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Louis Agassiz SAC keeps racist scientist on honorary member list

(The New York Public Library / Art Resource, NY)


Louis Agassiz was one of the most influential scientists of the 19th century. He was also an outspoken racist. The Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) has now rejected a demand that it remove him as a former honorary member of the club. 

Agassiz’s honorary membership expired when he died in 1873, therefore the SAC could not take away what didn’t exist, the club argued in a statementexternal link on Tuesday. 

“Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz has thus not been an honorary member of the SAC for more than 140 years,” it wrote, rejecting a demand by a committee which had failed in 2010external link to rename the Agassizhorn mountain. 

The SAC pointed out that honorary membership for Agassiz today would be “out of the question”, but unlike back then “today the SAC doesn’t separate scientific success from racist attitudes”. 

In addition, the club, which has recently been criticised by Reinhold Messner, arguably the greatest living mountaineer, for its stance on Agassiz, rejected removing the controversial scientist from its list of former honorary members. 

“First, this would represent a falsification of history,” it said. “Second, erasing his name would run the risk of Agassiz the person being forgotten – and with him his radical ideas, which were normal at the time in many circles.” 

The SAC added, however, that the debate about racism was very important and it wanted to keep it going. 

Darwin and racism 

Louis Agassiz was born in Môtier, canton Neuchâtel, in 1807 and in 1846 crossed the Atlantic to study the natural history and geology of North America and to deliver lectures. Two years later, he accepted a position at Harvard. 

Despite being a ground-breaking zoologist and glaciologist – he was a key promoter of the Ice Age theory – two words explain Agassiz’s relative absence from history books: Darwin and racism. He refused to admit evolutionary theory and believed blacks and whites had different origins. 

Indeed, after arriving in the US, he felt confronted by black people and wrote to his mother that he felt physically ill in their presence.


swissinfo.ch and agencies/ts

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