Thursday, September 20, 2012

"The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz," by the Student

It was more than fifteen years ago that I entered the laboratory of Professor Agassiz, and told him I had enrolled my name in the scientific school as a student of natural history. He asked me a few questions about my object in coming, my antecedents generally, the mode in which I afterwards proposed to use the knowledge I might acquire, and finally, whether I wished to study any special branch.
To the latter I replied that while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.
"When do you wish to begin?" he asked.
"Now," I replied.
This seemed to please him, and with an energetic "Very well," he reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.
"Take this fish," he said, "and look at it; we call it a Haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen."
With that he left me, but in a moment returned with explicit instructions as to the care of the object entrusted to me.
"No man is fit to be a naturalist," said he, "who does not know how to take care of specimens."
I was to keep the fish before me in a tin tray, and occasionally moisten the surface with alcohol from the jar, always taking care to replace the stopper tightly. Those were not the days of ground glass stoppers, and elegantly shaped exhibition jars; all the old students will recall the huge, neckless glass bottles with their leaky, wax-besmeared corks, half-eaten by insects and begrimed with cellar dust.
Entomology was a cleaner science than ichthyology, but the example of the professor who had unhesitatingly plunged to the bottom of the jar to produce the fish was infectious; and though this alcohol had "a very ancient and fish-like smell," I really dared not show any aversion within these sacred precincts, and treated the alcohol as though it were pure water. Still I was conscious of a passing feeling of disappointment, for gazing at a fish did not commend itself to an ardent entomologist. My friends at home, too, were annoyed, when they discovered that no amount of eau de cologne would drown the perfume that haunted me like a shadow.
In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the professor, who had, however, left the museum; and when I returned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upper apartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as if to resuscitate it from a fainting-fit, and looked with anxiety for a return of a normal, sloppy appearance. This little excitement over, nothing was to be done but return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half an hour passed, an hour, another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face -- ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarters view -- just as ghastly. I was in despair; at an early hour, I concluded that lunch was necessary; so with infinite relief, the fish was carefully replaced in the jar, and for an hour I was free.
On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the museum, but had gone and would not return for several hours. My fellow students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I was not permitted to use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were prohibited. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish; it seemed so limited. I pushed my fingers down its throat to see how sharp its teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me -- I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.
"That is good," said he, "a pencil is one of the best eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet and your bottle corked."
With these encouraging words he added --
"Well, what is it like?"
He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me; the fringed gill-arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshly lips, and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fin, and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment:
"You have not looked very carefully. "Why, you haven't even seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself. Look again; look again!" And he left me to my misery.
I was piqued; I was embarrassed; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish? But now I set myself to the task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the professor's criticism had been. The afternoon passed quickly, and when, towards its close, the professor asked, "Do you see it yet?"
"No," I replied. "I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before."
"That is next best," said he earnestly, "but I won't hear you now; put away your fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer first thing tomorrow morning. I will test you again before you look at the fish."
This was disconcerting and upsetting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying it in my head without it in front of me, trying to figure out just what this unknown but most obvious and visible feature might be, but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I had to give an exact account of them the next day.  So I walked home by the Charles River in a distracted state, with my perplexities. 
The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I was that I should see for myself what he saw.
"Do you perhaps mean, Professor Agassiz" I asked, "that this fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?"
His thoroughly pleased, "Of course, of course!" repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. After that he talked happily and enthusiastically -- as he always did -- about the importance of this point.
I asked him what I should do next.
"Oh," he said, "look at your fish!"   Then he left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned and heard my new catalogue.
"That is good, that is good!" he repeated, "but that is not all; go on." And so for three long days, he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. "Look, look, look," was his repeated injunction.
This was the best entomological lesson I ever had -- a lesson whose influence was extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy that Professor Agassiz has left to me, as he left it to many others, of tremendous value, which we could not buy, and with which we cannot part.
About a year later, some of us were amusing ourselves by drawing outlandish imaginary beasts upon the blackboard. We drew prancing star-fishes; frogs in mortal combat; hydra-headed worms; stately craw-fishes standing on their tails, bearing aloft umbrellas; and grotesque fishes with gaping mouths and staring eyes. Professor Agassiz came in shortly after, and was as much amused as we were at our experiments. He looked at the fishes.
"Haemulons, every one of them," he said; "Mr. Scudder drew them."
True; and to this day, if I attempt a fish, I can draw nothing but Haemulons.
The fourth day a second fish of the same group was placed beside the first, and I was bidden to point out the resemblances and differences between the two; another and another followed, until the entire family lay before me, and a whole legion of jars covered the table and surrounding shelves; the odor had become a pleasant perfume; and even now, the sight of an old six-inch worm-eaten cork brings fragrant memories!
The whole group of Haemulons was thus brought into review; and whether engaged upon the dissection of the internal organs, preparation and examination of the bony framework, or the description of the various parts, Agassiz's training in the method of observing facts in their orderly arrangement, was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them.
"Facts are stupid things," he would say, "until brought into connection with some general law."
At the end of eight months, it was almost with reluctance that I left these friends and turned to insects; but what I gained by this outside experience has been of greater value than years of later investigation in my favorite groups.

1 comment:

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

You are very welcome, Jonathan. I'm glad it's of use to you. SS7 is going very well. The students are serious, enjoyable, and teachable. Cheers!