Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/November 1889/Sketch of Prof. John Le Conte

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John Le Conte



THE subject of the present sketch is the Professor of Physics in the University of California, where he has for many years been associated with his brother, the distinguished geologist and writer on evolution. He was the second son of Louis Le Conte, and was born on the 4th of December, 1818, at the family homestead in Liberty County, Georgia. The father was a man of much independence of character, firm and decided, yet kind and gentle, exceedingly fond of investigation, original in thought, but singularly indifferent to popular recognition. He published nothing himself, and would never have become known away from his own home, had not others been appreciative enough of his real merit to give some of his results to the world by presenting them before the New York Lyceum of Natural History.

By personal influence and example, Louis Le Conte inculcated in his sons the love of science, and of truth for its own sake. The virtue of verification was one which he sought to cultivate in them as of cardinal importance. An illustration of the success of his teaching in this direction, and of the early growth of the philosophical habit of mind in his son John, was afforded on one occasion when the father and a number of neighbors, while patrolling at night to check some illicit transactions between the negro slaves and the shopkeepers of the nearest village, were fired upon with blank cartridges, and thrown from their startled horses. Relating the story of his mishap after he had reached home, the father said, "I lost my left stirrup; at the turn in the road I lost the other stirrup, and at the next turn I was thrown." John, who listened to the narrative with great interest, was perplexed to know how the stirrups could have been lost. His night's rest did not remove the trouble, and, leaving his bed before sunrise, he went and examined the saddle. He reported upon the result of his investigation at the breakfast-table. "Pa, did you not say last night that, when the horse ran away with you, you lost your stirrups?" "Yes, my son, I did say so." "Well, I have found that the stirrups are safe and sound." The laugh was turned against the son, and the father often told the story afterward as a joke upon him. It was, however, no joke; it was a prediction of the career of the future investigator in physics.

The childhood and most of the boyhood of John Le Conte were spent at the plantation home in Georgia, where hunting, fishing, boating, and all kinds of athletic sports contributed largely to the training of his observing faculties. His uncle, Major Le Conte, an accomplished zoölogist, often gave up his New York home in winter for the purpose of spending the colder months on the Southern plantation. The scientific proclivities of both father and uncle insensibly made all the children students of natural history and collectors of specimens. Thus they gradually imbibed knowledge on such subjects, and acquired powers of discrimination that are ordinarily attained only by years of study in maturer life. Their mother died in 1826, leaving the father in charge of six children. Deprived of maternal care at so early a period of life, all of them, and especially the boys, were thrown largely upon their own resources at a tender age.

In those days and in that country neighborhood, forty miles from the nearest city, Savannah, it was necessary to do without the school accommodations that are now abundant in every village of our land. An isolated wooden-framed house, with no plastering, a single door for its single room, abundant ventilation through the crevices of the floor and walls, fully supplemented by the draught through an ample clay chimney—such was the school-house in which the children were gathered daily from plantations varying in distance from one to half a dozen miles or more. The teacher was rarely ever of the best. One there was who took charge of this road-side seminary for two years, became the intimate friend of Mr. Le Conte, and exerted over his boys an influence that became life-long. Alexander H. Stephens, the future statesman and historian, was then a young graduate who sought in teaching the pecuniary support that was necessary while he was preparing for admission to the bar. His fine classical taste and clear, logical mind produced a lasting impression upon John Le Conte, who received thus his training for college, and entered Franklin College, now the University at Athens, Ga., with distinguished success in January, 1835.

