Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/April 1887/Sketch of Leo Lesquereux
By L. R. McCABE.
AMERICAN science owes an incalculable debt to the Geneva Revolutionary Council of 1848, that suppressed the Academy of Neufchâtel and sent to our shores Agassiz, Guyot, and Lesquereux. In the heart of Switzerland's mountain grandeur this illustrious trio first saw the light and drank of that love of Nature which, deepening with the years, peculiarly linked their lives. Agassiz had been in America two years, when he was joined by Guyot and Lesquereux, whose friendship had been formed while they were collaborators in the quaint Swiss town. Humboldt and Cuvier had showered their encomiums upon the great naturalist, and Continental Europe was heralding his praises, when the political changes of his native land brought him to the New World, where be became the leading mind in zoölogy, as Guyot was in physical geography, and Lesquereux in paleontological botany. The two former, full of years and rich in truths bequeathed to science, have passed away; while the latter, bearing lightly his fourscore years, still works actively in bryological and paleontological studies at his home in Columbus, Ohio.
It was a bright morning in early June when the writer called at the house of Dr. Lesquereux. A few moments of waiting in the parlor were followed by the entrance of a middle-sized man with dark eyes that flashed with mirthfulness when he spoke, and a step so brisk, and hair and beard so free from time-strokes, that the long-cherished patriarchal vision of the botanist's appearance vanished.
"I am happy to make your acquaintance," said the colleague of Agassiz and Guyot, in English, melodious with the accent of France. "My son told me you were coming to see me," he continued, shaking my hand cordially. "Do you speak French? No? So, so. With my bad English and bad hearing"—he smiled, and pressed those ears that had been dead to sound for more than half a century—"I fear we can not carry on a satisfactory conversation," he said, as we drew our chairs to the open window. Then, with glowing eyes and a winning smile on his kindly old face, in response to written queries he modestly told the story of his life.
Leo Lesquereux was born at Fleurier, Neufchâtel, November 18, 1806. His immediate ancestors were French Huguenots. His father was a manufacturer of watch-springs, and, as was the custom of the country, wished his son to follow the same trade. The future botanist's health being delicate, however, his mother desired him to study for the ministry. But the grandeur of his mountain home had already sunk deep into the impressible soul of the youth, and circumstances sealed his preference for another pursuit. Under royal patronage the Academy of Neufchâtel enjoyed special advantages. When the young Swiss crossed its threshold he met in the enthusiastic Guyot a congenial companion. "Guyot and I," said Lesquereux, "were for some years brothers in study, working in common, and often spending our vacations together, either at Guyot's home at Hauterieve or with my parents at Fleurier, and I owe much in life to the good influence of this friendship." When Lesquereux had completed the Academy course he went to Weimar to perfect himself in the German language, preparatory to entering the university at Berlin. To defray his expenses here, be taught French in a young ladies' academy. "They were the happiest days of my life," he said. "My pupils were from the noble families of Weimar. They were well educated, and came to me for conversation. I remained at Weimar for some time. Then love came, and I went back to Switzerland, and I never regretted it."
It was at Weimar that the botanist met the young woman who became his wife. She was of humble fortune but of noble family, and in early childhood enjoyed the friendship of Goethe. Her father was a man of learning, with a strong propensity to science. "When the young man was about to return to his home, the father, who was setting out in the same direction, invited him to share his carriage. The marriage was agreed upon during this journey. Lesquereux brought his bride to Fleurier, where, in sight of the lofty Alpine peaks, he became engaged in the study of mosses, and later of fossil botany. It was at this period that he became interested in peat, its formation and possible reproduction. The protection of the peat-bogs, the principal fuel of Switzerland, was then a matter of great importance to the Government of Neufchâtel. Lesquereux published some memoirs of his investigations, which attracted the attention of Agassiz, then occupying the chair of Natural History in the Academy of Neufchâtel. He invited the author to visit him for a consultation upon the theories he had set forth. Shortly after this visit—which started a friendship that ceased only with Agassiz's death—the Government of Neufchâtel offered a gold medal for the best popular treatise on the formation and reproduction of peat.
