Agassiz Neighborhood Notables
Jean-Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, 1807–1873
One of the most influential scientists of the 19th century, the Swiss-born American naturalist Jean Louis Ropolphe Agassiz, b. May 28th, 1807, d. December 14, 1873, did pioneering work on fossil fish and was the originator of the concept of ice ages. A graduate in philosophy and medicine of the universities of Munich and Erlangen (1829, 1830), Agassiz worked in Paris with Georges Cuvier, the founder of the discipline of comparative anatomy, and in 1832 became professor of natural history at the College of Neuchatel, Switzerland. There he undertook the research that resulted in his five volume work Recherches sur les poissons fossils (Studies on Fossil Fish, 1833–44), which, using the principles of comparative anatomy, describes more than 1,700 species.
In the late 1830s, Agassiz began his study of glaciers, charting their movement and asserting on the basis of geological evidence that ice had once covered much of the European continent. His view of this catastrophic event opposed the famous doctrine of the Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell of that only uniform and gradual changes occur in the Earth’s history. But geological formation, as well as the scratched surfaces of rocks in certain areas, supported Agassiz’s theory.
In 1846, Agassiz went to the United States to deliver a series of lectures but remained for twenty-five years, teaching at Harvard. Renowned for his teaching abilities, Agassiz trained an entire generation of naturalists. He enthusiastically explored the United States both east and west of the Mississippi and applied his theory of ice ages to North America. He established (1859) the Museum of Comparative Zoology Sciences. He was the most important scientist in the United States to oppose Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Bibliography: Agassiz, Louis, Geological Sketches (1895; repr. 1965) and The Intelligence of Louis Agassiz (1963); Lurie, Edward, Louis Agassiz: A life in Science (1960) and Nature and the American Mind: Louis Agassiz and the Culture of Science (1974); Marcou, Jules, Life, Letters, and the Work of Louis Agassiz, 2 vols. (1896); Meadows, Jack, The Great Scientists (1987); Wilson, Grove, Great Men of Science (1929; repr. 1981) —Grolier’s Encyclopedia, 1995
Maria Louise Baldwin, 1856–1922
Maria Baldwin was born and educated in Cambridge. She was appointed to the Agassiz School as teacher in 1882, and then promoted to principal in 1889. Miss Baldwin worked toward replacing Agassiz School with a new, modern building. In 1916 the new school was complete, and Miss Baldwin was appointed master of the new Agassiz School. The school had an enrollment of 410 children who came from old Cambridge families, Harvard University families, and working class families.
Miss Baldwin has been remembered fondly in writing by many students. She is remembered by current residents Marian Cannon Schlesinger in her book Snatched from Oblivion for her “tenderness and wisdom in training of the children” and for “the low quiet timbre of her voice, and her seemingly effortless control” and by Alice Longfellow (the poet’s daughter and school committee member) for “her dignity, calmness and beautiful voice.” One of her most famous Agassiz students, e.e. cummings, writes that his father enrolled him at Agassiz School in 1904 because of Miss Baldwin, and in Six Nonlectures he says of her: “Miss Baldwin, the dark lady mentioned in my first nonlecture (and a lady if ever a lady existed) was blessed with a delicious voice, charming manners, and a deep understanding of children. Never did any demidivine dictator more gracefully and easily rule a more unruly and less graceful populace. Her very presence emanated an hour and a glory: the honour of spiritual freedom—not mere freedom from— and the glory of being, not (like most extant mortals) really undead but actually alive. From her I marvellingly learned that the truest power is gentleness.”
There was a life beyond that of Agassiz School, and Miss Baldwin was an active member in many clubs of her day, both literary and socially progressive. She helped to establish the League of Women for Community Service in Boston and was the first president. The League still exists today headquarted in the Farwell Mansion at 558 Massachusetts Ave. in Boston. The building is rich in black history, as a stop on the Underground Railroad (with a secret passage) and more recently having housed Coretta Scott when a student at New England Conservatory just before she married Martin Luther King. Miss Baldwin was also a member of the Twentieth Century Club and the Banneker Club. She served on the council of the Robert Gould Shaw House, a Boston social settlement for African Americans.