As a student, young Le Conte soon became noted for his clearness of conception and his scrupulous accuracy in work. The curriculum of study was the same for all, irrespective of native bias or prospective aim in life. He was fully appreciative of all the classical culture that was there afforded, but his tastes naturally led him into spending on mathematics and its applications a larger share of attention than Latin and Greek could attract. "Give him the cosine of A and he will prove anything," was the criticism expressed by an admiring fellow-student, and concurred in by the rest. The formal teaching of physics and chemistry involved mere text-book recitation, and attendance upon illustrated lectures of the most elementary character, which were delivered with oracular authority. It was more than whispered among the students that on these topics John Le Conte knew as much as or more than the professor himself. During his senior year at college Mr. Le Conte was bereft of his devoted father, who died after a very brief illness. This calamity hastened his selection of a profession. In August, 1838, he was graduated with high honor. Immediately afterward he began the study of medicine, and in the spring of 1839 he entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, where, in March, 1811, he received the degree of Doctor of Medicine. A few months before his graduation in medicine another domestic calamity befell him in the death of his eldest brother, William, to whom had been committed the charge of the family estates in Georgia. This event hastened Dr. Le Conte's return home in the spring of 1841, to take charge of the estate as the eldest surviving son, and frustrated the execution of a cherished plan for supplementing his medical education by a year's residence in Paris.

During the summer of 1811 Dr. Le Conte returned to New York, and was married in July to Miss Josephine Graham, of that city, an accomplished young lady of Scottish and English extraction. The deep love and earnest devotion, and the consequent domestic happiness which crowned this union, contributed more than all else afterward to fortify and sustain him in the battle of life. Mrs. Le Conte was a woman of wonderful personal magnetism, queenly in bearing, and of extraordinary beauty. Her brilliancy and wit, her quick insight and ready tact, added to her majestic presence, made her the center of attraction in every social gathering. In after-years, especially at the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, such men as Bache, Peirce, Henry, and Agassiz vied with each other in doing her homage. Her fame in social circles equaled that of her husband among men of science; and no important step in his life has been taken without acknowledgment of the help derived from the social influence of a wife of whom he was justly proud.

In the autumn of 1842 Dr. Le Conte established himself as a practitioner of medicine in Savannah, Georgia. His four years of residence in that city formed no exception to the usual experience of a young doctor: a very small practice and an increasing family. It afforded, however, an excellent opportunity for study and research, and it was during this period that he made his most important contributions to medical literature. These at once established his reputation in the profession as an acute observer, cautious, exact, and industrious. The first of them, entitled "A Case of Carcinoma of the Stomach," published in the "New York Medical Gazette" in 1842, was the initial outcome of a series of observations on cancer that has been continued from time to time, even after Dr. Le Conte's abandonment of the practice of medicine. At this period he probably paid more attention to physiology than to any other of the departments included in medical science, and his fondness for research, interfered to some extent with the efforts that might have been made to secure paying patients.

In August, 1840, Dr. Le Conte accepted the chair of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry in Franklin College, his alma mater, from which he had gone forth eight years before as the best scientific student in his class. This decided his withdrawal from the field of practical work in medicine. Henceforth he devoted himself to the study of physical science, but without failing to keep pace still with the progress of physiology. He retained his professorship at Athens for nine years, resigning it in the autumn of 1855 to become lecturer on chemistry in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, his medical alma mater. In the spring of 1856, at the conclusion of his course of lectures in New York, he accepted a call to the South Carolina College at Columbia, where he had been unanimously elected to fill the chair, then first created, of Natural and Mechanical Philosophy. This position he held until the college was disbanded soon after the opening of the civil war. He was then put in charge of the Niter and Mining Bureau of South Carolina. In 1866 the University of South Carolina was organized, and Dr. Le Conte was elected to the same chair that he had held in the college of which this was the new development. This position he retained until 1869, when he gave up his residence in Columbia to become an adopted citizen of California. Here his home has continued up to the present time.

