In the NYT Book Review on Sunday, a review (by Rebecca Stott) of Christoph Irmscher’s Louis Agassiz. Agassiz, a difficult character, was a distinguished scientist — and the first notable Swiss American (in the narrow sense) that I was aware of as a child. (My Swiss grandfather enthusiastically praised the achievements of Swiss Americans, and Agassiz was for him the beginning of Swiss American history.)
The beginning of Stott’s review, with a Stanford hook:
During the California earthquake of 1906, the marble statue of Louis Agassiz toppled off the second story of Stanford University’s zoology building and plunged headfirst into the ground. The great scientist, with his head buried in concrete, his upturned body sticking up into air, became an iconic image of the earthquake. Agassiz is often remembered as a fallen man, Christoph Irmscher tells us. His rejection of Darwinian evolution and his conviction that America belonged to the whites only are an embarrassment to science.
The famous photo:
Caption in Wikipedia:
During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a statue of Agassiz fell from its niche on the front of the Stanford University zoology building. Stanford President David Starr Jordan later wrote, “Somebody – Dr. Angell, perhaps – remarked that ‘Agassiz was great in the abstract but not in the concrete.’ “
(The old Zoology Building is now Building 420, Jordan Hall, housing Psychology, among other things; Linguistics is in Building 460, next door.)
Agassiz is hard to like, despite my grandfather’s enthusiasm. But, Stott writes,
irreconcilable contradictions make for interesting biographies. And Irmscher doesn’t allow the “undelightful” aspects to disappear in the service of myth making. Instead, he draws out the complexities of his subject and helps us to see them as part of the fabric of 19th-century science. There’s no airbrushing in “Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.”
there is no arguing with the claim that Agassiz, a Swiss immigrant, was pivotal to the making of American science. He was “one of the first,” Irmscher writes, “to establish science as a collective enterprise.” He was extraordinarily prolific and influential in many fields, including paleontology, zoology, geology and glaciology. He pioneered field research and was among the first to propose that the Earth had endured an ice age. A charismatic teacher whose students in natural history went on to become the teachers and scientists of the next generation, he was also an obsessive collector, enlisting the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural history specimens so he could build a remarkable museum of comparative anatomy [the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, which he founded in 1859 and directed until his death; Harvard and its surroundings are packed with things named after him].
So Agassiz was Swiss American in the narrow sense; he emigrated from Neuchâtel (in Francophone Switzerland) to Boston and took American citizenship.
Wikipedia has, I suppose inevitably, an entry on Swiss Americans:
This is a list of notable Swiss Americans, including both original immigrants who obtained American citizenship and their American descendants.
Most of them are, like me, descendants of original immigrants. Quite an assortment: Dwight Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover, Steve Ballmer (of Microsoft), Milton Hershey, Renée Zellweger, Wallace Beery, Eudora Welty, William F. Buckley, astronaut Wally Schirra, Bobby Fischer, etc.
Unlike, say Irish Americans and Italian Americans, there is now not a lot of sense of ethnic identity among Swiss Americans in the broad sense.