Around New England

Woods Hole Residents Seeking To Cancel 19th Century Scientist

September 20, 2020

Some residents of the seaside village of Woods Hole are trying to change the name of a street named after a 19th century scientist whose work helped launch one of the village’s largest employers.

About 280 residents of the town of Falmouth have signed the petition, according to The Cape Cod Times. Woods Hole is a village of Falmouth.

The major employers of the village are Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Marine Biological Laboratory. MBL, as it’s known locally, sprang from a forerunner school founded by the scientist now under fire.

Woods Hole’s year-round population is about 780, though it has a larger summertime population. Marine Biological Laboratory employs about 360 people, according to Zippia.com.

Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) was one of the most celebrated zoologists and geologists of his day. His classifications of fish and his experiments and theorizing about the movement of glaciers helped advance those sciences.

He became a famous professor at Harvard University and was welcome at Saturday Club meetings in Boston that featured the area’s cultural luminaries of the time.

Agassiz also believed that human races originated in different places and that the races should not be mixed because blacks are inferior to whites. He found African-Americans repulsive when he encountered them after coming to the United States from his native Switzerland in 1850. He commissioned photographs of naked black slaves in an attempt to study them as specimens. Some of the images are still owned by Harvard.

In 2002 the Cambridge School Committee changed the name of a public elementary school named after Agassiz. The decision was opposed by a left-leaning Harvard scientist whose research on Agassiz led an eighth-grader in Cambridge to start the movement to ditch Agassiz’s name.

“Agassiz was an honorable man who had this one terrible flaw. I don’t like the precedent of wholesale removal of names,” biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) told The Boston Globe in March 2001.

At the time, The Journal of Blacks in High Education editorialized that changing the name of the school was an example of “political correctness run amok.”

But Agassiz has lost even more ground since then. In Cambridge, some residents earlier this year sought to change the name of a neighborhood in the city named after Agassiz.

Woods Hole residents seeking to change the name of Agassiz Road, a short street with seven houses on it that connects two side streets south of Woods Hole Golf Club, say they want to reject racism.

One resident has suggested that the street be renamed in honor of Jewel Cobb, an African-American scientific researcher once associated with Marine Biological Laboratory who died in 2017.

Woods Hole tilts left.

In 2016, all nine of Falmouth’s precincts went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Townwide, Clinton beat Trump by 56.6 percent to 35.3 percent.

But Woods Hole and the area near it went more heavily for Clinton than any other part of town. Precinct 1 in Falmouth, which includes Woods Hole, voted 72.2 percent for Clinton in 2016 to 20 20.7 percent for Trump.

Falmouth’s board of selectmen may hold a hearing on the petition, though date has been set, according to The Cape Cod Times.

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