Miss Baldwin was also a public speaker of note. She was the first black and first woman to address the Brooklyn Institute for the Annual Washington’s Birthday memorial address after which she was offered a job in Brooklyn for twice her Cambridge salary. Happily for the Agassiz Community, she refused. For many summers she was a lecturer at the Hampton Institute, a southern black summer school.
Miss Baldwin’s home at 196 Prospect St. was headquarters for many literary activities. The “Omar Circle” was a group of black intellectuals, including William Monroe Trotter, who met under her leadership to discuss poetry. She held weekly reading classes for black Harvard students, one of whom was W.E.B. DuBois. He honored her as “Man of the Month” in the N.A.AC.P. journal, The Crisis (April 1917):
The school [Agassiz], composed of kindergarteners and eight grades, is one of the best in the city and is attended by children of Harvard professors and many of the old Cambridge families. The teachers under Miss Baldwin, numbering twelve, and the 410 children are all white. Miss Baldwin thus, without a doubt, occupies the most distinguished position achieved by a person of Negro descent in the teaching world of America, outside cities where are segregated schools.
Hallie Q. Brown has noted the words of an Agassiz parent from Maria Baldwin’s time:
She had the remarkable power of enlisting the child’s cooperation in any disciplinary problems. She never felt, and she never failed to tell the child so, that it was any victory to impose her will upon him. The child must make decision and take the action himself. She always made him feel that he and she were only partners in the effort to make the school one worthy of complete devotion. I never left her presence without wishing I were a better mother, that somehow I could be as wise and tender a mother to my five as she was to her five hundred.
—Excerpted from A Brief History of the Life of Maria Louise Baldwin, 1856–1922
Maud Morgan’s talent as an artist was recognized early. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, she was exhibiting at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City and was the featured artist in an exhibit of distinguished Abstract Expressionists at Yale. Major New York City museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art acquired her work.
In the mid-1940s, Maud left New York for Andover, Massachusetts, to follow her husband’s career. While teaching art at Abbot Academy, she continued to paint and experiment with other media, and exhibited at the Margaret Brown Gallery in Boston. Maud filled her family home with the work of contemporaries and created a nurturing environment for numerous young artists such as Frank Stella and Carl Andre.
In the late 1950s, Maud came to Boston and later moved to the Agassiz neighborhood of Cambridge. Her work was exhibited regularly at the Barbara Singer Gallery. Although she viewed herself as a painter, she never hesitated to experiment with other media. Her prints and her investigations with papermaking and collage at Rugg Road Papers and Prints were enthusiastically received in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Maud was given one-person shows at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, the Fuller Art Museum in Brockton, the Addison Gallery in Andover, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Throughout her career, Maud was a source of inspiration for dozens of artists, both young and old. For women artists, in particular, she served as a role model. She encouraged them to pursue their careers without foregoing the privilege and pleasure of family life. Her joie de vivre was infectious and touched the lives of all who knew her. At the age of ninety-two, still vigorous and eager to explore yet another medium of expression, Maud published her autobiography, Maud’s Journey: A Life from Art.
Maud Morgan was a vibrant member of the Cambridge arts community from 1961–1999. A boundless optimist, she celebrated being alive with verve and regarded art as the most essential ingredient of a full life. Not only was she an ardent champion of young and emerging artists, but she also strongly believed in the value of arts education. As a tribute to this exceptional woman, her friends, neighbors, and colleagues have proposed that the new arts center bear her name.
Maud’s Journey: A Life from Art
Copies of Maud’s autobiography, Maud’s Journey: A Life from Art, can be purchased for $20. Call (617) 349-6287 for more information.