Taxonomy and the Personal Equation: The Historical Fates of Charles Girard and Louis Agassiz [Book Review]

Journal of the History of Biology 32 (3):509 - 555 (1999)

Authors
Jack James
University of New England (Australia)
Abstract
The reputations of scientists among their contemporaries depend not only on accomplishment, but also on interactions affected by influence and personality. The historical lore of most fields of scientific endeavor preserve these reputations, often through the identification of founders, innovators, and prolific workers whose contributions are considered fundamental to progress in the field. Historians frequently rely on the historical lore of scientists to guide their studies of the development of ideas, exhibiting justifiable caution in reassessing reputations in the light of current knowledge. However, the transmission of historical lore can obscure the relative importance of accomplishment, influence and personality in shaping contemporary reputations, leaving the historian to either accept reputations at face value or attempt to reconstruct the context in which they were created. The science of taxonomy, because of its rules of priority, leaves a relatively accurate record of historical accomplishment through the persistence of taxa in catalogues and faunal guides. These records allow the modern historian an unbiased means to assess the relative accomplishments of historical figures and therefore a means to critically reassess reputations independent of personality and influence. In the historical lore of North American ichthyology, Louis Agassiz at Harvard and Spencer Baird at the Smithsonian emerge as central figures in the early development of the field during the mid-1800s, contributing not only through the quality and quantity of their science, but also through their roles as institutional leaders and mentors to workers who followed. Charles Girard, originally a student of Agassiz's and later a coworker with Baird, receives little notice in the history of ichthyology, and his reputation is that of a minor player in the initial description of the North American fish fauna, and one whose work appears to have been flawed or even careless when compared to his contemporaries. However, a review of both contemporary and modern taxonomic works reveals that Girard's productivity far exceeded that of either Agassiz or Baird. Furthermore, an examination of the tendency of Girard and his contemporaries to introduce synonymous names into the literature, which might reflect careless or uncritical work, suggests that Girard was among the more accomplished workers of his era, including Agassiz and Baird. Girard's low ranking in the folklore of North American ichthyology, therefore, can not be attributed to discernible shortcomings in his scientific work, but rather to a public and private campaign of criticism waged by Agassiz after Girard's departure from Harvard. While Agassiz's dispute with Girard stemmed from their personal interactions, he expressed them as criticisms of Girard's work, and thus helped shape Girard's scientific reputation as it has been transmitted through the lore of ichthyology. This case study reveals how scientific reputation may not always rest on accomplishment, but can be influenced by personal interactions obscured by time but nonetheless important to history.
Keywords Louis Agassiz  Spencer Baird  Charles Girard  reputation  taxonomy  ichthyology  Museum of Comparative Zoology  Smithsonian Institution
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DOI 10.2307/4331548
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