Joseph Le Conte

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(b. Liberty County, Georgia, 26 February 1823; d. Yosemite Valley, California, 6 July 1901),

natural history, physiology, geology. For the original article on LeConte see DSB, vol. 8.

LeConte’s major contributions to science include works on the physiology of vision, geology, and the theory of evolution in relation to religious beliefs. Although much of his geological work was theoretical, it also included several original studies. LeConte wielded widespread influence through his college and high school textbooks in geology, his success as a teacher, and his publications on the harmony of evolution and religion. Renewed attention to the scientific contributions and evolutionary views of LeConte commenced during the 1970s, and culminated in 1982 with the publication of Joseph LeConte: Gentle Prophet of Evolution by Lester D. Stephens. Corrections of earlier biographical details also appear in the same work.

Biography . Joseph LeConte was one of seven children born to Louis and Ann Quarterman LeConte. A descendant of Huguenots, Louis LeConte moved to Liberty County, Georgia, around 1809, and settled on a 3,350-acre rice and cotton plantation purchased by his father many years earlier. Although Louis LeConte briefly studied medicine, he devoted his career to the plantation, on which he cultivated a flower garden that attracted many botanists and other visitors.

Joseph LeConte entered the University of Georgia in Athens in January 1838, and received an AB degree in August 1841. He was enrolled in New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons from January to May 1844, and took an extensive trip to the Midwest during the summer of 1844. In order to improve his training, he voluntarily took the medical course again from 1844 to 1845. After practicing medicine in Macon, Georgia, from the winter of 1848 to August 1850, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study with Louis Agassiz at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard College. He and his cousin William Louis Jones completed the program in 1851, and became the first two students to receive degrees from the new school.

In 1852 LeConte was a member of the faculty of Oglethorpe College, then located in Milledgeville, Georgia. He joined his brother John, a physicist, at the University of Georgia in January 1853, and taught there through December 1856. Along with his brother, he was associated with South Carolina College in Columbia from 1857 to 1869. Joseph served the Confederate government from 1863 to 1865, first in the manufacture of medicines and later as a chemist in the Nitre and Mining Bureau. Dissatisfied with Reconstruction policies, he accepted a faculty position at the University of California in Berkeley late in 1869, joining his brother John, who had gone there a few months earlier as the first faculty member hired by the new institution. Joseph was the third person appointed to the University of California faculty, and continued his association with that institution until his death in 1901. John LeConte served as the president of the University of California on two occasions, but Joseph never indicated any interest in academic administration.

Married to Caroline Elizabeth Nisbet on 14 January 1847, he was the father of four daughters, Emma, Sarah, Josephine, and Caroline, and one son, Joseph Nisbet. Josephine died shortly before her second birthday. The death of Joseph LeConte occurred on 6 July 1901, while he was on a pleasure trip to Yosemite.

LeConte’s Contributions . By the time LeConte published his Outlines of the Comparative Physiology and Morphology of Animals in 1900, his knowledge of the subject was dated in many respects. More influential was his Sight: An Exposition of the Principles of Monocular and Binocular Vision, published originally in 1881 and revised in 1897. Although the revised version indicated that LeConte had been unable to keep current on the topic, he was a pioneer in explicating the physiology of vision.

More enduring and more widely distributed were LeConte’s Elements of Geology, A Compend of Geology, and Evolution and Its Relation to Religious Thought and the revised version of the same under a modified title, Evolution: Its Nature, Its Evidences, and Its Relation to Religious Thought.

First published in 1877 and revised three times by LeConte and once, in 1903, by Herman L. Fairchild, Elements of Geology was a highly popular college textbook that included an extensive treatment of the theory of evolution. A Compend of Geology, originally published in 1884 and revised in 1898, was used in many high schools. It also devoted considerable attention to evolution, and thus introduced a large number of students to the theory before most school systems dropped geology from the curriculum and before the theory became so controversial that many schools excised it from their programs. In geology, LeConte was especially interested in the ancient river beds of the High Sierras, geological deformation, and the origin of continents and mountains. He wrote extensively on the contractional theory of mountain building, and became, along with the noted geologist James Dwight Dana, one of America’s major advocates of the idea.

