Sunday, February 26, 2012

Joseph LeConte

Joseph LeConte was born on February 26, 1823 on the plantation "Woodmanston" in Liberty County, Georgia. He was the fifth child and youngest son in the family. His mother died of pneumonia when he was three. His father, who had trained as a doctor, but did not earn a degree, ran the family plantation and set up a chemical laboratory in his house and a botany garden for the education of his sons. As a boy LeConte frequently ranged the backwoods of Liberty County with his older brothers and took an interest in nature. He attended a country school set up by several of the plantation families and among his teachers was Alexander Hamilton Stephens, who was later a U.S. Senator and vice-president of the Confederacy, and with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship.

He attended Franklin College which later founded the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. He graduated in 1841. After graduation he began studying medicine under Charles West in Macon, Georgia and then he attended the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, graduating with a medical degree in 1845. He practiced medicine for three years in Macon, Georgia and then studied history at Harvard University, in Boston, Massachusetts, studying under Louis Agassiz. After graduation in 1851, he accompanied an expedition lead by Agassiz to the Florida Reef. After the expedition he became a professor of natural science at Oglethorpe College in Midway, Georgia. From 1852 to 1856 he was a professor of natural sciences and geology at Franklin College and from 1857 to 1869 he was a professor of chemistry and geology at South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina) in Columbia, South Carolina. During the American Civil War he continued teaching, but also ran a niter works used to produce explosives. In 1869 he moved to California, taking a job as the first professor of natural history and geology at the newly founded University of California, at Berkeley. He remained there until his death.

LeConte was primarily a geologist but he also wrote papers on monocular and binocular vision. He was also an early proponent of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. LeConte was one of the early supporters of the theory of contraction formation of mountain ranges. The theory was that when the earth was formed it was a molten ball  and as it cooled ridges on the surface developed. These ridges are the mountain ranges we see today. This theory of mountain range formation has been replaced by plate tectonic theory. LeConte was also an ardent conservationist. He was friends with John Muir, and with Muir was a co-founder of the Sierra Club. In 1874 he was nominated to the National Academy of Science. He served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1892 and president of the Geological Society of America in 1896.

He died on July 6, 1901 of a heart attack, while in Yosemite Valley. He was to be leaving on a Sierra Club trip the next day.


LeConte, Joseph; "The Autobiography of Joseph LeConte", edited by William Dallam Ames; D. Appleton and Company; 1903

Hilgard, Eugene W.; "Biographical Memoir of Joseph LeConte: 1823-1901"; in Biographical Memoirs; National Academy Press; 1907

Joseph LeConte Wikipedia Entry

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