Agassiz, Elizabeth Cabot Cary

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz: A Biography - written by Lucy Allen Paton - 1919
Elizabeth Cary Agassiz

Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz (December 5, 1822-June 27, 1907) was an early advocate for the education of women. However, she was conservative about women’s rights. Instrumental in the founding of the Harvard Annex—later Radcliffe College, she would serve as its first president. Her early career efforts were often in partnership with her husband, Louis Agassiz. She edited manuscripts, arranged scientific expeditions, managed the family home, and helped found the co-educational Anderson School of Natural History at Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts. For eight years she ran a school for young women in her home. Throughout her life she was active in Unitarian congregations.

Her father was Thomas Graves Cary, an attorney. His family had lived in Charlestown and Chelsea Massachusetts for a number of generations. Her mother was Mary Cushing Perkins, daughter of Thomas Handasyd Perkins, a Boston merchant trader. Both of her parents came from Massachusetts families that could trace their roots back to England. Both families had business in the West Indies until the slave rebellions in the last years of the eighteenth-century forced them to flee.

Silence about business and financial matters was a convention of polite society. The basis of her family’s wealth that offend our contemporary sensibilities have been left unmentioned in most biographies and school texts. Thomas Handasyd Perkins, her grandfather, along with his brothers James and Samuel were merchants who transported and sold coffee, sugar, and other goods across the Atlantic and in the Caribbean Islands. Perkins family letter-books hold records directing ship captains carrying slaves from Africa to the West Indies. Other Perkins ships sailed across the Atlantic to smuggle cargoes past British and French war blockades. They also were prominent in the China trade; carrying tea, furs, and black market opium. Profits would later be invested in ships, railroads, and mineral lands in the United States. Her father’s family, the Carys, ran sugar plantations in the West Indies with enslaved African labor. Samuel Cary, her paternal grandfather, managed the Simon Estate on St. Kitts before buying his own plantation. The Cary family faced serious financial reversals when they lost their Caribbean plantation during a slave rebellion so they returned to Massachusetts.

Her father attended Harvard where he trained for the legal profession. Although he opened a law office in Brattleboro, Vermont, he would take his wife Mary Perkins Cary to Boston when the children were born. Around 1823 her father joined three of his brothers who were in business in New York City. 10 years later the family moved to Boston and a home in the Temple Place compound of houses built by grandfather Thomas Handasyd Perkins. Her father worked as a Perkins firm partner before taking a position as treasurer of the Appleton and Lowell mills.

Elizabeth Agassiz was educated mostly at home with a governess, likely owing to her parents’ fear of losing her to tuberculosis, the scourge of that time. While her brothers went off to prepare for Harvard and her sisters went to George Barrell Emerson’s Girls School, Elizabeth had tutors for everything from languages to drawing and dancing. Her only experience with any school was in 1834 when she studied at Elizabeth Peabody’s Historical School held in the Masonic Temple, where Bronson Alcott also taught. Alcott taught using Socratic dialogue and recitations from William Hickling Prescott’s hefty Ferdinand and Isabella. The children also studied George Combe’s Constitution of Man, a now discredited psychology of the day that interpreted personality by “reading” bumps on the head. Elizabeth studied her Greek and Latin at home and remained dedicated to a routine of self-study that continued even after she founded her own schools.

Elizabeth first saw her future husband in October 1846 when her mother noticed Louis Agassiz in church. The Cary family owned pew 85 at King’s Chapel (Unitarian) in Boston and Louis Agassiz was seated in the next pew, the guest of its owner, John Amory Lowell. Elizabeth’s mother thought he was the man she would like her daughter to marry, but unfortunately he was already married at the time. After the death of the first Mrs. Agassiz, Elizabeth was formally introduced to Louis Agassiz at the home of Professor Cornelius Conway Felton, her brother in law. She and Louis Agassiz were married April 25, 1850, in King’s Chapel. She was 28. He was 15 years older and he brought three children to the marriage; 15-year old Alexander, 13-year old Ida Lee, and 9-year old Pauline Agassiz.

Her husband Louis Agassiz was a teacher and popular platform speaker on biology and geology. Contrary to the conventions of the day he taught natural history from specimens rather than books, a practice that revolutionized teaching and endeared him to his students. He was also a favorite of Boston society, especially Unitarians. He was often featured in the Christian Examiner, a Unitarian journal. The July 1850 issue had two articles; “Agassiz’s Tour to Lake Superior,” and “The Diversity of Origins of the Human Races.” His “Contemplations of God in the Kosmos” followed in the January 1851 issue. In it he says that the development of the world followed “. . . an intelligent plan, framed upon due consideration by the Omnipotent Intelligence,” and that “We are thus irresistibly led by the study of organized beings to acknowledge the existence of a free personal God.” These are certainly different views than those he would have learned growing up in a Swiss Reformed parsonage. To a large extent he was indifferent to the formal practice of religion. And while Elizabeth’s new husband wasn’t a Unitarian, he is frequently mentioned in this biography because his work was so intertwined with hers. His devotion to the idea of “special creation,” however, caused him to oppose Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Louis Agassiz also advanced racist theories and believed in polygenism—the theory that the races had different origins. On this score, he was probably a disappointment to his teacher Alexander von Humboldt, who held to the unity of all people.

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz
Elizabeth Cary Agassiz

Elizabeth and her husband had a happy family life in spite of the occasional escape of a specimen snake from the closet. Expenses always exceeded the family income because her husband often doled out money to his retinue of artists, engravers, and assistants. Some even lived in the Agassiz household. Never able to budget his generous salary, Louis constantly needed to court patrons for support. Five years into their marriage, Elizabeth started a girls’ school in their home to extend education to young women, all of whom were barred at the time from Harvard. The venture was also intended to add to the family income, which was strained by expenses at the Agassiz Natural History museum and all the research and publishing projects.

Elizabeth’s husband taught natural history and the science of glaciers at her girls’ school while her stepson Alexander Agassiz taught mathematics and other sciences, including chemistry and astronomy. Elizabeth’s girl’s school supplemented the income of a number of Harvard professors who also taught for her. The well known mathematician Benjamin Peirce taught at her school—his son C.S. Peirce is often called founder of the school of philosophy called Pragmatism—and Professor Felton, later Harvard president, taught Latin and Greek. Poet James Russell Lowell was also a presence at her school. Everything taught at Harvard was also taught at Elizabeth’s girls’ school. In that era women were expected to be able to play the piano and sing so music was an important part of the curriculum.

The students at Elizabeth Agassiz’s girls’ school were as distinguished as the faculty. Among them were Clover and Ellen Hooper. Clover was to become an outstanding pioneer photographer. She married the historian Henry Adams, best known for his 1907 book, The Education of Henry Adams. Ellen Hooper would later help Elizabeth to establish Radcliffe, and the Hoopers’ brother was the Harvard treasurer. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter Ellen was another pupil. The school lasted nine years, 1855-1863. It supported the Agassiz family at least as much as her husband’s professorship did. The school closed its doors as the Civil War began. Elizabeth’s step children were marrying and going in their own directions. In 1860 Alexander Agassiz married Anna Russell and Pauline married Quincy Adams Shaw. Three years later Ida Agassiz would marry a firm abolitionist and Civil War veteran, Major Henry Lee Higginson. He was wounded in the summer of 1863 and they were married in December.

Her stepson Alexander managed his father’s Cambridge museum but felt guilty that he was not in the war. With Alexander overseeing the museum, it was possible, however, for Louis to go to South America to do research and try to keep Brazil friendly to the US. Her husband had seen the horrors of war in Europe. He was not enthusiastic about the Civil War and he worried about his students on both sides of the Mason Dixon line. There was even some suspicion that Elizabeth favored the Southern cause or was a “Cotton Whig.” This stemmed from her grandfather Colonel Perkins’ strong belief in property rights.

One thing her husband hadn’t experienced in Europe was people of different racial backgrounds. As he traveled around the United States he developed a visceral dislike of black people. Starting in 1847 he spent winters in Charleston, South Carolina teaching at the medical school. Elizabeth joined him in 1851. He insisted that there had been multiple human origins with each race having its own Adam and Eve. “The geographical distribution of organized beings,” said Louis Agassiz, “displays more fully the direct intervention of a Supreme Intelligence than any other adaptation of the physical world.”

Elizabeth was vital to her husband’s career and reputation though she usually insisted that she was only an aid. With her Boston Brahmin background, she could make useful connections. Louis Agassiz was an original member of Emerson’s Saturday Club, which included Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harvard Professor Felton, and Benjamin Peirce among others. Although Thoreau collected specimens for Agassiz, he favored Darwin’s 1859 theory of evolution as did Emerson and Harvard’s Asa Gray. Louis Agassiz’s published works were often based on Elizabeth’s notes from his lectures. His field work also depended on her planning and management. Elizabeth was not just a reporter but an actual participant in the expeditions. She took part in the Brazil Thayer Expedition of 1865-1866, in which the young William James participated, and the Hassler Expedition of 1871. In Brazil, she rode what she thought was a tall horse on a mountain trail. During the Hassler voyage, she wanted to see a glacier and hiked up to it in canvas overalls and a pair of her husband’s boots.

