Leconte, John

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Leconte, John

(b. near Savannah, Georgia, 4 December 1818; d. Berkeley, California, 29 April 1891)

physics, natural history.

LeConte was the son of the Georgia plantation owner Louis LeConte and Ann Quarterman. The family provided a stimulating scientific environment. John Eatton LeConte, Louis’ brother, and his son, John Lawrence, were important entomologists; Louis was a competent amateur botanist, and John LeConte and his brother Joseph, his closest scientific associate throughout his life, were among the most respected scientists of the South before the Civil War.

In 1835 LeConte entered Franklin College of the University of Georgia. After graduating in 1838 he studied medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York and received his degree in 1841. Upon the death of his father he returned to Savannah with his wife, Josephine Graham of New York. After four years of a modest medical practice LeConte was appointed professor of chemistry and natural history at Franklin College. In 1855 he taught chemistry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and in 1856 he and his brother Joseph accepted professorship in physics and chemistry, respectively, at South Carolina College. During the Civil War both worked for the Confederate government in the production of niter and other chemicals. Choosing to leave the South after the war, they were appointed professors at the newly founded University of California in 1869 on the recommendation of Joseph Henry. As senior faculty and again in 1875, and was president from 1876 to 1881. He held the chair of physics until his death.

Typical of early and mid-nineteenth-century scientists, he developed a wide-ranging interest in several branches of science. Most of his publications were in medicine and physics, but he also published on physiology, botany, astronomy, and geophysics. That he made no major contributions to scientific knowledge was perhaps partly due to this diversity. Many of his papers centered on criticizing the work of others. LeConte disliked and avoided experiments, collecting facts and observations for his studies mostly from the literature. In his career as a professor of physics he stressed general principles rather than their applications. This attitude won him respect among his colleagues, at a time when basic science was not generally appreciated. Preoccupation with administrative duties and personal problems severely hampered his scientific activity during his years at California.

Most important among his early papers was an article on the nervous system of the alligator. He promoted the use of statistics as a quantitative approach to medical research. His reputation as a physicist stemmed largely from his discovery of the sensitive flame in 1858, providing a method of visualizing the effects of sound clarified certain misconceptions concerning Laplace’s theory. He also investigated the nature of sound shadows in water. Influenced by the work of John Tyndall and Jacques-Louis Soret he provided an explanation for the color of lakes in terms of selective reflection.


I. Original Works. LeConte’s most important works include“Experiments Illustrating the Seat of Volition in the Alligator or Crocodilus Lucius of Cuvier,”in New York Journal of Medicine and the Collateral Sciences,5 (1845), 335-347;“Statistical Researches on Cancer.”in Southern Medical and Surgical Journal, n.s. 2 (1846), 257-293;“On the Influence of Musical Sounds on the Flame of a Jet of Coal Gas,”in American Journal of Science, 2nd ser., 23 (1858), 62-67;“On the Adequacy of Laplace’s Explanation to Account for the Discrepancy Between the Computed and the Observed Velocity of Sound in Air and Gases,”in Philosophical Magazine, 4th ser., 26 (1864), 1-32;“On Sound Shadows in Water,”ibid., 5th ser., 13 (1882), 98-113; and“Physical Studies of Lake Tahoe,”in Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, 2nd ser., 2 (1884), 41-52.

At almost complete MS for a college textbook on physics was destroyed during the Civil War along with most of his other early papers. The largest collection of his papers is the John LeConte Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California. This collection also contains an eight-page autobiography,“Sketch of John LeConte.”Other MSS are at the South Carolina Library, University of South Carolina. The bulk of LeConte’s letters are found in the papers of correspondents. See Lewis R. Gibbes Papers, Library of Congress, and Benjamin Peirce Papers, Harvard University Archives.

II. Secondary Literature. A dissertation by J. S. Lupold, From Physician to Physicist: The Scientific Career of John LeConte, 1818-1891 (University of South Carolina, 1970). 264, contains valuable bibliographical and biographical information. Joseph LeConte,“Biographical Memoir of John LeConte, 1818-1891,”in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences,3 (1895), 371-393, includes a selected bibliography and an evaluation of his most important scientific papers. William LeConte Stevens,“Sketch of Professor John LeConte,”in Popular Science Monthly, 36 (1889), 112-113, contains a complete bibliography of LeConte’s works.

Gisela Kutzbach

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