Leopold von Buch

Christian Leopold von Buch

1774 (Stolper an der Oder, Prussia, now Germany) – 1853 (Berlin)

Buch was one of the influential Werner’s best-known students, who increasingly questioned Werner’s beliefs about rock-formation, in favour of the plutonist views that still hold today. He met both Humboldts while studying in Freiberg — Alexander (who became a lifelong friend) and he both lodged with Werner, and journeying back from studying Vesuvius with Gay-Lussac, visited Volta in northern Italy. Buch was impressed by Wöhler’s knowledge, helping him get his first job. Contemptuous of the young Agassiz’s glacial theories, Buch shouted at him; Charpentier and Élie de Beaumont joined the two on a fractious hike in the Jura, following Agassiz’s lecture.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

1752 (Gotha, Germany) – 1840 (Göttingen)

Blumenbach effectively invented anthropology and (with Vicq d’Azyr) comparative anatomy; some later followers ignored his increasingly enlightened ideas about racial classification. As a student he was employed by Heyne (his future brother-in-law) to organise his natural history collection. Haller was a mentor, Goethe and Kant friends (Blumenbach refuted Kant’s ideas of European superiority), as were Lichtenberg and Forster (who together published important work of his). He taught Humboldt, Sömmering and Lawrence; Coleridge also met him and attended his lectures. Banks, another friend, sent him skulls for his collection.

Alcide d’Orbigny

1802 (Couëron, France) – 1857 (Pierrefitte-sur-Seine)

Despite d’Orbigny’s obsolete ideas (including that there had been 28 creations of life, and 27 total extinctions), much of his detailed work has had continued relevance. Audubon was a childhood friend in France (d’Orbigny’s father gave him drawing lessons). Cuvier and Geoffroy taught him, and were responsible for the seven-year South American expedition he undertook (Cuvier died while he was away). Humboldt, met in Paris (and whose colleague Bonpland was a family friend of the d’Orbigny’s), correctly asserted that the funds for the expedition wouldn’t be enough. Darwin corresponded though never met him, and thought his work second only to Humboldt’s.

Richard Owen

Sir Richard Owen

1804 (Lancaster, England) – 1892 (London)

Owen’s exceptional talents and achievements sit contrary to his (not undeserved) reputation as vain, vindictive and a plagiariser. He met Cuvier and attended his debates with Geoffroy, was introduced by Lyell to Darwin and analysed his haul of fossils, and examined Buckland’s, Mantell’s and Agassiz’s blood together at table (he later grew to hate Darwin’s achievement, antagonised Lyell, sabotaged Mantell’s career, and encouraged Buckland’s wife to commit him to an asylum). He knew Carlyle for 40 years, advised Livingston, and befriended Oken, Turner, Eliot, Tennyson and Dickens. Anning took him fossil-hunting; Faraday sent him a three-legged frog.

Louis Agassiz

1807 (Môtiers, Switzerland) – 1873 (Cambridge, Mass.)

Agassiz studied glaciation in the Alps with Charpentier, falling out with his friend Schimper over which of them deserved credit for the theory of the Ice Age (Schimper working the main ideas out first, Agassiz – ever the self-promoter – omitting his name when he published). He classified Brazilian fish (in Latin) for Martius. He studied under Cuvier and Humboldt in Paris; Longfellow and Emerson were friends after his arrival in the U.S.; Edward Morse and James were among his students. Thoreau supplied him with freshwater turtles for his research, and Darwin admired his work on glaciation, despite Agassiz’ strong opposition to Darwinism.