Holbrook, John Edwards

views updated Jun 08 2018


(b. Beaufort, South Carolina, 30 December 1794; d. Norfolk. Massachusetts, 8 September 1871)

herpetology, ichthyology.

Holbrook, son of Silas Hotbrook, a schoolmaster, and Mary Edwards Holbrook, spent his childhood and received his early education at Wrcntham Massachusetts, his father’s birthplace, He received his B.A. in 1815 from Broun University and his M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1818. He then continued his medical studies in Boston, London, and Edinburgh. In 1820 Holbrook traveled to Paris, where he studied natural history with Cuvier and his associates at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, He returned to the United States in 1822 and established a medical practice in Charleston, South Carolina, Holbrook joined the group of local physicians who in 1824 founded the Medical College of South Carolina, where he served as professor of anatomy until about 1854. In 1827 he married Harriott Rutledge, the daughter of a prominent South Carolina plantation owner. During the Civil War. Holbrook served as a medical officer in the Confederate Army and as chief medical examiner for the stale of South Carolina. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and several other scientific and professional organizations.

Although Holbrook was among the most respected medical men of South Carolina, it was in herpetology that he enjoyed an international reputation, secured by the publication of North American Herpetology, at the time the most accurate and comprehensive descriptive work on the American reptiles. He began work on North American Herpetology in 1826, but the first edition was not completed until 1840. During these fourteen years he collected and described the species he intended to cover. Much time was spent in preparing the hand-colored lithograph prints, by J. Sera, illustrating each of the III species. Holbrook, a perfectionist, insisted that descriptions and illustrations be taken from observation of live animals rather than deformed or discolored preserved specmiens. A reorganized second edition, including descriptions and illustrations of thirty-six additional species, was published in 1842.

Following the completion of North American Herpetology, Holbrook visited Europe, where his work was well received. His colleagues at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle were especially impressed and asked him to reclassify the American reptiles in their collections, using the scientific nomenclature that appeared in North American Herpetology.

Satisfied that he had brought some order to herpetology in North America, Holbrook turned to ichthyology, hoping to accomplish the same for that field. He realized that the ichthyology of North America was too broad a topic and soon discovered that even the fish of the southern states were too numerous to describe by using his techniques of live observation. Finally he limited his studies to the fish of South Carolina, publishing Ichthyology of South Carolina in 1855. Again, detailed descriptions were accompanied by colored illustrations, with the addition of anatomical data. A second edition was published in 1860, after a fire destroyed the lithograph plates prepared for the first edition. Holbrook’s ichthyological works were not as well received as North American Herpetology.

Holbrook is remembered not as a theoretical innovator but as a collector and describer of animals. On questions of taxonomy he generally adhered to the system prescribed by Cuvier and his followers, both preserving its good points and perpetuating its inaccuracies. He resisted many of the innovations in taxonomy introduced by his contemporaries, including those of his colleague and close friend Louis Agassiz. In North American Herpetology for example, Holbrook minimized the importance of embryological data in developing his taxonomical scheme. For this reason he did not consider the amphibians a separate class of animals but placed them in an order, Batrachia, of the class Reptilia.

It was his great energy as a collector, his talent for meticulous observation and description, his fascination with his subjects, and his thorough scholarship that made Holbrook’s works contributions of lasting value. Present-day naturalists recognize Holbrook as an important figure in the history of herpetology. Of the genera and species of reptiles, amphibians, and fish of which the discovery or earliest description is credited to Holbrook, many still carry the genus name Holbrookia or the species name holbrookii.


I. Original Works. See North American Herpetology; or, a Description of the Reptiles Inhabiting the United States. 4 vols. (Philadelphia, 1836-1840; 2nd ed. 5 vols., Philadelphia, 1842)—the 1st ed. was recalled and is thus very rare; Southern icthyology; or, a Description of the Fishes Inhabiting the Waters of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (New York - London, i 847), a work Holbrook planned to publish in installments but abandoned after the first installment; and ichthyology of South Carolina (Charleston. S.C., 1855: 2nd ed., 1860), the ichthyological tract Holbrook managed to complete. He published only one journal article, “An Account of Several Species of Fishes Observed in Florida. Georgia. &c.,” in Journal of the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia,3 (1855). 47-58. All of the above works included lithograph plates prepared by Lechman and Duval Co. of Philadelphia, Unpublished Holbrook letters, which document his uelKities as a collector, are found at the Academy of Natural Sciences oi Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society, and the South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina.

II. Secondary Literature. There are short biographical articles on Holbrook in Appieton’s Cvclopedia of American Biography; Dictononary of American Biography, IX, 129-130; and Dictionary of American Medical Biography, Lengthier biographies include Louis Agassiz. “Eulogy on John E. Holbrook,” in Proceeding of the Boston Society of Natural History,14 (1872K 347-351: Theodore Gill “Biographical Memoir of John Edwards Holbrook,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,5 (1903), 49-77; and Thomas Ogier, A Memoir of Dr. John Edwards Holbrook… (CharlcsUMK S,C, 1871). Theodore Gill also wrote two reviews of Holbrook’s works: “Holbrooke iyology of South CarolinaNaticed in American Journal of Science and Art, 2nd ser., 3 (1864). 89-93: and “First Edition of Holhrook’s North American Herpetology” in Science.17 I I90M. 910-912, See also Joseph I. Waring. A History of Mrdicuw in South Carolina. 1670- 1825 (Columbia, S.C, 1964); and Reese E. Griffin-Jr., “The Social Structure of Science in Nineteenth-century South Carolina” (M.A. thesis, Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1973).