Elizabeth took notes for her husband’s publications, but was also an author herself. She published A First Lesson in Natural History (1859), and her Seaside Lessons in Natural History (1871) was composed with stepson Alexander Agassiz. In it she favorably mentions Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and, like Darwin, she thought of the difference between animals and people as a matter of degree rather than kind. Her publisher, Ticknor & Fields, also published the works of Longfellow, Emerson, and her husband. She is listed as a coauthor with her husband in A Journey in Brazil (1867), and after his death she prepared his biography, Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence (1885). In addition, she also contributed a preface to Louis Agassiz’s Geological Sketches (1875), and left an unfinished biography, Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz; A Biography, which was completed by Lucy Allen Paton and published in 1919.

In July 1873, Louis and Elizabeth opened the Anderson School of Natural History on an island in Buzzard’s Bay off New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was a branch of the Harvard museum. The students were mainly those who were already teaching in the public schools. As the school was about to open and with a visiting donor and important guests set to arrive, Elizabeth, ever the fundraiser and manager of Agassiz projects, had to do what she could to bring order out of chaos. Fifty eight people were expected, including the governor and the donor, Mr. John Anderson, a successful New York businessman. Considering all the menial work that was needed, Mrs. Agassiz wrote, “My heart sank to my shoes.” Dr. and Mrs. Wilder of Cornell and a teacher, Mrs. Burns, helped unpack and wash 24 dozen place settings. The women also unpacked all the furniture, and put up sheets to divide the single empty dormitory into spaces for men and women students. Mrs. Agassiz created enough order to please the donor and the governor, saving the school from dying still born. After a successful address by Louis Agassiz—later memorialized by Whittier in the “Prayer of Agassiz”—the school was launched. Yet another educational experiment that owed much to Elizabeth Agassiz’s administration. The school was a forerunner of Wood’s Hole.

Despite the excitement and promise of the Anderson School of Natural History, the year 1873 ended with much sadness. Louis Agassiz died just eight days after a festive December third birthday party. His funeral at Harvard’s Appleton Chapel was attended by many dignitaries, including Grant’s Vice President, Henry Wilson. He was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Then, on December 22, in the middle of Christmas preparations, Anna, the wife of Alexander Agassiz—Elizabeth’s stepson—died from pneumonia. Elizabeth saw to it, however, that their children had Christmas as she assumed the role of mother to their three small boys.

Louis left no estate so it was fortunate that Elizabeth’s three children were doing well. Her son Alexander, a mining engineer, was becoming wealthy as the president of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company (C&H), a Michigan copper mine, while daughter Pauline’s husband, Quincy Adams Shaw, was part of the prosperous family that was majority stockholder. Her eldest daughter Ida Lee was married to another C&H stockholder, Major Henry Lee Higginson. After recovering from his war wounds he had joined Lee Higginson & Co. in Boston as a stock trader and investment banker. After her husband’s death, Alexander took over the Cambridge house. Elizabeth ran that household while his mother-in-law was in charge of the summer home. He did much to raise funds and endow the museum his father had started at Harvard. Closing his father’s school of natural history, he opened his own in Rhode Island. Alexander was also a marine zoologist and oceanographer. Unlike his father, Alexander accepted the theory of evolution.

The Quincy Street House in Cambridge, Massachusetts - from: Letters and Recollections of Alexander Agassiz - George R. Agassiz - 1913
The Quincy Street House in Cambridge, Massachusetts

In the time left after caring for her grandchildren, Elizabeth began to write a two volume memoir of her husband titled, Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence (1885). The first volume covers his European years, up to age forty and it is based on material that his brother and brother in law shipped to her from Europe. Most of these items were in French or German so she needed to translate them. Volume two covers the following 27 years when he lived in America. Both volumes contain passages from her husband’s letters, journals, and scientific papers interspersed with passages penned by Elizabeth linking them into an interesting chronological narrative. She also took editorial liberties with her husband’s opinions through selective editing; she deleted or modified distasteful racist opinions from his letters and publications. One hundred years after her book was published, Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould compared passages in her book against the original letters and archival documents. In his 1980 book, The Panda’s Thumb, Gould assesses Mrs. Agassiz’s editing of her husband’s racial theories and speculates that she may have moderated his views due to Victorian reticence about sex, but it is more likely that she was attempting to make him a proper scientist, rather than a bigot. Her efforts would guard his scientific reputation for a century.

