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I conclude, that at a certain epoch the whole of Europe was covered with ice . . . Death enveloped nature in its winding-sheet.”


In 1834, the young Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807—1873) visited Britain to study fossil collections and had read a paper to Geological Society of London on the classification of fossil fishes. In 1836 the GSL awarded him the prestigious Wollaston Medal for this work which showed, in his view, “the progressive and organic development of life on Earth.” Agassiz was a rising star and was well-known in Britain.





Given his background, it was therefore a surprise when his opening address as President of the Swiss Society of Natural History in 1837 consisted not of a review of the past year’s work (as was traditional), but of an exposition of evidence of glaciation. He had picked up this evidence from Venetz, Charpentier, and Schimper in the previous twelve months – evidence of erratics, “diluvium,” striations, polished rocks, and moraines in comparison to features found near present-day glaciers. Mainly using arguments expounded by Charpentier in 1835, he argued specifically against floods, mudslides, and ice-floe or ice-berg drift; and he enlisted Schimper (who had lent him his lecture notes) in objecting to floods and mudslides on the grounds that they would surely have filled up the valleys and smoothed out irregularities (such as the Lake Geneva basin) with their deposits.



roche-moutonnee pic.jpg

Roche moutonnée in front of Steilimmigletscher, Bernese Alps, Switzerland



Having reviewed the features under dispute, Agassiz crucially argued (1837, p.376, translation): “In considering the intimate connection between the different facts which we have just been describing, it is manifest that every explication which does not account at the same time for the polish of the surface of the soil, for the superposition and the rounded form of the pebbles, for the sand reposing immediately upon the polished surfaces, and also for the angular form of the great superficial blocks, is an explication which is quite inadmissible as accounting for the erratic blocks of the Jura; and these objections forcibly apply to all the hypotheses respecting the transport of blocks with which I am acquainted.”


There was one problem, however: the general opinion in geology was that higher temperatures in the past precluded glaciation. Agassiz saw glaciation as part of the cooling trend and of the transition (with attendant extinctions) between epochs of uniform temperature (1837, p.382). He thus combined uniformity with a certain catastrophism that explained the extinction of fauna: "the epoch of extreme cold which preceded the present creation, has only been a passing oscillation of the temperature of the globe, somewhat more considerable than the periodic refrigeration to which the valleys of our Alps are subject . It was attended by the disappearance of the animals of the diluvian epoch of geologists, as the mammoths of Siberia still attest, and preceded the uprising of the Alps, and the appearance of the animated nature of our day, as is proved by the moraines, and the presence of fish in our lakes. There was thus a complete separation between the existing creation and those which have preceded it . . ." (p.382).


“If this theory be correct, and the facility with which it explains so many phenomena which have hitherto been deemed inexplicable, induces me to believe that it is; then it must follow that there has been, at the epoch which preceded the elevation of the Alps and the appearance of the existing animated world, a fall of temperature far below that which prevails in our days . . . The phenomena of the dispersion of erratic blocks, then, ought not any longer to be regarded in any other light than as one of the circumstances which have accompanied the vast changes occasioned by the fall of the temperatures of our globe previous to the commencement of our epoch”(p.377, 378)


Going beyond Charpentier’s more conservative “Alpine” glaciation, Agassiz speculated that Earth had been glaciated at least from the North Pole to the Mediterranean, if not entirely (an idea derived possibly from Bernhardi/Schimper). He connected the well-accepted and widespread extinction of mammals to this colder climate. Arguing somewhat differently from Charpentier, he stated that the elevation of the Alps near the end of this glaciation had released boulders onto the ice surface and the boulders then slid across Switzerland to rest in various locations. The ice then retreated to its present high mountain location as Earth warmed.


Agassiz therefore did not envisage the extension of the present glaciers during an ice age but instead saw them as remnants of an ice age: “It would be a great mistake to confuse the glaciers which come down from the top of the Alps [today] with the phenomena of the epoch of the great ice sheet which preceded their existence.” Thus he did not see glaciers as transporting the erratics themselves, as part of their own dynamics – rather they had rolled down the surface of the ice. He attributed moraines to glacial action, but he was not explicit as to the mechanism or the period.



Striated, grooved, and polished rock emerging from under a glacier in retreat.


“Roches polies du Landeron,” near Neuchatel (Agassiz, 1840: see also 1840b)



Agassiz’s ideas at the meeting met with some considerable resistance notably from von Buch and  J.A. Deluc (1763–1847) (the nephew). Leonce Elie de Beaumont, who attended, was indifferent to Agassiz’s glacial theorizing and pointed to evidence of his own ideas. In support of his position in the debate, Agassiz read an extract from a letter he had received from Schimper and here term “Ice Age” first appears in print.


Agassiz engaged in his own fieldwork in the following year and his 1838 address and his 1840 “Etudes sur les glaciers” contain increasingly detailed observations on current glaciers and more confident review and critique of existing work. His 1840 book was rushed to print ahead of Charpentier’s more careful and better produced monograph, “Essai sur les glaciers” which, however, focused only upon Alpine glaciation.


