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History

The history of the Museum of Comparative Zoology begins with the vision of Louis Agassiz, a great systematist, paleontologist and renowned teacher of natural history. The son of a minister, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born on May 28, 1807 in Switzerland. Agassiz was educated in the universities of Switzerland and Germany as a physician. After developing an interest in natural history, Agassiz moved to Paris where he studied under Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier, and furthered his knowledge of geology and zoology. He developed an impressive reputation among his peers after his monumental survey of fossil fishes, observations on glaciers, classification of echinoderms and studies concerning embryology of fish and geographical distribution.

In 1845, while directing a small museum and teaching natural history in the town of Neuchatel, Switzerland, Agassiz was asked to deliver the Lowell Lectures in Boston. Agassiz promoted a new discipline called “comparative zoology,” endorsing the classification of living things based on their similar structures, which he believed were only explainable through their divine creation. Agassiz’s message was greatly received in Boston and he was eventually installed as a professor at Harvard University. He immediately began to work towards obtaining funds to house his collections of specimen and books, hiring assistants, creating curatorships, sending students on collecting trips and printing illustrated volumes of research. Agassiz’s vision included a museum that would illustrate patterns of organic similarity through morphology, embryology, paleontology and geographic distribution, with its primary objective to provide material for scientific research for professionals.

The Museum of Comparative Zoology opened its doors in 1859. Agassiz filled the museum with his personal collection, specimens gathered from Harvard faculty and students on collecting exhibitions, and fossil collections he purchased from Europe. The museum served as a training ground for a new generation of professional zoologists. Agassiz’s educational goal was always to define a natural grouping of species rather than merely describing individual species, and the backbone of his method was comparison. Agassiz served as Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology from its creation in 1859 until his death in 1873.

Like many of his students and fellow scientists in the latter part of the 19th century, Agassiz’s son, Alexander, embraced the new evolutionary theories as presented in Darwin’s Origins of a Species. Still, Alexander was determined to build upon his father’s ambitions for the MCZ. He graduated from Harvard College in 1855 where he earned degrees in natural history and engineering. While maintaining his studies in natural history, particularly ichthyology, Alexander pursued opportunities in the mining industry. His ventures proved to be financially profitable, and Alexander donated much of his fortune to the MCZ for teaching tools and additions and renovations to the MCZ original building, including an extension to house Harvard’s collections from botany, geology, anatomy, and physiology as well as zoology. Alexander’s connection to the MCZ lasted for the last 50 years of his life, serving as curator and director until his death in 1910.

Throughout the advancement and acceptance of organic evolution theories and the ensuing debates over the foundations of classification at the turn of the century, the Museum endured many physical and philosophical transformations. However under the leadership of the MCZ directors, faculty and curators, the MCZ has remained an institution devoted to the advancement of evolutionary biology and biodiversity science, as well as to the preservation, order and use of its collection and archives.

For more information regarding the history of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the MCZ Ernst Mayr Library has posted an excellent suggested reading list of books, reports and newsletters.