Joseph LeConte bigraphy, stories - Geologists

Joseph LeConte : biography

February 26, 1823 - July 6, 1901

Joseph LeConte (alternate spelling: Joseph Le Conte) (February 26, 1823 – July 6, 1901) was a physician, geologist, professor at the University of California, Berkeley and early California conservationist.


After graduating at Harvard, LeConte in 1851 accompanied Agassiz on an expedition to study the Florida Reef. On his return he became professor of natural science in Oglethorpe University which was located in Midway, Georgia at the time; and from December 1852 until 1856 professor of natural history and geology at Franklin College. From 1857 to 1869 he was a professor of chemistry and geology at South Carolina College, which is now the University of South Carolina.

On January 14, 1846, he married Caroline Nisbet, a niece of Eugenius A. Nisbet. The Le Conte had four children grow to adulthood: Emma Florence Le Conte, Sarah Elizabeth Le Conte, Caroline Eaton Le Conte, and Joseph Nisbet Le Conte.

During the Civil War LeConte continued to teach in South Carolina. He also produced medicine and supervised the niter works (to manufacture explosives) for the Confederacy. After the war he continued to teach but he claimed to find Reconstruction politics intolerable.

In September 1869, he moved to Berkeley, California to join the faculty of the newly established (1868) University of California. His brother John had come to California in April 1869 to also join the faculty of the new University as a professor of physics. Joseph was appointed the first professor of geology and natural history and botany at the University, a post which he held until his death.

He published a series of papers on monocular and binocular vision, and also on psychology. His chief contributions, however, related to geology. He described the fissure-eruptions in western America, discoursed on earth-crust movements and their causes and on the great features of the Earth's surface. As separate works he published Elements of Geology (1878, 5th ed. 1889); Religion and Science (1874); and Evolution: its History, its Evidences, and its Relation to Religious Thought (1888). This last work anticipates in structure and argument Teilhard de Chardin's "Phenomenon of Man."(1955).

Early life

Of Huguenot descent, he was born in Liberty County, Georgia to Louis LeConte, patriarch of the noted LeConte family, and Ann Quarterman. He was educated at Franklin College in Athens, Georgia (now the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia) where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Literary Society. After graduation in 1841, he studied medicine and received his degree at the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1845. After practising for three or four years at Macon, Georgia, he entered Harvard University, and studied natural history under Louis Agassiz. An excursion made with Professors J. Hall and Agassiz to the Helderberg mountains of New York developed a keen interest in geology.


In 1874, he was nominated to the National Academy of Sciences. He was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1892, and of the Geological Society of America in 1896. LeConte is also noted for his exploration and preservation of the Sierra Nevada of California, USA. He first visited Yosemite Valley in 1870, where he became friends with John Muir and started exploring the Sierra. He became concerned that resource exploitation (such as sheepherding) would ruin the Sierra, so he co-founded the Sierra Club with Muir and others in 1892. He was a director of the Sierra Club from 1892 through 1898. His son, Joseph N. LeConte, was also a noted professor and Sierra Club member.

He died of a heart attack in the Yosemite Valley, California, on July 6, 1901, right before the Sierra Club's first High Trip. The Sierra Club built the LeConte Memorial Lodge in his honor in 1904. The Le Conte Glacier, Le Conte Canyon, Le Conte Divide, Le Conte Falls and Mount Le Conte were named after him. LeConte College at the University of South Carolina, Le Conte Middle School in Hollywood, LeConte Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, Le Conte Avenue in Berkeley, and Le Conte Avenue bordering the south of UCLA were also named after him. He is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California.

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