Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Hibiscus Grandiflorus © Library of the Gray Herbarium

Last week I made my first trip to Boston for a Swiss consular conference. It was held at Swissnex, a Swiss government mission that fosters closer ties between Switzerland, the U.S. and Canada in the areas of technology, science and academia. I spent my time there talking about the Helvetiq Swiss-American trivia game that I developed in conjunction with RedCut and the Swiss Center Los Angeles.

While in Boston I took advantage of the proximity to Harvard and did some in-person research. As mentioned in an earlier post, Henri de Büren’s first stop in the United States during his long voyage through the Americas was in Boston. He arrived in 1852, and first called on fellow Swiss scientist Arnold Guyot. The next morning he would meet the famous Neuchâtel paleontologist, glaciologist, and geologist Louis Agassiz in his lab at Harvard. The highlight of Henri's stay in Boston was certainly his time with Asa Gray, an eminent botanist, and a man he held in high esteem.

Asa Gray taken in 1868 © Library of the Gray Herbarium

A number of years ago I contacted Dr. James Hanken, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology, Curator in Herpetology, and Director, Museum of Comparative Zoology and told him of Henri’s journey. We have kept in contact ever since. Upon notifying him of my trip to Boston, Dr. Hanken was kind enough to put me in touch with the Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, where Special Collections on Agassiz are housed. I was met by Dana Fischer who showed me to the Special Collections room and had done some advanced research on Henri. Alas, there was no mention of him in the collection, but as he visited Harvard before the Museum building was built, his omission is understandable. Ms. Fischer showed me a number of biographies of Agassiz and some original scientific illustrations done by fellow Swiss Jacques Burkhardt who was Agassiz's principal artist on many of his journeys. The drawings reminded me a bit of Henri’s artwork. I had a faint hope that Henri’s lost sketch book might be in amongst the other scientific drawings I perused. No such luck.

An example of the work Burkhardt did with Agassiz. Rio, 1865 © Ernst Mayr Library

After an hour or so I left the Ernst Mayr library and when to the Botany Department and met Head librarian, Judy Warnement. She was incredibly warm and showed me some original photos of Harvard, and the botanical gardens that Gray and others tended. She also did not find any references to Henri but it really didn’t matter. Ms. Warnement took me through the extensive Herbaria, Gray’s botanical library and even went to far as to show me Gray’s former residence off campus.

I felt energized walking around Cambridge before heading home, perhaps in a similar way to how Henri felt almost 160 years ago. After my time at Harvard I met an old school mate for lunch, and bought souvenir Harvard T-Shirts for the girls. She and I reminisced about old times, gushed about our families and shared the challenges and triumphs of our respective projects. Art, History, Family, Food and Friendship is a pretty good way to spend a couple of days if you ask me.
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