Today, a young biology teacher delivers a pail of
turtle eggs. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
My son recently picked up a
1916 volume of Atlantic Monthly
articles for me. One tells how its author, Dallas
Sharp, made his own old-book discovery on a dusty
library shelf. He ran across Louis Agassiz's
four-volume Natural History, finished
That monumental treatise begins with
acknowledgments. So Sharp traces names of people
who'd helped Agassiz: the Rev. Zadok Thompson of
Burlington, Mr. J. Jenks of Middleboro, and --
Henry David Thoreau! Thoreau's just one more name
on a long list of people who slavishly combed the
woods to supply Agassiz with turtles.
Sharp is struck by that. "With every human being is
a possible book," he says. "Is it not amazing that
the books of men are so few? and so stupid!"
Agassiz's turtles are all right, but how much more
are the stories behind the acknowledgments.
Sharp knows one of those stories. Mr. J. Jenks of
Middleboro had once been his biology teacher. Jenks
had told Sharp how he collected turtle eggs for
One day Agassiz walked into the academy where Jenks
taught. "I need turtle eggs within three hours of
their birth," the imperial Agassiz announced.
Harvard was 40 miles away, but if young Jenks could
meet that regal demand, it would be a badge of
Off to a forest pond he went. He stalked turtles
for a month. Then one day, by the early mists of
dawn, a great pregnant turtle lumbered down to the
sandy shore and laid eggs. Jenks packed them with
sand in a bucket. He mounted his horse, and -- like
some latter-day Paul Revere -- set off to the train
But wait! This was Sunday! No train to rely on
today. So he turned his horse toward Boston.
Halfway there, losing time, he did see a train. He
planted his horse on the tracks and forced the
engine to a halt. "Eggs for Agassiz!" cried Jenks,
and the engineer let him on. They lost time at a
switch. Jenks finally jumped from the moving train
and hailed a horse-drawn cab. The driver made off
at a gallop. At last Jenks beat on Agassiz's door,
but the maid wouldn't let him in. Then Agassiz
appeared on the stairs in his nightshirt, saying:
"Let him in, he has my turtle eggs."
"You were on time, then," Sharp asked, "To the
tick." Jenks replied. "And there [on the shelf]
stands my copy of [Agassiz's] great book."
So I went to a dusty corner of my library to find
that "great book." And there it was!
Acknowledgments to Thoreau and Jenks, followed by
Agassiz's ponderous prose. But, in the back, I also
found glorious pictures of turtles --grown turtles,
embryonic turtles, and sectioned turtle eggs.
Agassiz was opinionated, racist, wrong about so
many things. Yet he was also the most popular
professor who ever walked. And maybe now we see
why. With half of New England joined in his work --
how could he fail!
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds