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Louis Agassiz's Fossil Fish

Egerton cabinet
Specimens from the collection of Philip de Malpas Grey Egerton, by Joseph Dinkel, [1834-1860s]. (LDGSL/616/2/97)

One of the more important Archive collections held by the Library of the Geological Society is the fossil fish portfolios of the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807-1873).

Probably better known today for his studies of glaciation, Agassiz’s first passion was the study of fish (ichthyology) which had developed whilst he was at university, ostensibly studying for a medical degree. By the age of 22, Agassiz had authored or co-authored two publications on the subject and it was whilst researching for his next work, this time on the freshwater fish of Europe, that he became fascinated by their fossilised forms.

Agassiz’s aim was to record all fossil fish species which were known at the time. The lavishly illustrated publications ‘Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles’ and its follow up 'Monographie des Poissons Fossiles du Vieux Grès Rouge' were the result, issued in separate livraisons between 1833 and 1845.

The original artwork for the publications came to the Society in four accessions between 1843 and 1881. The first was donated in 1843 when Lord Francis Leveson-Gower (1800-1857), later 1st Earl of Ellesmere, purchased the artwork for ‘Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles’ directly from Agassiz for £500. The second part was given to the Society in 1858 by Agassiz himself and consists mostly of unpublished material. A third donation came from the Earl of Enniskillen (1807-1886) in 1876 and the final from Sir Philip Egerton (1806-1881) in 1881.

The collection comprises of over 3,000 of watercolours and drawings of fossil fish specimens which were copied from the palaeontological collections around Europe by a number of different artists whom Agassiz employed for the purpose.
This short exhibition is highlights some of the more unusual items which can be found in the collection. Click on each thumbnail to find out more.

 GSL Museum specimen  
Eurynotus tenuiceps Agassiz
 Lepidotus fittoni  
Lepidotus fittoni Agassiz
 D'Omalius scale  
Pencil rubbing of a scale
 Holoptychius rugosus  
Holoptychius rugosus Agassiz
 Cephalaspis Lyelli thumb  
Cephalaspis Lyelli
 Miss Robertson tooth  
Drawing of a tooth
 Stagonolepis robertsoni  
Stagonolepis robertsoni Agassiz