A highly influential teacher and popular lecturer, LeConte played a significant role in the effort to reconcile the theory of evolution with biblical accounts. Calling himself a theistic evolutionist, he was among the most ardent champions of evolution, and referred to the theory as “the grandest of modern ideas” (1887, p. 123). His book on evolution and religion, first published in 1888 and revised in 1891, was perhaps the most popular American work on the subject for many years. Although he followed the ideas of Charles Darwin in part, LeConte was, like many of his American contemporaries, more attuned to the theory of evolution espoused by the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

In any case, LeConte delivered numerous public lectures and also published many articles on the topic of evolution. Although he was opposed to the notion of survival of the fittest, LeConte was nonetheless a committed evolutionist who believed he could harmonize the theory with Christian teachings. Identifying himself as a “theistic evolutionist” (“evolution in relation to materialism,” Princeton Review, 4th series [March 1881], pp. 149–174]), LeConte argued that God created the first animate beings and then allowed speciation to occur by the process of evolution. He rejected the deistic philosophy, and maintained that the creator was constantly involved in an “eternal unfolding of the original conception” (ibid.). In LeConte’s view, God designed evolution as a progressive process that operated through natural law. His efforts compelled him to reject the literal occurrence of biblical revelations and miracles, but he attracted many followers, especially because of his pleasant personality and persuasive arguments. In 1895, a San Francisco newspaperman aptly dubbed him “the gentle prophet of evolution” (San Francisco Examiner, 26 May 1895, p. 12).

Elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1875, LeConte served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1891 and as president of the Geological Society of America in 1896. A friend of John Muir, he was a founding member of the Sierra Club, which erected the Joseph LeConte Lodge in Yosemite in 1904 in tribute to his influence as a teacher and his devotion to the region.



Elements of Geology. New York: D. Appleton, 1877.

Sight: An Exposition of the Principles of Monocular and Binocular Vision. New York: D. Appleton, 1881. Revised edition, 1897.

A Compend of Geology. New York: D. Appleton, 1884. Revised New York: American Book Company, 1898.

“Relation of Biology to Society.” Berkeleyan 23 (1887): 123.

Evolution and Its Relation to Religious Thought. New York: D. Appleton, 1888.

Evolution: Its Nature, Its Evidences, and Its Relation to Religious Thought. New York: D. Appleton, 1891.

Outlines of the Comparative Physiology and Morphology of Animals. New York: D. Appleton, 1900.

The Autobiography of Joseph LeConte. Edited by William Dallam Armes. New York: D. Appleton, 1903. A useful source, but omits some information from the original manuscript, which is in the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. ’Ware Sherman: A Journal of Three Months’ Personal Experience in the Last Days of the Confederacy. Edited and introduced by Caroline LeConte. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1938. Reissued with a new introduction by William Blair, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.


Anderson, Richard LeConte. LeConte Family History and Genealogy. 2 vols. Macon, GA: privately printed, 1981. A thorough work.

LeConte, Emma. When the World Ended: The Diary of Emma LeConte. Edited by Earl Schenck Miers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957. Reissued with a foreword by Anne Firor Scott. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Stephens, Lester D. “Joseph LeConte on Evolution, Education, and the Structure of Knowledge.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 12 (April 1976): 103–119.

——. “Joseph LeConte’s Evolutional Idealism: A Lamarckian View of Cultural History.” Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (July–September 1978): 465–480.

——. “Joseph LeConte and the Development of the Physiology and Psychology of Vision in the United States.” Annals of Science 37 (1980): 303–321.

——. Joseph LeConte: Gentle Prophet of Evolution. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982. A comprehensive biography, with a complete list of manuscript sources and works published by LeConte.

——. “Joseph LeConte.” In American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lester D. Stephens

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Leconte, Joseph

(b. Liberty Country, Georgia, 26 February 1823; d. Yosemite Valley, California, 5 July 1901)

natural history, physiology, geology.

LeConte was the fifth of seven children. His mother died when he was three, and the boy acquired his love of science from his father, Joseph LeConte, and erudite man who had once studied medicine. LeConte received his early education on his father’s plantation and at a neighboring school in Liberty Country before going (in January 1839) to Franklin College of the University of Georgia, from which he was graduated in 1841. LeConte Studied medicine for a brief period in 1842 with a physician, Dr. Charles West, in Macon, Georgia. In 1843-1844, he took the intensive fourmonth winter medical course at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, N.Y., but broke off his studies to undertake a trip to the headwaters of the Mississippi and to the Great Lakes. On this trip his interest in geology was intensified, although he subsequently finished his medical studies, taking his degree in 1845.

