History

Louis Agassiz, Georges Cuvier's last student and author of the greatest monograph on fossil fishes -- a five volume work that more than doubled the number of all described fossil vertebrate species -- immigrated to America in the late 1840's as the first great European theorist in natural history to take up permanent residence in the United States. He charmed the elite of Boston and even persuaded the Massachusetts State Legislature to grant $100,000 for building and supporting his new Museum of Comparative Zoology. Ralph Waldo Emerson's son wrote of Agassiz: "His genial face, his interesting foreign accent, and his facile blackboard drawing, won the game completely."

image of CrinoidAgassiz opened the Museum in 1859, the same year that Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species. Agassiz's zeal in obtaining collections by purchase and by fieldwork -- particularly of fossil invertebrates -- established the unique excellence of the Invertebrate Paleontology collection of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Though not the largest collection in America, it contains the most diverse and significant holdings of classical (and often beautifully prepared) material from European localities that serve as types for many standard units of the geological time scale, or have become the basis defining monographs on the history and taxonomy of major groups of organisms. Thus, the collection does not only hold historical or antiqarian value, but remains central to current research on the taxonomy and evolutionary history of invertebrate life. Many of these localities cannot be accessed today, due to war, quarrying, building, and governmental restrictions.

Alexander Agassiz, Louis' son and successor, and the practical man who accumulated the wealth that had always eluded his father, wrote of Louis's mania for collecting and purchasing new material: "Of course you cannot stop a steam engine going down an inclined plane any more than I can stop father." Alexander may have been frustrated, but the result of Louis's founding zeal, a commitment extended upon by his successors, has led to a current collection with more than a million specimens of broad taxonomic coverage, including more than 10,000 primary and secondary types.

Among the founding collections obtained by the Agassizs', the MCZ proudly holds the Barrande collection of lower Paleozoic invertebrates from Bohemia; the Haeberlein collection of Solenhofen material; the de Koninck collection of Paleozoic material from France and Belgium and Cenozoic from France; and the Schary collection, made by the famous beer baron, of early Paleozoic invertebrates from central Europe. This tradition of obtaining unusual and important collections has continued throughout our history, as Museum staff or associates have added material, such as:

  • Walcott collection from the Trentonian Lagerstätten of New York, including the first trilobites discovered with legs intact; the collections from the 1916 Shaler Memorial Expedition to Ordovician and Silurian terranes of Russia, Estonia and Scandinavia;
  • Percy Raymond's collections (mid 1929's to early 1930's) from a new quarry just above Walcott's famous Burgess Shale site; Patten's collection of beautifully preserved eurypterids from Oesel (the basis for his idiosyncratic theory on the origin of vertebrates);
  • Preston Cloud's collection of silicified Permian invertebrates from the Glass Mountains of Texas;
  • Bernie Kummel's collection of Triassic ammonites from around the world; Jim Sprinkle's collection of echinoderms from Western United States; and
  • Steve Gould's collection of Pleistocene land snails from Bermuda and the Bahama Islands.

This continuing and growing tradition could not have occurred without a commitment to filling our senior curatorial positions with world-class researchers who base their scholarly efforts upon field work and the collections derived there from. Thus, the major collections of our department have spurred and underlain some of the most important taxonomic, geological and paleobiological research during the last century of American paleontology - including numerous papers of Raymond, Whittington and their students on the early history of animal life as manifested in the Burgess Shale, Walcott's work on the biology and functional morphology of trilobites, Kummel's research on patterns of recovery after the greatest of all mass extinctions at the Permo-Triassic boundary, Sprinkle's definition of several new classes of Paleozoic echinoderms, and Gould's statistical studies of microevolutionary patterns in Pleistocene and Holocene landsnails. Collection speciments have also proved crucial in solving more particular puzzles of theoretical note. The collection's Hallucigenia speciments, for example, prompted the reinterpretation of this most mysterious of Burgess Shale fossils as an onychophoran that had been incorrectly described upside down!

Louis Agassiz's own preeminence in scholarship established a precedent continued by a succession of MCZ-affiliated scholars:

  • Alexander Agassiz, a world expert on the biology and paleontology of reefs and their constituent organisms;
  • Alpheus Hyatt, Agassiz's greatest student who broke from his professor by defending evolution and developing an influential non-Darwinian theory;
  • Robert T. Jackson, author of several standard monographs on molluscs and echinoderms;
  • Percy Raymond, who reopened research at the Burgess Shale site and wrote his generation's standard textbook on invertebrate paleontology;
  • Harry Whittington, the world's leading trilobite taxonomist and promulgator of the distinguished research program that fundamentally reinterpreted the Burgess Shale and the meaning of the Cambrian Explosion in evolutionary terms;
  • Bernie Kummel, who did more than any other paleontologist to establish the empirical basis of patterns in faunal decline and recovery around events of mass extinction; and
  • Steve Gould, whose monographs on the evolution of land snails, and whose general writings on macroevolutionary theory have provoked much discussion and controversy in evolutionary studies.

The tradition of appointing leading researchers, committed to specimen-based study, as senior curators continues today with Charles Marshall, this generation's leader both in statistical studies of completeness and diversity in stratigraphic sequences, and in application of molecular phylogenies to the study of paleontological patterns and phylogenies.

Curators: 

1899-1901            Alpheus Hyatt                                  
1904-1911            Hubert L. Clark                                
1905-1911            Henry B. Bigelow                             
1911-1948            Robert Tracy Jackson                      
1912-1952            Percy E. Raymond                            
1945-1948            Preston Ercelle Cloud Jr.              
1948-1955            William Edward Schevill                  
1948-1964            Harry Blackmore Whittington     
1963-1980            Bernhard Kummel                            
1966-2002            Stephen Jay Gould                           
2002-2009            Charles R. Marshall                          
2019- present        Javier Ortega-Hernandez