In the Laboratory With Agassiz

This brief article was given to me at a college Bible study, and its lessons on observation (of anything, but particularly of the text of Scripture) have stuck with me. The handout I have says it’s an excerpt from Teaching the Bible from the Inside Out: An Inductive Guide. I don’t own that book, so I can’t give any recommendation on it. But I hope that this story will spur you on to a fresh commitment to Bible study.

In the Laboratory with Agassiz, by Samuel H. Scudder

It was more than 15 years ago that I entered the laboratory of Professor Agassiz and told him I had enrolled my name in the scientific school as a student of natural history.

“When do you wish to begin?” he asked. “Now,” I replied.

“Very well,” he reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.

“Take this fish,” said he, “and look at it: we call it a Haemulon; by and by I will ask you what you have seen.”

In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the professor, who had, however, left the museum; and when I returned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upper apartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as if to resuscitate it from a faiting fit, and looked with anxiety for a return of a normal, sloppy appearance. This little excitement over, nothing was to be done but return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half an hour passed, an hour, another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face – ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarter view – just as ghastly. I was in despair; at an early hour I concluded that lunch was necessary; so with infinite relief, the fish was carefully replaced in the jar, and for an hour I was free.

On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the museum, but had gone and would not return for several hours. My fellow students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversations. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish; it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my fingers down its throat to see how sharp its teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me – I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.

“That is right,” he said. “A pencil is one of the best eyes.”

With these encouraging words he added, “Well, what is it like?” He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of the parts whose names were still unknown to me: the fringed gill-arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshy lips, and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fins, and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then with an air of disappointment, “You have not looked very carefully; why,” he continued, more earnestly, “you haven’t seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!” And he left me to my misery.

I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the professor’s criticism had been. The afternoon passed quickly and when, toward its close, the professor inquired, “Do you see it yet?”

“No,” I replied, “I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.” 

“That is next best,” said he earnestly.

The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I, that I should see for myself what he saw.

“Do you perhaps men,” I asked, “that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?”

He was thorougly pleased, “Of course, of course!” 

I ventured to ask what I should do next.

“O, look at your fish!” he said, and left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned and heard my new catalogue.

“That is good, that is good!” he repeated, “but that is not all; go on”; and so, for three long days, he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artifical aid. “Look, look, look,” was his repeated injunction.

This was the best entomological lesson I ever had – a lesson whose influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the professor has left to me, as he left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part.

SDG, Ezra

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