Scientist of the Day - Johann Baptist von Spix
Johann Baptist von Spix, a German naturalist, was born Feb. 9, 1781. In 1817, he left Munich for Brazil, at the request of King Maximillian Joseph of Bavaria, and in the company of the botanist Carl von Martius. They explored much of the interior, then separated, and Spix went up the Amazon to Peru, collecting specimens all the way. They re-united and returned to Bavaria in 1820, with thousands of plants and insects, and quite a few new mammals, birds, and fish. Spix immediately set about publishing the results of his trip, and managed to produce several volumes of studies, but he died in 1826, before he could finish, of diseases acquired on the expedition. One of the volumes left unpublished was the one on fish.
In 1827, a young Swiss student came to Munich to study; his name was Louis Agassiz. He soon impressed his teachers with his eagerness and intelligence, and it occurred to Martius that this might be just the man to finish the Spix volume on fish. Agassiz was honored to be so chosen and threw himself into the task, and the Selecta Genera et Species Piscium, a large handsome folio, was published in 1829--Agassiz's first book, although he was more editor than author.
The illustrations in the volume were of two kinds—large, hand-colored engravings of fish, and smaller lithographs showing the various methods by which the Brazilians caught their fish. We see samples of both above; the fish are, in order: a piranha, a lookdown, and a Brazilian sole. We displayed the lookdown in our recent exhibition on lithography, Crayon and Stone, which is not yet online.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City