Bernhard Studer (1831-1868) converted to the Alpine glacial theory following the 1839 meeting of the Swiss Society and wondered: “Shall we be obliged, by assigning the same causes to the same effects, to believe that . . . the same phenomenon likewise appears in Sweden, England, and other countries very remote from high mountains?”


William Buckland had been in attendance at the 1838 (Porrentruy) and 1839 (Bern) meetings. In 1840 he saw to it (as President of the Geological Society of London) that a paper by Agassiz was read at GSL on the topic of Alpine glaciation.



  1. In what ways does Agassiz's idea differ from Venetz and Charpentier?
  2. What role did the extinction of fauna play in Agassiz's theory as compared to Charpentier?
  3. Agassiz postulated that a massive ice "nappe" had covered much of the northern hemisphere. How might this impact the reception of a "glacial" theory? Was he replacing one sudden "catastrophe" with another, deemed capable of producing extinctions?
  4. What future work might lie ahead for Agassiz at this point, if he is to convince others of his ideas?




Agassiz, L. 1837 Discours prononce a l’ouverture des seances Société Helvétique des Sciences Naturelles, a Neuchatel le 24 Juillet 1837 Actes de la Société Helvétique des Sciences Naturelles, réunie à Neuchâtel, p. v-xxxii http://books.google.com/books?id=e_taAAAAQAAJ&pg=PR5 [Opening remarks by the President of the Society: “The discourse of Neuchatel”]
ENGLISH TRANSLATION :  Upon Glaciers, Moraines, and Erratic Blocks; being the Address delivered at the opening of the Helvetic Natural History Society, at Neuchatel, on the 24th of July 1837, by its President, M. L. Agassiz. The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal v.24 (Oct. 1837-April 1838) p.364-383 http://books.google.com/books?id=2yEAAAAAMAAJ&pg=RA1-PA364#v


Agassiz, L. 1838 On the Erratic Blocks of the Jura The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal v.24 (Oct. 1837-April 1838) p.176- 179 http://books.google.com/books?id=B1sEAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA176

Agassiz, L. 1838 Observations sur le glaciers Bulletin de la Societie Geologique de France, v.9 (1837-1839), p.443-450  http://books.google.com/books?id=w3i7AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA443 [Paper read at meeting of the Societie Helvetique meeting at Porrentruy 1838]
REPORT on the discussion of Agassiz’s paper “Observations sur les glaciers” at the Porrentruy meeting p.407-410 http://books.google.com/books?id=w3i7AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA407
ENGLISH TRANSLATION “Remarks on glaciers” The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal v.XXVII (April 1839 - October 1839) p.383-390 http://books.google.com/books?id=zRgXAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA383 [Same paper as  read to the Geological Society of France]


Agassiz, L. 1840 Etudes sur les glaciers  (Agassiz, Jent & Glassmann, Neuchatel) http://books.google.com/books?id=fTMAAAAAQAAJ

TRANSLATION: Carozzi, A.V. (trans) 1967 Studies on glaciers preceded by the Discourse of Neuchatel by Louis Agassiz (Hafner Publishing Company, New York and London)


Agassiz, L. 1840b On the polished and striated surfaces of the rocks which form the beds of glaciers in the Alps. Proceedings of the Geological Society London v.III November 1838 – June 1842 (no. 71), p.321-322 http://books.google.com/books?id=3qoEAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA321


Charpentier, J. de 1841 Essai sur les glaciers et sur le terrain erratique du bassin du Rhone.  Laussane, Marc Ducloux http://books.google.com/books?id=eGwsSDuzkSAC&pg=PP7


Deluc, J.A. 1837 Examen - de la cause probable a laquelle M. J. de Charpentier attribue le transport des blocs erratiques de la suisse, dans sa notice sur ce sujet. Actes de la Société Helvétique des Sciences Naturelles, réunie à Neuchâtel, p.29-38  [Review of the probable cause attributed by Jean de Charpentier for the transportation of erratics in his article on the subject]    http://books.google.com/books?id=e_taAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA29


Studer, M. [B.] 1840 On some phenomena of the Diluvian Epoch The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal v.XXIX (April – October 1840) p.274-279 [“Diluvian Epoch” here refers to the time period and not the process – Studer supported Agassiz in this publication] http://books.google.com/books?id=LRMAAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA274
ORIGINAL FRENCH, 1839: http://books.google.com/books?id=BHq7AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA49


CONTEMPORARY NINETEENTH CENTURY REVIEW (review of 8 recent, major works):

Anon [attr. Forbes, J.D.] 1842 The glacier theory The Edinburgh Review and Critical Journal v.LXXV (April – July 1842) p.49-105




Evans, E.P.  1887 NOTES AND COMMENTS. The authorship of the glacial theory. The North American Review v.CXLV, p.94-97 http://books.google.com/books?id=R1sCAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA95


Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, 2008 Ice: A Victorian Romance http://www.lindahall.org/events_exhib/exhibit/exhibits/ice/index.shtml

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