Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/January 1878/Sketch of Professor Joseph Le Conte
THE subject of the present notice, now Professor of Geology and Natural History in the University of California, bears a family name that has long been distinguished in American science. He was descended from William Le Conte, a Huguenot, who left his native city, Rouen, on account of the political and religious troubles consequent upon the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, and settled in the vicinity of New York. Here his ancestors continued to live until about 1810, when his father, Louis Le Conte, removed to Liberty County, Georgia, to take personal charge of a large inherited estate. There Joseph Le Conte was born, February 26, 1823.
His primary education was received in a neighborhood school of his native county; and, among the ten or twelve different teachers who successively directed his education with varying success, the only one whom he recognizes as having left any decided impression upon his mind was Alexander H. Stephens, afterward the distinguished politician.
The germs of much of his future character and career may be traced to these early boyhood days. His father was an ardent devotee of science in all its departments, but especially of natural history. The example of his father, and the splendid botanical garden in the midst of which he lived from infancy, early imbued him with an intense love of Nature, and cultivated in him the habit of scientific observation. The unrestrained freedom of his boyhood life, in a country where game of all kinds abounded, engendered a passionate fondness for field-sports; and this again increased both his love of Nature and the opportunities of observation. In later life this love of field and forest took the more rational form of extensive ramblings for scientific purposes.
After graduating A. B. in the University of Georgia, in 1841, he commenced the study of medicine, and graduated M. D. in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York, in 1845. A few years of active practice of his profession in Macon, Georgia (during which, however, he was more interested in the science of medicine than in the art of healing), served to convince him that he had not yet found his appropriate field of activity. He therefore, in 1850, went to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to pursue a course of practical science in the laboratory of Prof. Agassiz.
His life in Cambridge, and especially his intimate association with the great teacher, powerfully stimulated his enthusiasm for science, and permanently determined its direction. During the winter of 1851, in company with Prof. Agassiz, he spent the months of January and February on the keys and reefs of Florida, engaged in studying their mode of formation. These studies afterward gave origin to a paper "On the Agency of the Gulf Stream in the Formation of the Peninsula and Keys of Florida."
In 1851, after taking the degree of B. S. in the Lawrence Scientific School, he returned to Georgia, and was immediately elected to the chair of Natural Science in Oglethorpe University. As this chair included physics, chemistry, geology, and natural history, he was not unwilling to exchange it for that of geology and natural history in the University of Georgia, which was tendered him in 1852. Four years of laborious class-room work here laid the foundation of his success as a teacher and lecturer, but left little time for research. In 1856 he removed to Columbia, South Carolina, to take charge of the chair of Chemistry and Geology in the South Carolina College.
The years spent in connection with this institution were among the pleasantest and most active of his life. The highly-intellectual and refined society gathered in Columbia was, however, more literary and philosophical than scientific. His activity, therefore, took in some degree this direction, and most of his articles which are not strictly scientific were written at this time.
In 1862 the call of the Confederate Government for all able-bodied males over eighteen years of age entirely broke up the college for want of students. During the war he was engaged first as Chemist of the Government Laboratory for the Manufacture of Medicines, and afterward as Chemist of the Nitre and Mining Bureau.
After enduring the privations and hardships (including the total loss of property) consequent upon the breaking up of the Confederacy, on the reorganization of the college as the University of South Carolina, he was again appointed to the chair of Chemistry and Geology, in the undergraduate department, and of Chemistry and Pharmacy in the medical department. But the utter prostration of the material resources of the State, falling first and most heavily on institutions of higher education, compelled him to seek employment in a more prosperous region. He therefore, in 1868, accepted a call to the chair of Geology and Natural History in the University of California then about to be organized, and removed to that State to assist in the opening of the first session of the new institution, in September, 1869. He has continued to occupy this chair up to the present time.
From this time commenced the most active period of Prof. Le Conte's strictly scientific life. The boundless field for geological studies presented on the Pacific coast incited him to pursue his favorite department with renewed ardor. Every summer vacation was spent in a geological ramble with a party of students and graduates in the high Sierras, or in a geological tour through Oregon, Washington Territory, and British Columbia. As much of the region of the high Sierras is wholly uninhabited, camping-parties were organized; and thus studies of Nature were combined with a life of adventure full of delight, amid the finest scenery in the world. Many scientific papers on the origin and structure of mountain-chains, and on the ancient glaciers of the Sierras, were the result of these studies. Meanwhile other and more abstract subjects were not neglected; for he contributed during this time also many papers on the theory and phenomena of binocular vision.
Prof. Le Conte can hardly be called a specialist in any department, in the narrow sense of that term; for, although his chief activity has been in the field of science, yet his interest in literature, art, and philosophy, is almost equally great. Association alone seems to have determined his life-work in the direction of science. Until thirty years of age his intellectual culture was almost perfectly general. Only after that did it commence to concentrate first on science, and still later on special departments of science. While this may have been a disadvantage in the pursuit of special narrow lines of investigation, it had also its advantage in giving that comprehensiveness so necessary in the more complex departments of science which he had chosen.
In his theory of education, therefore, Prof. Le Conte was always an earnest advocate of the general or liberal education of the cultured man, rather than the special education of the mere expert. His ideal of education was a general culture first, and as high as circumstances will allow, and then a concentration on special cultures suitable to the intellectual plane to which the pupil has been previously raised by the general cultivation.
Deeply religious in his innermost nature, he nevertheless fearlessly pushed scientific ideas to their legitimate conclusions. He believed that truth cannot conflict with itself; that true science is net antagonistic to a true religion, or vice versa; that pride and dogmatism on both sides are the only bar to cordial relations.
The following are some of Prof. Le Conte's principal contributions to literature and science:
Although his life has been given to the development of original thought in various departments, yet Prof. Le Conte has not had the ambition to be a great book-maker. He, however, published a volume in 1873 on "Religion and Science," and has just issued a comprehensive college text-book of geology, the result of his twenty-five years' experience in teaching that subject.