my reading, and to acquaintances of his who were concerned with earth-structures. I came thus to know Charles T. Jackson, Jules Marcou, and, later, the brothers Rogers, Henry and James. At the same time I kept up the study of zoölogy, undertaking to make myself acquainted with living organic forms as a basis for a knowledge of fossils.

Just after I entered with Agassiz, the construction of his museum was begun with the small part of the now great edifice which constitutes the end of the northern wing. There were four rooms on the ground floor, each with galleries, and a like number similarly galleried on the second floor. Early in 1860 the building was ready for use. Then came the work of transportation of the collections stored in the laboratory and elsewhere to their new domicile, and the effort to arrange them in some kind of order, so as to give to the public the semblance of a museum; for from a generous public came the money, and placation was necessary. Into this work the students were in a way impressed; so for a year I was with others occupied in sorting and arranging a jumble of materials, odds and ends from all over the earth. In the old storage place there was no chance to exhibit any of the show specimens. So far as I can remember, the only thing that people came to see was a large glass jar containing several heads of Chinamen which some one had brought from a place of execution. The sight of this was much sought after, especially by women in search of a sensation. In the course of a year a collection was installed, which in certain ways was then the best in this country.

My share in the work of bringing a preliminary order into the new museum was considerable, and while for some months it broke all systematic study it was largely profitable. It gave me a chance to gain hard contact with a great range of animal forms, both recent and fossil, and to it I owe a general knowledge of organic forms which I could not have acquired otherwise. There was at that time no other means of finding one’s way to such information. Agassiz’s lectures gave us little. Though very interesting from their personal quality, the field they covered was curiously limited. In the first term he gave about twenty-five lectures on zoölogy, and in the second about the same number on geology. The first series began with a very interesting sketch of the general principles of the science, which quickly passed to problems of classification and thence to questions of comparative anatomy, practically limited to the polyps, acalephs, and echinoderms. In the years from 1859 to his death in 1873, whenever he gave these lectures, perhaps in six or eight years, their form and contents remained unchanged. The geological series was practically altogether devoted to the simpler problems of stratigraphy or the succession of geological periods; about one-third of the course was given to the glacial period. Except for the noble and marvelously contagious enthusiasm with which he approached the subject, and the admirable pictures of the masters he had known, the lectures were not profitable to his students; in those regards — the weightiest possible — they were most valuable.

By far the greater part of the instruction I had from my master was in diverse bits of talk concerning certain species and the arrangement of the specimens. He would often work with me for hours unrolling fossils, all the while keeping up a running commentary which would range this way and that, of men, of places. of Aristotle, of Oken. He was a perfect narrator, and on any peg of fact would quickly hang a fascinating discourse. Often when he was at work on wet specimens, while I was dealing with fossils, he would come to me with, say, a fish in each hand, that I might search in his pockets for a cigar, cut the tip, put it between his teeth and light it for him. That would remind him of something, and he would puff and talk until the cigar was burned out, and he would have to be provided with another.

As soon as Agassiz’s collections were removed to the new museum, the old building (now to be known as Zoölogical Hall) was put on rollers and taken across lots to its second station on Divinity Avenue. It was then given over to what was called the Zoölogical Club, an association of about a dozen students who were working with him. It was arranged so as to provide bedrooms, a diningroom, and a room in the centre of the upper story with which the bedrooms connected, which served as the meetingplace of the Zoölogical Club, which was organized at this time and became the centre of our life. I had the good fortune to receive in the allotment a sleepingplace and a study connected therewith. These, as I did not lack money, were well furnished. As my quarters lay on the path from his house to the Museum, my master got into the habit of coming for a bit of talk, not always on science, perhaps oftenest about people he had known, about politics, in which he was keenly interested, or about his plans and perplexities. It seemed to me, as it did to some of my mates, somewhat curious, for I was the youngest of the lot and a newcomer. I now see that it was probably owing to the fact that in some ways I was then a good deal more of a man in my knowledge of the world than my elders and betters of the association. Something was due to the fact that I had been trained by Escher, an educated fellow countryman of his, and had known some of the “ forty-eighters,” and profited by the enlargement that acquaintance offered; still more perhaps to the fact that I had become in a way intimate in the houses of some of his friends in Boston.

In my room my master became divinely young again. He would lie on the sofa, drink what I had to offer, — I brought with me the then Southern habit of offering wine to guests, — take a pipe, and return in mind to his student days, or to his plans for work, or to his scheme of a museum which should present the animal and vegetable kingdoms so plainly that he who ran would perforce read — and deeply. I have never known a mind of such exuberance, of such eager contact with large desires. I was in thorough sympathy with his museum and with his projects, so that I had large profit from these interesting meetings, for they awakened an enthusiasm for constructive work which I doubt if any other accident, of life would have aroused.

In my notebook for April 7, 1860, is this entry : “ Professor Agassiz in his lecture this morning dwelt upon the requirements of a scientific man who would be more than a mere species-describer. The great test, he said, was to be able to deal with your subject in different ways. In amplifying the idea he said it was well to be able to give in a single sentence the whole matter of months of labor, in a form so true that a scientific man could read in it, not only the extent of your knowledge, but also the habit of your mind He declared he could learn all this from an answer couched in the most laconic form. He said he should require of us in our several departments, first, a monograph; second, a scientific lecture; third, a popular lecture; fourth, a simple child’s tale.”

The meetings of the Zoölogical Club, at which all sorts of problems were discussed, were never attended by Agassiz. To our request that he would join us, his answer was that we had better work alone, though he advised us to gather about us all who were interested in our problems, and to give our joint studies a wide range. I see now that, while he was much concerned for our advancement, his aim was to have us stand alone, or at least to lean only on our mates. Although he could not help shaping those about him to his mode of thought, and was often indignant with them when they departed from his path, he had a sound practical sense of the danger of founding a school of followers; more than once he commented on this error of other masters.

It was Agassiz’s habit to use his students to explore fields for him. This was an inevitable element in his method of teaching, and has been inevitably followed by all inquirers who have taught. In this process of exploration it was his custom to set one of us to work on a group of animals concerning which he had some knowledge, so that he could guide his inquirer, at least at the outset of his investigation. I recall that in this way I began a study of the family of the conchifers known as the arcadæ, including the fossil and recent trigonias. For a while I felt that I was following on the trail which he had broken, and then, as in the matter of the geographical and geological distribution of the genera and families, etc., I began to teach him a bit that he did not know. He was as eager to receive as to give, and what I supplied went into his memory as his own discoveries, which in a way they were, for the direction of the work came from his mind. In time, this plan of collaborative work gave him trouble, as it has given trouble to others who taught in the same way, — in that good old way that makes the pupil feel that he is the master and thereby wins to his powers.