Joseph Leconte displaying quartz crystals,|
in a portrait in the foyer in LeConte Hall
on the University of Georgia Campus
(photograph by Jere Lipps)
Joseph LeConte was the son of Louis LeConte (1782-1838) and Ann Quarterman, and he was born in 1823. Louis LeConte was the owner of Woodmanstan Plantation, an estate of more than 3000 acres in Liberty County, and thus in the county from which William Louis Jones and Joseph Jones came. Louis LeConte maintained a noted botanical garden at Woodmanstan and had a chemical laboratory on the premises. Joseph LeConte's brother John (1818-1891) would go on to be a physicist and President of the University of California, as discussed below. Their cousin John Lawrence LeConte (1825-1883) was a famous entomologist.
Joseph and John LeConte were also cousins of Wiliam Louis Jones (Reed, Chapter IV, p. 357/403), in that their mother and Jones's mother were half-sisters (Stephens, p. 23). Jones's father owned a plantation near Woodmanstan, and "Joseph was a frequent visitor in his Uncle William's home" (Stephens, p. 23). The LeContes also had a summer retreat at Jonesville, the town where William Louis Jones's grandfather had provided 'lots on which his children and neighbors could build gracious homes on high ground" (Armes, p. 9 and 23; MacKethan, p. xi).
Joseph LeConte attended the University of Georgia and graduated in 1841, and so he would have taken classes from James Wayne Delton Jackson. He then attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York (an institution that later became the Columbia University Medical School), receiving his M.D. degree in 1845. He then came home to Georgia and set up a practice as a physician in Macon.
Joseph LeConte was thus a settled, if not entirely satisfied, physician when, as he told it (Armes, p. 126):
. . . in the spring of 1850, my cousin Lewis Jones, who had come to Macon to attend the meeting of the State Medical Society and stayed at my house, told me of his purpose of becoming a pupil of Agassiz, who had been made professor of geology and zoology at Harvard. I heartily joined in his plan, our object being special preparation for the teaching of these subjects.It is interesting to consider that Joseph LeConte might have remained a physician in Macon the rest of his life, and not a famous scientist, if William Louis Jones had not come up with the idea of going to Harvard and enticed his cousin to come along. However, off to Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School they went, and they immediately plunged into studies with Louis Agassiz as two of the four students in his first class (Lurie, 177 & 179). Again in Joseph's LeConte's telling (Armes, p. 128-129):
About this time Dr. Nottingham, and old and distinguished physician who had just settled in Macon, made me an offer of partnership. It was undoubtedly a tempting offer . . . we should certainly have been successful. It was now or never, if I was to make medicine my life work. I decided not to accept. I had found my vocation. I broke up, sold out, left Macon, and went to Cambridge in August 1850.
". . . [Agassiz] was in Cambridge, and Dr. Jones and I went right to work. The first task Agassiz set us was very characteristic of the man. He thought a while, then pulled out a drawer containing from five hundred to a thousand separated valves of Unios, of from fifty to a hundred different species, all mixed together, and said, "Pair these valves and classify into species; names no matter; separate the species." He left us alone, very severely alone. We worked on those shells for one whole week, the professor looking at our work from time to time but making no remark. Finally we told him that we had done the best we could; he examined the results carefully and was much pleased. It so happened that just then there entered the room a friend of his from Europe, Ampère, the son of the great electrician. He introduced us and remarked that these pupils had just amended correctly the [flawed] classification of Lea, the great authority on Unios.Jones and LeConte went on in 1851 to earn Bachelor of Science degrees. LeConte reports that "Thus it happened the Lewis Jones and I, and two others, David A. Wells and John D. Runkle, formed the first graduating class of the Lawrence Scientific School. The courses of all of us had, however, been strictly post-graduate, and I believe we were the very beginnings of a post-graduate class in Harvard, if not in the United States (Armes, p. 142). Jones went on to be a professor of geology at the University of Georgia and so is discussed elsewhere in these pages, Wells went on to be a famous economist and confidant of U.S. presidents James Garfield and Grover Cleveland, and Runkle went on to be a mathematician and president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Joseph LeConte taught for a year at Oglethorpe University in Milledgeville. He wished, however, that he were elsewhere, and soon he was (Armes, p. 156-157):
The previous August Lewis Jones had been elected professor of geology and natural history in the University of Georgia, a much better position than mine, paying twice the salary, and one for which I certainly should have made application had he not repeatedly told me of his intention of applying, so that I could not be an applicant without seeming to violate confidence and friendship. But he got on badly with the president, who had the reputation of being a bigoted, dogmatic, and imperious old man, and holding the chair only a year resigned in anger and disgust. I at once determined to apply for the place, and wrote to my brother Johm who was a professor in the institution. . . . I was elected in December, 1852, and moved to Athens in the following month. . . . . My duties were . . . the teaching of botany, geology, and French.The frustrations that William Louis Jones had experienced with University President Alonzo Church were a harbinger of what was to come for the LeConte brothers. John became embroiled in a bitter dispute with Church and left the University in 1855; their accusations at each other were published in public letters in the local newspaper as part of a larger row between Church and the faculty. It was in this context that Joseph LeConte left the University in 1856, and in which his successors, Joseph Jones and Harry Hammond, would each stay only one year in Athens.
The LeConte brothers moved on to the University of South Carolina and, after the Civil War, they went on in 1869 to the University of California (Berkeley), where John was President of that university from 1876 to 1881. Joseph Leconte was Professor of Geology at the University of California from 1869 to 1901, author of several books including his Elements of Geology, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Geological Society of America, one of the founding members of the Sierra Club, and an early teacher of biological evolution. He died in 1901 on a Sierra Club camping trip in Yosemite National Park. LeConte Hall at UGA is named after the LeConte Brothers, and the LeConte Glacier in Alaska was named after Joseph LeConte.
Wiliam Dallam Armes, editor, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte: New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1903. William Louis Jones, "Joseph LeConte", Transactions of the Medical Association of Georgia, 1902, p. 42.
Edward Lurie's Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Lucinda H. MacKethan, editor, Recollections of a Southern Daughter: a Memoir by Cornelia Jones Pond of Liberty County: Athens : University of Georgia Press, 1998.
Thomas Walter Reed 's History of the University of Georgia, (~1949).
Lester D. Stephens, Joseph LeConte, Gentle Prophet of Evolution:Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Lester D. Stephens's New Georgia Encyclopedia entry on the LeConte family.