Reese E. Griffin, Jr.

Holbrook, John Edwards

views updated May 21 2018


(b. Beaufort, South Carolina, 30 December 1794; d. Norfolk, Massachusetts, 8 September 1871),

herpetology, ichthyology. For the original article on Holbrook see DSB, vol. 15.

Holbrook and his monumental North American Herpetology continue to hold a place of prestige in the field of herpetology. In recognition of the importance of his classic treatise, the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles reprinted the volume in 1976. Holbrook’s life and work have been more fully discussed in several recent publications, a number of which pay greater attention to his pioneering work on fishes from the waters of the American South.

Revised Information . A recently discovered manuscript of a travel memoir written by Holbrook while he was in the United Kingdom in 1818–1819 reveals previously unknown details about his sojourn there, including his attendance at lectures in medicine and natural history by University of Edinburgh professors.

Although he accepted an appointment as professor of anatomy in the Medical College of South Carolina in 1824, Holbrook relinquished that position in 1834, and became the anatomy professor in a newly formed institution, the Medical College of the State of South Carolina, also located in Charleston. He retired from the latter in 1860.

Upon his marriage to Harriet Pinckney Rutledge in 1827, Holbrook became the joint owner of the numerous slaves she had inherited. During the period 1847–1850 he participated in a debate with his fellow Charleston naturalist John Bachman over the human races, supporting the argument of the polygenists that each race had a separate origin and constituted a distinct species. Although he did not trumpet his position on this issue or on the institution of slavery, Holbrook clearly sanctioned the bondage of blacks and viewed them as a separate and mentally inferior species of humans. In his judgment, then, it was logical that he support the movement for secession of the southern states from the Union in 1861 and aid the Confederacy in its struggle to win the ensuing war for its independence.

Even though he admitted to unorthodoxy in his religious views, Holbrook embraced the conception of natural phenomena as the creations of a divine being. He declined, however, to discuss his notions about religion in any detail. Holbrook was certainly an altruistic man, and supported charitable institutions in Charleston. He was also interested in maintaining an accurate record of the past, and was a founding member of the South Carolina Historical Society. Elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1868, Holbrook was the first Southern scientist chosen for that honor.

Holbrook and Ichthyology . Although perhaps less well known for his work in ichthyology, Holbrook has recently received wider recognition for his studies of fishes in southern waters. Scholars have sorted through the sometimes confusing profusion of editions and revised plates of his books on fishes, and provided useful guides that help to clarify his contributions to ichthyology. As with his work on herpetology, Holbrook treasured accuracy in illustrating the fishes described in his books, and relied mainly on the talented artist John H. Richard to accomplish the task of providing morphological detail and true representation of color in the plates prepared for these volumes. Twelve taxa, or descriptions, of fishes established by Holbrook as new to science are considered valid today. Although he had evidenced interest in fishes as early as the late 1820s, Holbrook did not begin serious ichthyological research until two decades later, when he was around fifty years of age. His accomplishments in that field are therefore quite remarkable. Some evidence indicates that Holbrook intended to continue his work on fishes, but, given that he devoted four years of his life to serving the Confederate army as a surgeon, that he was nearly seventy-one years old when the American Civil War ended in 1865, and that he lost his entire library as a consequence of the war, it is not surprising that he was unable to resume his research. The value of his meticulous work in herpetology and ichthyology has endured, however, and gained renewed stature during recent years.



“Manuscript of a Travel Memoir Written from the United Kingdom, 1818–1819.” In the South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.


Adler, Kraig. A Brief History of Herpetology in North America before 1900. N.p.: Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, 1979.

Anderson, William D., Jr. “John Edwards Holbrook’s Senckenberg Plates and the Fishes They Portray.” Archives of Natural History 30 (2003): 1–12.

Anderson, William D., Jr., and Lester D. Stephens. “John Edwards Holbrook (1794–1871) and His Southern Ichthyology.” Archives of Natural History 29 (2002): 317–332.

Blum, Ann Shelby. Picturing Nature: American Nineteenth-Century Zoological Illustration. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Sanders, Albert E., and William D. Anderson Jr. Natural History Investigations in South Carolina: From Colonial Times to the Present. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

Stephens, Lester D. “John Edwards Holbrook (1794–1871) and Lewis Reeve Gibbes (1810–1894): Exemplary Naturalists in the Old South.” In Collection Building in Ichthyology and Herpetology, edited by Theodore W. Pietsch and William D. Anderson Jr., 447–458. Lawrence, KS: American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, 1997.

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

———. Science, Race, and Religion in the American South: John Bachman and the Charleston Circle of Naturalists, 1815–1895. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

———. “Holbrook, John Edwards.” In South Carolina Encylopedia, edited by Walter Edgar. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.

Worthington, Richard D., and Patricia H. Worthington. “John Edwards Holbrook, Father of American Herpetology.” In reprint edition of North American Herpetology by John Edwards Holbrook, five volumes in one book, edited by Kraig Adler, xiii–xxvii. N.p.: Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles, 1976.

Lester D. Stephens

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