In 1850 LeConte abandoned the medical practice that he had established in Macon and went to Harvard to study zoology and geology with Louis Agassiz. With Agassiz he made scientific expeditions to Florida,to the fossiliferous areas of New York, and to the Massachusetts shores. In June 1851 he and three other students received the first degrees conferred by the newly established Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard. LeConte then began his academic career, teaching various sciences at Oglethorpe University, Georgia; Franklin College, Columbia, South Carolina, a tenure that was interrupted by the Civil War, when LeConte served the Confederacy first as a government arbitrator and then as a chemist. In 1866 he returned briefly to teach at what had been renamed the University of South Carolina, but found Reconstruction policies to be intolerable. Consequently, he and his brother John joined the newly founded University of California in 1869. LeConte was appointed professor of geology and natural history and did his most important scientific work during his tenure there. LeConte became the first president of that institution.

LeConte published books and articles on a wide range of subjects, including various aspects of geology, binocular vision, physiology (especially glycogenic function of the liver), and evolution. Some of his most substantial contributions to geology included his views on the structure and origin of mountain ranges, the genesis of metals, crucial periods in the history of the earth, the demonstration of the great importance of the Ozarkian (Sierran) epoch, and the great lava flood of the northwest. His ideas became widely known through the publication of his Elements of Geology (1878), which offered a scholarly combination of principles (dynamical geology) and elements (historical and structural geology) with extensive treatment of American geology.

LeConte’s work on vision culminated in his 1881 bookSight, which combined excellent experiments with perceptive observations (although devoid of mathematics). This, together with his physiological work on the liver, was further elaborated in hisOutlines of the Comparative Physiology and Morphology of Animals (1900), which represents a summary of many of his biological ideas. LeConte himself described his work in evolution as“Philosophical,”since he contributed no new facts. Nevertheless, his books on the subject had a general, popular influence in reconciling science and religion, being designed to make evolution palatable to both clergymen and scientists who were frightened by the apparent materialism and possible impious implications of evolutionary doctrines.

LeConte enjoyed many academic honors, including an LL.D. from Princeton. In 1847 he married Bessie Nisbet; they had three daughters and one son. He died of a heart attack while on a geological expedition.


I. Original Works. LeConte’s scientific books are Religion and Science. A Series of Sunday Lectures on the Relation of Natural and Revealed Religion, or the Truths Revealed in Nature and Scripture (New York, 1873), which went into many editions ;Elements of Geology: A Text-Book for Colleges and for the General Reader (New York, 1878; 5th ed., revised and partially rewritten by Herman LeRoy Fairchild, 1903); Sight: An Exposition of the Principles of Monocular and Binocular Vision (New York, 1881 ; 2nd ed., 1897); A Compend of Geology (New York, 1884; rev. ed., 1898); Evolution and Its Relation to Religious Thought (New York, 1888 ; 2nd ed. as Evolution: Its Nature, Its Evidences, and Its Relation to Religious Thought, 1891); and Outlines of Comparative Physiology and Morphology of Animals (New York, 1900).

See also his autobiographical writings, The Autobiography of Joseph LeConte, William Dallam Armes,ed. (New York, 1903); ’Ware Sherman. A Journal of Three Month’s Personal Experiences in the Last Days of the Confederacy, with “Introductory Reminiscence” by his daughter Caroline LeConte (Berkeley, 1937); A Journal of Ramblings Through the High Sierra of California by the University Excursion Party (San Francisco, 1875; repr. [1960]).

Manuscript materials are at the University of North Carolina Library, Southern Historical Collection (Elizabeth [Furman] Talley papers and Joseph LeConte papers); University of Michigan, Michigan Historical Collections (Alexander Winchell papers); Duke University Library (Benjamin Leonard Covington Wailes papers); University of South Carolina, South Caroliniana Library (Joseph LeConte papers); Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California (Charles Russell Orcutt correspondence); and the University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

II. Secondary Literature. The most comprehensive account of LeConte and his work is Eugene W. Hilgard, “Biographical Memoir of Joseph LeConte, 1823-1901,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 6 (1909), 147-218, with bibliography, 212-218. A summary of some of his geological work is George P. Merrill, The First One Hundred Years of American Geology (New Haven, 1924), 344-345, 364-368.

H. Lewis McKinney