Letter from Cuttyhunk: The Master of Penikese Island

The Anderson School of Natural History, Penikese Island, 1874. Marine Biological Laboratories. — Photo Courtesy of Marine Biologi

The Elizabeth Islands, with their rugged topography, were carved 10,000 years ago by the slow, scraping movement of a receding glacier at the end of the Ice Age. This resulting rocky debris of gathered and deposited granite and quartz is known geologically as the Buzzards Bay Moraine. These Islands have had a long, interesting history since their recorded discovery in 1602, of being not only a sanctuary, but a diverse living laboratory for those studying the natural sciences. As poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in 1873:

On the isle of Penikese

ringed about by sapphire seas

fanned by breezes salt and cool

stood the Master with his school

said the Master to his youth

we have come in search of truth

Who was this Master of Penikese Island held in such high esteem by the poet? He was one of Europe’s foremost scientists and natural historians, Louis Agassiz, who lived between 1807 and 1873. Agassiz came to study and lecture on America’s geology in 1846, after having already proposed the first Glacial Theory nine years earlier following his research on living and fossilized fish that he conducted while residing in a hut situated beside a Swiss glacier.

As a zoology professor at Harvard, Agassiz founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1859, the same year that Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published. Agassiz had developed his own “Special Creation” theory which informed how he arranged his specimens, and he thought Darwin’s ideas to be “conjectural.” The academic community in Boston welcomed Agassiz and introduced him to Buzzards Bay where he loved to fish and observe the natural world. Described by his fellow Saturday Club member, J.R. Lowell, as a “towering personality,” Agassiz was an intellectual with a great sphere of influence that included Longfellow, Emerson, and Thoreau. Thoreau, who loved to sail on Buzzards Bay, often gathered specimens for Agassiz on Naushon Island. After hearing the Master lecture about mollusks, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes penned the famous verse, “Chambered Nautilus.” Agassiz strongly believed that observation-based education was integral to the study of natural history. “Read nature, not books. If you study nature in books, when you go out of doors, you cannot find her.”

In 1873, John Anderson, a New York philanthropist and tobacco merchant who owned Penikese Island, one of the outermost islands of the Elizabeth Island chain, was intrigued when he heard about Agassiz’s appeal for a patron to establish a school of natural history. The campus of the Anderson School of Natural History was hastily constructed on Penikese that same year, bringing Agassiz’s dream to life. The country’s leading naturalists taught courses there to a coed student body of 44 on subjects such as mollusks, algae, and physical geography. Microscopes and sketchbooks were the tools for observation and study of live marine specimens. After Agassiz’s death later that year, his son Alexander, a marine biologist, ran the school for one more year and directed the Harvard museum for 40 more. Agassiz’s wife and research assistant, Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz, went on to found Radcliffe College.

The late 1800s were an incredible period of scientific curiosity about the natural world.

Students from the Anderson School became teachers and researchers of the natural sciences, and influenced the development of the fledgling American Museum of Natural History in New York as well as the Smithsonian Institution. The small 75-acre area of Penikese Island made it a perfect place for botanical studies. Student David Starr Jordan described a “barren, overgrazed island that somehow supported 108 species.” He later became the first president of Stanford University where he had a statue erected to honor Agassiz. The Woods Hole based Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) was founded by two Anderson School students and picked up where Agassiz left off. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), now the world’s largest independent oceanic laboratory, followed in 1930. More recently, MBL compiled an online herbarium cataloging the 9,000 species of plants observed on the Elizabeth Islands and Cape Cod since 1850, including Jordan’s recorded specimens from his work in 1873. The Anderson buildings no longer remain, but the Island is currently being used as a bird sanctuary and is owned by the state of Massachusetts. Agassiz and his science school on neighboring Penikese Island left quite an impressive legacy to our world.

(Source: Cuttyhunk Historical Society Monograph: Garfield Bachler, L., Spring 2005)

For Cuttyhunkers Only:


Condolences to the family of Oriel Wood Ponzecchi  (2/8/24-12/21/15).  An interment ceremony and celebration of her and her husband Piero’s life is planned for summer 2016 on her beloved Cuttyhunk Island.

Cuttyhunk Elementary School:  Please join the students at Community Game Night, Friday, January 29, 5 to 9 pm, at the Town Hall. Desserts provided, bring your favorite game, prizes awarded.

Board of Selectmen’s Meeting Headlines:

US Postal Service proposes a post office facility at Town Hall

Sewer Outfall Project – all houses off the pipe with new septic systems or service closed

Catch Basin to be installed to control road flooding near Don Lynch’s house

Discussion of Ridgeley Farm subdivision

Upcoming meetings: February 12 and 26 (with Fin Comm), March 11 and 28 (Monday)

Visit the Cuttyhunk.net Facebook page for more Island information

Avalon Inn : Please visit our website for more information on the Cuttyhunk Island Residency at www.cuttyhunkislandresidency.com. The new writers’ workshop will be held this spring with author Paul Harding.