Harlan, Richard

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Harlan, Richard

(b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19 September 1796; d. New Orleans, Louisiana, 30 September 1843)

comparative anatomy.

Richard Harlan was the eighth of ten children of Joshua Harlan, a wholesale grocer and merchant, and Sarah Hinchman, both Friends. He began the study of medicine with Joseph Parrish of Philadelphia, spent the year 1816–1817 as ship’s surgeon on a voyage to Calcutta, and in 1818 received his M.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania, offering a senior essay on the vital principle. Upon graduation Harlan was engaged as a demonstrator in Parrish’s private anatomical school. He was elected a physician to the Philadelphia Dispensary in 1820 and from 1822 until 1838 served as a physician to the Philadelphia Almshouse.

From the beginning of his career Harlan was interested in scientific investigations. In 1821 he wrote a paper on the generation of animal heat, and in the same year, with J. B. Lawrence and Benjamin H. Coates, he presented to the Academy of Medicine a report of experiments on the process of absorption which was cited with approval when he was proposed, successfully, for membership in the American Philosophical Society in 1822. In June 1832, with Asiatic cholera threatening Philadelphia, the city’s emergency sanitary board sent Harlan, Samuel Jackson, and Charles D. Meigs to Canada to study the disease and methods of treatment at Montreal and Quebec. The doctors recommended that Philadelphia erect small hospitals and emergency stations where drugs, nurses, and physicians could be found day and night and that the most infected neighborhoods be evacuated. Harlan’s time at the height of the epidemic, he wrote a friend, was “usefully, at least, if not profitably employed, night and day. Cholera, cholera, cholera!!!!” A grateful city awarded him a handsome silver pitcher for his services.

Harlan was the first American to devote a major part of his time to vertebrate paleontology. In 1815 he was elected to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and in 1821 he was named professor of comparative anatomy in Peale’s Philadelphia Museum. During the next fifteen years a steady flow of monographs came from his pen. In search of specimens he frequently explored the New Jersey marlpits; in 1829 he was on the Ohio, where, at Cincinnati, he purchased a large collection of fossils for his patron John P. Wetherill; and in 1831 he visited the mountains and caverns of Virginia. Major Stephen Long, Thomas Nuttall, Titian R. Peale, and John James Audubon sent him materials to study, the last promising on one occasion to “do my best in the Way of Tortoises and also in the way of a Sea Cow” Harlan published much of the data thus collected in Fauna Americana (1825), the first systematic presentation. of the zoology of North America. Although it described some new species, including materials collected by Long, Constantine Rafinesque, and others, it followed A. G. Desmarest’s Mammalogie (1821–1822) so closely and extensively that reviewers rejected its claim to be an original work, charging it with numerous errors and typographical deficiencies as well. The Fauna was followed by American Herpetology, published first in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (1827) and then separately in the same year. Chiefly for the benefit of European naturalists, Harlan prepared “Critical Notices of Various Organic Remains Hitherto Discovered in North America.” In 1835 he published his collected papers as Medical and Physical Researches.

Harlan’s career fell in a period of consolidation between Cuvier and Leidy. Working within the Cuvierian framework, he collected much new information, identified new species, and contributed significantly to taxonomic knowledge; but his achievement was limited by insufficient data, inadequate concepts, and his own haste. His most serious mistake was in classifying Basilosaurus among reptiles. Harlan inevitably grappled, with the idea of evolution. Well acquainted with the theories of Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, and Jules-Joseph Virey, he believed that species have existed from the beginning, are distinct and immutable, and that

the animal kingdom is in some degree only a single animal, but varied and composed of a multitude of species, all dependent on the same origin.... Nature need only vary in a slight degree the numerous generations of the same plant, or of the same animal, in order to create a multitude of analogous animals, which we name species [Medical and Scientific Researches, pp. 233, 237].

He believed that the evolutionary process is continuing and entertained the nation, that man might not be “the ne plus ultra of perfection.” Why and how some species disappeared and others emerged, Harlan could not say. The process required millions of years; geology he thought was most likely to hold the answer, and he suggested that a kind of spontaneous generation might occur.

We have every reason to conclude, that every distinction of existing species has existed from the earliest periods of the formation of the present world; and has its origin ultimately in the nature of the soil; every variety of which is marked by a corresponding variety in its animal and vegetable productions; and many of these are limited by geographical distribution [ibid., p. 244].

Harlan visited Europe in 1833 and again from 1838 to 1840. On the second trip he read a paper to the Geological Society of London, spent much time with Richard Owen at the Royal College of Surgeons, witnessed the surgical operations of Astley Cooper, and heard Faraday lecture—“a superlatively neat manipulator, and eloquent lecturer,” who “riveted the attention” of the audience. Speaking with Daguerre in Paris, he “flelt as in the presence of a superior power,” But after inspecting French hospitals and witnessing French surgery lie came away with lessened admiration for both.

Early in 1843 Harlan commenced practice in New Orleans, where he was at once elected a vice-resident of the Louisiana Medico-Chirwgical Society. He died syddenly a few months later of apoplexy. He was survived by his wife, Mrs. Margaret Hart Simmons Howell—a widow whom he had married in 1833— and by four young children, of whom the oldest, George Cuvier Harlan, became a distinguished ophthalmologist in Philadelphia.


I. Original Works. The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers (1800–1863), III, 184–186, lists sixty-four papers by Harlan; many of these were reprinted in his Medical and Scientific Researches (Philadelphia, 1835), where, unfortunately, the place and date of original publication are not given. For Harlan’s ideas on comparative anatomy and evolution, see the essays “On the Affiliation or the Natural Sciences” and “On the Successive Formations of Organized Beings,” in that work.

The quarrel over Fauna Americana (Philadelphia, 1825) can be followed in the review in the North American Review, 20 (1826), 120–136—on which John Godman commented in Journal of the Franklin Institute, 1 (1826), 19–21, which elicited Harlan’s Refutation of Certain Misrepresentations Issued Against the Author of the ‘Fauna Americana’... (Philadelphia, 1826) and Godman’s rejoinder in A Letter to Dr. Thomas P. Jones... (Philadelphia, 1826).

Harlan’s accounts of his visit to London and Paris are contained in letters to the editors of the Medical Examiner (Philadelphia), 2 (1839), in which are also published several of his lectures at the Philadelphia Almshouse. A product of Harlan’s Paris visit was his trans. of J. N. Gannal’s History of Embalming... (Philadelphia, 1840), a useful but sometimes macabre survey and handbook on the preparation of human and animal anatomical and pathological material.

II. Secondary Literature. George G. Simpson, “The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 86 (1942), 161–164, assesses Harlan’s role and position in the history of his science.

Whitfield J. Bell, Jr.