It is difficult, however, to know in detail what Elizabeth herself thought about race since she died before completing her own autobiography. She had lived in the South and in Brazil, where slavery was not abolished until 1888. Even those best disposed toward African Americans and most opposed to slavery harbored worries about the extent of racial differences, miscegenation, and the challenges of reconstruction. Although Elizabeth’s husband held racist views, he did think that African Americans were here to stay, and that their political organizations should be recognized, just as the black government of Haiti had eventually been recognized. Christoph Irmscher, in his 2013 book Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science picks up where Stephen Jay Gould left off by delving even deeper into her and her husband’s lives and beliefs. It is likely that Elizabeth held views different from her husband but closer to others in her circle of friends and relatives. Many Unitarians were silent on abolition, thinking its supporters were too radical. But that changed after the passage of the fugitive slave law in 1854, the arrest of Anthony Burns in Boston, and John Brown’s raid.

Elizabeth’s work on the biography of her husband was interrupted, however, when a Cambridge neighbor, the publisher Arthur Gilman, was looking for a way to provide his daughter with a higher education in conjunction with other girls. He first broached the plan to Harvard president, Charles W. Eliot, but then he remembered Elizabeth’s earlier girls’ school taught by Harvard professors. Elizabeth was soon invited to join a committee for establishing such a school again. Among the first professors to teach were Benjamin Peirce, William James, and Frederic Henry Hedge, who had been numbered among the Transcendentalists. Before long, she was finding places to board the young ladies and was even making curtains for them. The professors often held classes in their homes, where they were able to share their personal libraries. There were the usual college subjects, including modern and ancient languages. Even Sanskrit was taught.

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz House at Radcliffe College
Elizabeth Cary Agassiz House at Radcliffe College

With her family connections in Boston and previous experience raising money for Louis’s expeditions and the museum, Elizabeth was the ideal person to chair the college’s organizing committee and to become the first president of Radcliffe. She served 1882-99 and 1900-03. Although not an outspoken feminist, she was devoted to the education of women. In 1872, she had become a member of the Woman’s Education Association and then part of the Harvard Examinations for Women two years later. It was her hope that Harvard would accept Radcliffe as a department of women, and she raised a $100,000 endowment to tempt the Harvard Administration. Finally, in 1894, the college, first known as the “Harvard Annex,” was given the right to grant degrees. The college was overseen by Harvard, whose president, Charles W. Eliot, signed the diplomas. Aided by nephew and architect Guy Lowell, she was able to buy a large house and lay out the yard for the college. Elizabeth Agassiz will always be associated with Radcliffe, which was named for Ann Radcliffe, the first woman to donate to Harvard in 1643. In Elizabeth’s honor, Agassiz House, the student union, was funded as an eightieth birthday tribute in 1907, mostly through the efforts of her family.

During Mrs. Agassiz’s presidency, there were many interesting and talented students, including Gertrude Stein, 1893-97. It is particularly significant that Stein was studying biology at Radcliffe during Mrs. Agassiz’s tenure since one of the attractions of the biology class for Stein was the study of evolution, which had gained a place in the curriculum of the school now conducted by the widow of one of the theory’s most adamant detractors. Mrs. Agassiz had mentioned Darwin’s observations in her own writings, and the teaching of evolution on her watch at Radcliffe suggests that she was not in her husband’s camp.

Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz
Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz

In rounding out the life of Elizabeth Agassiz, beyond her work with Louis and her extraordinary role in promoting education for women, it’s important to pay some attention to her religious involvement and belief. Typically, she mentioned church in her diary on that rare occasion when she couldn’t attend. But after the loss of her husband and the death of her stepson Alexander’s wife in 1876, she wrote:

“I’ve an idea that to leave this earth is not at once to enter Heaven. The Catholic idea of purgatory (not in a material sense) seems to be founded on a reasonable idea. There seems no reason why the fact of death should absolve you at once from all your faults and errors and their consequences. But I think somewhere in the far future there must be a time when all is made right for us, and the happiness of which we have such lovely glimpses here becomes a safe and permanent possession.”

In 1901, at 78, she said that, “…The old pantheistic idea of “God in Nature’ holds a very beautiful truth no doubt; a divine being ever present in the world he has made. But when you try to specialize this thought, it escapes you and is lost in the vast distance where these great mysteries lie….” Maybe new thought might lead to some revelation through scientific research, but so far she had seen no proof. She said her old friend psychologist William James might believe in such things as Christian Science healing, but she was content to stop and not speak of such “vague” and “crude views.”

