Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (1822-1907)

November 29, 2011

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, founder and president of Radcliffe, was born in Boston, Massachusetts on December 5, 1822.

Agassiz was the second of seven children of Thomas Graves Cary and Mary Ann Cushing Perkins Cary, and granddaughter of Thomas Handasyd Perkins (Lot 108, Central Avenue), a benefactor of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. She experienced poor health in her youth, and was tutored at home by a governess in languages, drawing, and music.

Agassiz’s sister, Molly, married Cornelius C. Felton, Professor of Greek at Harvard, introducing her to the Cambridge intellectual set. She met Louis Agassiz, Swiss naturalist, geologist, and zoologist, at one of her sister’s dinner parties, and began spending more time with him after moving into her sister’s household in 1849. They married on April 25, 1850 at King’s Chapel in Boston.

A supportive wife, Agassiz devoted herself not only to caring for Louis’s children from his first marriage, but to his work: she kept his finances in order and took detailed notes of his lectures. She published introductory guides to marine zoology in 1859 and 1865. The couple opened a school for girls at their home in 1855, with Agassiz supervising and advising the enrolled students, while her husband taught alongside other Harvard faculty.

Agassiz accompanied her husband on business trips, traveling to South Carolina, Europe, and Brazil. She kept fastidious records of their travels, and compiled some of these notes with her husband’s scientific observations to publish A Journey in Brazil (1867). She also published her husband’s discoveries about glaciers, following the Hassler Expedition through the Strait of Magellan (1871-72). The couple planned and opened the Anderson School of Natural History on Penikese Island in Buzzard’s Bay in 1873, a coeducational marine laboratory and summer school.

Following her husband’s death in 1873, Agassiz wrote his biography, Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence (1885). In 1878 she was one of the seven founding women of Radcliffe College. The teachers at the school were Harvard faculty, but the school did not become an affiliate of Harvard until 1893, and did not grant degrees until 1894. Agassiz promoted and raised funds for Radcliffe alongside Harvard president Charles Eliot. Agassiz had been president of Radcliffe since its inception, and when she tried to resign in 1899, she was encouraged by her colleagues to stay on until 1903.

Agassiz suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1907 and died in Arlington Heights. She is buried in the Cary family lot beside her husband and members of the Cary and Felton families. She shares a monument with her husband, a piece of granite gifted by the Republic of Switzerland.

Agassiz grave

Elizabeth Cary Agassiz is buried at Mount Auburn in Lot 2640 on Bellwort Path.

Adapted from the research of Judy Jackson and Laura M. Gosman, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, 2001.

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