Swiss American

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.


3 Responses to “Swiss American”

  1. enkerli Says:

    “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.”
    Agreed. Historically, there might have been something ethnic about being Swiss (or German, for that matter) in North America but, at this point, it’s pretty much as unmarked as being of longstanding Dutch or English descent. There are regions (including Central Indiana and the Eastern Townships in Quebec) where being Swiss may be more significant. For the most part, we’re taken for granted.
    My father is from Lausanne and he pretty much renounces his Swiss background because he felt like Switzerland wasn’t for him. He doesn’t speak a word of German and maintains little connection with anyone in CH.
    Being half-Swiss is a relatively big deal, for me. When I was ostracized for having too fancy an accent (called a “Damn French” my whole childhood), I kept saying that I was Swiss, not French. I also use my Swiss origins as an excuse for being on time all the time, though my father is consistently late. And I enjoy going to visit relatives and friends in VS, VD, and GE when I can (lived in Lausanne in «nonante-quatre, nonante-cinq»). But it’s only when I meet fellow Swiss citizens in North America that I can really discuss this part of my identity.

    Part of the reason I mentioned German identity is that they were one of the original targets for the KKK. Also, while I was a homebrewer, I got to see rare cases of marked German identities. Other cases revolved around Hoosiers of German descent, especially through the eyes of fellow ethnomusicologist Alan Burdette. So I included something about German identity when I did a presentation on beer and cultural identity at BU, back in 2004.

    • Ellen Says:

      I think of myself very much as a German-American; I was brought up with German foodways and holiday celebrations and had childhood exposure to the language. (In fact, since my mother was of half Greman Protestant stock and my father of entirely German Catholic, I got to hear each grandmother bitch about, for example, those damn Bavarians.)

      But although I have multiple immigrants from German-speaking Switzerland in my tree, it never really crossed my mind to think of myself as even a little Swiss. Maybe because all but one had descendants who were “Pennsylvania Dutch,” a much more strongly marked ethnicity in the US?

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To Ellen: Yes, I have no troubled identifying myself as Pennsylvania Dutch (not just my mother’s side of the family, but more important, the milieu I grew up in), but I feel sort of silly saying I’m Swiss American (despite my grandfather).

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