In January 1902, Elizabeth read a biography of British Unitarian theologian, philosopher, and ethicist James Martineau, brother of journalist Harriet Martineau. Martineau had left his early utilitarianism behind as well as necessitarianism. In contrast, she found comfort in Joseph Priestley’s determinism. Martineau had studied with Trendlenburg in Germany and had developed an eclectic philosophy combining common sense with idealism and Kant. He analyzed ethics in terms of free will against the background of divine will. He was not a consequentialist but thought of ethics as being driven by motives. Elizabeth thought Martineau’s A Study of Religion interesting but wrote, “Far be it from me to say that I understand it.” She did think his style and ideas could be striking. She said, however, “…I confess all the efforts to prove that the presence of evil in the world is part of the beneficence of God seem to me futile….” Is Heaven then impossible without Hell? One would answer ‘Impossible with Hell,” since the knowledge that others are in mortal suffering while you are free from all pain or sorrow would in itself impair all conscious enjoyment of your own happiness.” She believed that the contention that Providence must allow cruelty and crime failed like all such arguments. Although there was slave trading and slave owning in her family background, she was appalled by the idea of slavery as an instrument of God. Leaving the answer to suffering, a mystery would be more satisfactory. It is fair to say that her ideas about race as well as evolution had changed and developed throughout her life.

In 1906, Elizabeth read Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua for a second time as though in disbelief. She commented, “I confess I have found it difficult to understand how a man of so powerful, so logical nature could enter into the Catholic Church.” She found her answer in Newman’s conviction at fifteen that dogma was his foundation. In some sense then she saw his conclusion as logical. She was much happier with reading again James Eliot Cabot’s Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In the end, Elizabeth felt particularly sad that the state of her health kept her from her other home, the Cambridge Church. Though a scientist, her husband was strongly devoted to his Swiss Reformed background, and it affected his ideas. Elizabeth, however, had the freedom of thought characteristic of Unitarians. In her imagination, she saw her lost friends as taking tea together. In one of her last entries she still had a spirit of adventure when she wrote, “If there is a life after death, we will know the great secret.” On her journal’s final page, she quoted the passage from memory about God as “A still small voice.”

Upon her death, her spiritual daughters, the Radcliffe women, gathered in cap and gown and marched into Harvard’s Appleton Chapel. Today the women share the Harvard classrooms, chapel, and library with their brothers.


Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz materials are held by a number of divisions of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her papers about Radcliffe College are found in the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute while scientific reports can be found in the Special Collections of the Ernst Mayr Library. Also useful is the collection of Louis Agassiz correspondence and other papers held by the Houghton Library at Harvard. In addition to the books and reports mentioned in the text above, Elizabeth wrote articles for the Atlantic Monthly including: “An Amazonian Picnic” (1866), “A Cruise through the Galapagos ” (1873), “In the Straits of Magellan” (1873), and “A Dredging Excursion in the Gulf Stream” (1869). The standard biography of Elizabeth Agassiz is Lucy Allen Paton’s Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz; a biography (1919). Adventurous Alliance: The Story of the Agassiz Family of Boston (1959) by Louise Hall Tharp provides an interesting multi-generational view of the Agassizs and their relationships with Cambridge academia and Boston society. It also contains a useful genealogy. A number of shorter biographies are available including Julia Ward Howe, ed., Representative Women of New England (1904); and one in Notable American Women: 1607–1950.

More on Elizabeth Agassiz’s School can be found in student diaries and letters quoted in Edward Waldo Forbes, “The Agassiz School,” Cambridge Historical Society (1954), Mrs. John D. Seaver, Seaview Gazette (Feb-Mar 1924) and Georgina Schuyler, Radcliffe Bulletin 10 (May 1908). Additional information on Radcliffe is in Sally Schwager’s Harvard University Ed.D thesis, “Harvard Women: A History of the Founding of Radcliffe College” (1982), and Dorothy Elia Howells, A Century to Celebrate: Radcliffe College, 1879-1979 (1978). For a critique of Louis Agassiz’s beliefs about race and evolution see Stephen Jay Gould, “This View of Life: Flaws in a Victorian Veil,” Natural History (June-July 1978), and his book, The Panda’s Thumb (1980). A more extensive exploration of Elizabeth’s and Louis’ beliefs about race and evolution is Christoph Irmscher, Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science (2013). More on Yankee families and their involvement in world trade can be found in Steven Ujifusa, Barons of the Sea and their race to build the world’s fastest clipper ships (2018). Information on the Agassiz family’s copper bonanza and Henry Higginson’s experimental Cottenham Plantation is found in Bliss Perry, Life and letters of Henry Lee Higginson, (1921). Also informative is William B. Gates, Michigan Copper and Boston Dollars (1951). Also useful are YouTube videos and other reports from Harvard’s 2017 conference “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History.”

Article by Wesley Hromatko
Posted May 14, 2019