studied under the noted zoologist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz at Harvard’s
Lawrence Scientific School. In the following essay, originally published
anonymously in 1874, Scudder recalls his first encounter with Professor
Agassiz, who subjected his research students to a rigorous exercise in close
observation and analysis.
Samuel Hubbard Scudder
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.
well,” he reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.
call it a haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen.”
instructions as to the care of the object entrusted to me.
does not know how to take care of specimens.”
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 eau de cologne would drown the perfume which haunted me like a shadow.
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 the beast from a fainting fit, and looked with anxiety for
a return of the 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.
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
might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My
two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed
my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the 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
best of eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet, and
your bottle corked.”
of parts whose names were still unknown to me; the fringed gill-arches and
movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshy lips and lidless eyes; the
lateral line, the spinous fins, 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,” he
continued, more earnestly, “you haven’t even see 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.
piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself
to my 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 inquired:
see how little I saw before.”
I won’t hear you now; put away your fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready
with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the
night, studying without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible
feature might be; but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give
an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by
the Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.
reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should
see for myself what he saw.
has symmetrical sides with paired organs?”
the wakeful hours of the previous night. After he had discoursed most happily
and enthusiastically–as he always did–upon the importance of this point, I
ventured to ask what I should do next.
my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned and heard my new
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.
whose influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy
the professor has left to me, as he has left it to many others, of inestimable
value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part.
chalking outlandish beasts upon the museum blackboard. We drew prancing
star-fishes; frogs in mortal combat; hydra-headed worms; stately crawfishes,
standing on their tails, bearing aloft umbrellas; and grotesque fishes with
gaping mouths and staring eyes. The professor came in shortly after and was as
amused as any at our experiments. He looked at the fishes.
—– drew them.”
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!
whether engaged upon the dissection of the internal organs, the preparation and
examination of the bony framework, or the description of the various parts,
Agassiz’s training in the method of observing facts and their orderly
arrangement, was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content
brought into connection with some general law.”
left these friends and turned to insects; but what I had gained by this outside
experience has been of greater value than years of later investigation in my
version of the essay “Look at Your Fish!” originally appeared in Every
Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading (April
4, 1874) under the title “In the Laboratory With Agassiz,” by “A