A committee of eight savants was appointed to explore the peat deposits of the state, in order to be fully informed of the value of Lesquereux's researches. Professor Agassiz, who was a member of the committee, at first did not agree with his theory, but after the committee had been out a few days—they were two weeks on the field—he accepted it, and became its ardent supporter. "During these days, passed in constant intercourse with the great Agassiz," said Lesquereux, "I became sincerely attached to him; not only on account of his great mind and disposition to consider any subject fully, but because of his goodness of heart, the charm of his conversation, his childlike simplicity, and clearness of thought and expression, even in discussing the most abstruse subjects of science." Lesquereux's memoir was awarded the prize, and gained wide reputation; and it is still quoted as one of the best authorities on the subject. The author, under the patronage of the King of Prussia, subsequently explored the peat-bogs of Northern Europe. In this manner he became master of the botany, physics, chemistry, and geology of those districts, and was led to think that the theory he had formulated might be applied to the coal-seams of our country. To the New World his labors were now transferred, in 1848, when, having become totally deaf in the prime of life, he also found himself deprived of scientific employment at home by the political changes that followed the revolution. It was at this crisis that he came to Boston, where, at the earnest solicitation of that naturalist, he became a member of the household of Agassiz. Here he worked upon the botanical part of Agassiz's "Journey to Lake Superior," until the eve of Christmas, 1848, when, at the invitation of the eminent bryologist, W. S. Sullivant, he went to Columbus, Ohio, and, entering his laboratory, continued there the study of mosses. At the close of the year 1849, under the advice and with the co-operation of Mr. Sullivant, he made a tour of exploration among the mountains of the Southern States, for the collection of plant-specimens, and secured a great variety of plants, which found a ready sale among scientific students. He was particularly successful in the collection of mosses. The preparation of the specimens, their determination and distribution, gave him employment for two years, and resulted in one of the most valuable contributions to American bryology—the "Musci Americani Exsiccati," by W. S. Sullivant and L. Lesquereux. The expense of preparation and publication of this work was defrayed by Mr. Sullivant, who allowed his colleague the benefit of the sales. Using that author's library and herbarium—now the property of Harvard College—for their common studies, Lesquereux lent most valuable assistance to the preparation of Mr. Sullivant's works on the mosses of the Wilkes' South Pacific Exploring Expedition, Whipple's Pacific Railroad Exploration, and the "Icones Muscorum." The publication of Brongniart's "Prodrome," and the commencement of the "Histoire des Végétaux Fossils," in 1828, laid the solid basis upon which the science of paleobotany has been erected. Lesquereux began to write in 1845, and his studies in America have been directed especially in the line of fossil botany. His most valuable researches, beginning in 1850, lay in the study of the coal formations of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kentucky, and Arkansas, and his reports appear in the geological surveys of all these States. Particularly important are his studies of the coal flora of Pennsylvania, published in the report of H. D. Rogers in 1858, together with a "Catalogue of the Fossil Plants which have been named or described from the Coal-Measures of North America." Lesquereux also worked up the coal flora in the second geological survey of Pennsylvania. The fruit of this labor was two volumes of text and an atlas, published in 1880—the most important work on carboniferous plants that has been produced in America. Geological work, especially researches on fossil botany, in connection with the United States Geological Surveys of the Territories, began in 1868 to absorb his attention. He was employed to work up the collections of Dr. F. V. Hayden's surveys of the Territories, and important papers on the subject appeared in the annual reports of the surveys from 1870 to 1874 inclusive. Lesquereux was frequently called to Cambridge to determine the specimens of fossil plants in Professor Agassiz's museum, where he was a guest in the naturalist's household for weeks and months at a time, and his attachment to him grew very strong.
Lesquereux, during his long and industrious life, has contributed twelve important works to the natural history of North America, besides a large number of memoirs on divers subjects, amounting in all to about fifty publications. He is a member or correspondent of more than twenty scientific societies of Europe and America, and was the first elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. The characteristic works of the most eminent scientific writers of the age comprise his library: Brongniart, who laid the foundation of paleobotany; Göppert, who built its superstructure; Schimper, Heer, Dawson, Ettingshauseu, Newberry, the Marquis Gaston de Saporta, together with Grande Eury and Renault, who thoroughly studied the carboniferous flora of France; Williamson, who mastered that of England: Nathorst, who opened up the subterranean floral treasures of Sweden; Engelhardt, Hosius, Under Marck and Schenk, who investigated without exhausting the rich plant-beds of Germany—all are numbered among Lesquereux's friends and correspondents.
The fraternal bond that binds the scientific world is almost indissoluble. When asked if his long and intimate associations with so many illustrious minds had not stored his memory with anecdote and reminiscence, Lesquereux responded: "The science-students' life is absorbed with grave and serious truths; they are naturally serious men. My associations have been almost entirely of a scientific nature. My deafness cut me off from everything that lay outside of science. I have lived with Nature, the rocks, the trees, the flowers. They know em, I know them. All outside are dead to me."