Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Leach, William Elford

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LEACH, WILLIAM ELFORD (1790–1836), naturalist, born at Plymouth in 1790, after studying medicine under Abernethy at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, proceeded to Edinburgh, where he graduated M.D. in 1812. Abandoning his profession shortly after taking his degree to devote himself to natural history, he was in 1813 appointed assistant librarian, and had risen by 1821 to be assistant keeper of the natural history department in the British Museum. In 1815 he published the first part of his excellent history of British crustacea, which was never completed. Meanwhile he laboured at the British Museum with great zeal. The introduction of the natural system of arrangement in conchology and entomology, on the lines of Latreille and Cuvier, as opposed to the artificial system of Linnæus, was mainly due to his initiative. Though he made many new discoveries among the various classes of vertebrates, especially birds, it was in entomology and malacology that his labours bore the most fruit, his knowledge of crustacea being superior to that of any other naturalist of his time. His arrangement was, it is true, far from faultless, and was superseded by that of Henri Milne-Edwards, in his ‘Histoire Naturelle des Crustacés,’ 1834; but the French naturalist gave high praise to Leach as the one of his predecessors to whom subsequent investigators in the same field would always owe the highest obligation. Unfortunately Leach's studies injured his health, and his brain becoming affected he was compelled in 1821 to retire from his post at the museum. For the last few years of his life he resided with his sister in Italy, resumed to some extent his favourite occupations, and wrote letters of interest on scientific subjects to his friends in France and in England. He died suddenly of cholera on 25 Aug. 1836, at the Palazzo St. Sebastiano, near Tortona.

‘Few men,’ says Dr. Boot, in the ‘Anniversary Notice of Members of the Linnean Society,’ 1837, ‘have ever devoted themselves to zoology with greater zeal than Dr. Leach, or attained at an early period of life a higher reputation at home and abroad as a profound naturalist.’ He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1817, and was also a member of the Linnean and of numerous other learned societies in England, France, and America.

Leach's works are:

  1. ‘The Zoological Miscellany, being Descriptions of new or interesting Animals.’ Illustrated with excellent plates, drawn and coloured by R. P. Nodder, London, 1814–17, 3 vols. 8vo. A supplement to Shaw and Nodder's ‘Naturalist's Miscellany.’ ‘The copies,’ says Lowndes, ‘vary very much in the quality of colouring.’
  2. ‘Malacostraca Podophthalma Britanniæ, or a Monograph on the British Crabs, Lobsters, Prawns, and other Crustacea with pedunculated eyes,’ with plates by J. Sowerby, Nos. 1 to 17, London, 1815–16, 4to.
  3. ‘Systematic Catalogue of the Specimens of the indigenous Mammalia and Birds that are preserved in the British Museum, with the Localities and Authors, to which is added a list of the described species that are wanting to complete the collection of British Mammalia and Birds,’ 1816, 4to. Originally an official publication, this work was reprinted for the Willoughby Society in 1882.
  4. ‘A Synopsis of the Mollusca of Great Britain, arranged according to their natural affinities and anatomical structure.’ Dedicated to Savigny, Cuvier and Poli, and edited posthumously by J. E. Gray in 1852, 8vo. Though not published until the last-mentioned date, pp. 1–116 and the plates were in type, and some copies were circulated as early as 1820, a circumstance which gives validity to Leach's names.

Leach also described the animals taken by Cranch in the expedition of Captain Tuckey to the Congo, and was the author of articles on crustacea in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ and ‘Edinburgh Encyclopædia,’ in addition to numerous papers in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ the ‘Zoological Journal,’ ‘Dictionnaire des Sciences Naturelles,’ &c. Thirty-one papers are placed to his credit in the ‘Royal Society Catalogue,’ while between 1810 and 1820 he contributed to the ‘Transactions of the Linnean Society’ seven papers; three on insects; a general arrangement of the crustacea, myriapoda, and arachnides, a very laborious work; two descriptive of ten new genera of bats, one of three new species of Glareola. There are several of his letters in autograph in the British Museum Library (Add. MSS. 32166 f. 108, 32441 ff. 7, 51).

[London and Edinburgh Philosophical Mag. July 1837; Neville Wood's Naturalist, ii. 284; Milne-Edwards's Histoire Naturelle des Crustacés, Introduction, xxiii–v; Thomas's Universal Dict. of Biog. iii. 1386; Imperial Dict. of Biog.; Maunder's Biog. Treas. Suppl. p. 578; Larousse's Dict. Univ.; notes kindly supplied by B. B. Woodward, esq., of the Natural History Museum.]

T. S.