The period of thirteen years embracing Dr. Le Conte's connection with the South Carolina College and University, although clouded by the saddening events incident to the civil war, constituted the pleasantest and most satisfactory period of his life. The institution was governed by a board of trustees composed of gentlemen of refinement and culture, who entertained a genuine sympathy for the labors of the student who strives to plant himself at the most advanced outposts of science and literature. The community amid which the college had been developed was strongly influenced by the atmosphere of scholarship which it produced. There was a quiet spirit of encouragement to learning, which, by its freedom from pretension, furnished the most grateful incentive to study. It was during these years that Dr. Le Conte established a European reputation through his writings, which were published chiefly in the "American Journal of Science" and the "London Philosophical Magazine" It was in 1857 that he made the remarkable discovery of the sensitiveness of flame to musical vibrations—a discovery which served as the starting-point for Barrett, Tyndall, and Koenig in the exquisite applications that have since been worked out by the use of flame for the detection of sounds too delicate for the ear to perceive, and for the optical analysis of compound tones. Unfortunately, Dr. Le Conte did not possess the wealth, of instrumental appliances needed for the development of his unique discovery, but his priority was gracefully proclaimed by Tyndall in the now classic book on sound, made up of lectures delivered at the Royal Institution. Among other papers that attracted marked attention in Europe was one "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," written in 1861 and published in 1864. Laplace's modification of Newton's formula had been questioned by eminent English mathematicians and physicists. Dr. Le Conte showed that the obscurity into which the subject had been thrown was due to misconception of the physical theory of Laplace, and to the difficulties and obscurities which invest the mathematical theory of partial differential equations in their application to physical questions. This paper evoked replies from Profs. Challis, Earnshaw, and Potter, in England; but the American physicist's position is generally accepted today. The paper is a model of exact physical reasoning. In addition to the discussion of Laplace's views, it contains an original investigation of the bearing of the phenomena attending the propagation of sound in air on the question whether the gases constituting our atmosphere are in a state of mixture or of combination.

Just before the close of the war the home of Dr. Le Conte was included in the belt of desolation that was left by General Sherman's march through South Carolina. Among the losses by fire was the manuscript of a volume on general physics, the product of Dr. Le Conte's many years of experience as a teacher and student of this subject. The tribulations of the reconstruction period in South Carolina during the years following the war made scientific investigation impossible. The political turmoil, and the inauguration of the rule of ignorance and vice in place of intelligence, left no refuge but expatriation for those whose occupations depended upon the embellishments of civilization. To this source of disquietude was added the burden of domestic affliction in the loss of an only daughter in the bloom of early womanhood.

At this critical time came a call to the Pacific coast, to assume the chair of Physics and Industrial Mechanics in the University of California, which was then in the incipiency of its organization. The offer was accepted, and Dr. Le Conte arrived in San Francisco in April, 1869. Being immediately appointed acting president, he drew up the first prospectus of the university, in which was set forth a synopsis of the proposed courses of instruction. In September of the same year exercises were begun in temporary buildings at Oakland, where during the following summer he conferred the baccalaureate degree on three young men, and then retired from executive duties in order to build up more thoroughly his own department of work. On the resignation of President Gilman in 1875, Dr. Le Conte was induced again to assume the presidency, which he retained until June, 1881, but still performing the duties of his professorship. Since that date he has confined himself to his chair of Physics.

Through nearly the whole of life the two brothers, John and Joseph Le Conte, have been closely associated, each attaining eminence, the elder as a physicist, the younger as a geologist. The elder preceded the younger by six years at Franklin College, in Georgia. They went almost together to the South Carolina College, and likewise to the University of California. This fact has often led to their names becoming confounded by strangers.

Dr. Le Conte is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Philosophical Society and Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the California Academy of Sciences. To this list might be added various other bodies which have bestowed upon him honorary membership.

A list of some of the more important of Dr. Le Conte's published writings is appended. The entire list is too long for insertion, amounting to about a hundred papers.

Of the first dozen, which show the direction of his tastes as a physician, perhaps the most interesting is No. 9, in which by original experiments he proved that the alligator is able to execute deliberate and determinate movements after decapitation and even after destruction of the spinal cord.

In No. 10 he shows that the mortality from cancer has increased in modern times; that it augments regularly with increasing age, and that it is greater in France than in England. The same subject is pursued still further in No. 28 and No. 49, in which he shows important errors in the usual methods of interpreting vital statistics, and that the average mortality from cancer is fully three times as great among females as among males.

In No. 16 he gives the first rational explanation of a whole class of ice phenomena as manifested both in the ground and in plants. In No. 17 the investigation is continued, and from numerous experiments it is shown that many plants may be completely frozen without injury.

No. 19 is a criticism of Moseley's theory of the descent of glaciers, in which it is demonstrated that the descent can not be produced by expansions and contractions of the ice due to changes of temperature.

In No. 20 it is shown that Maury's theory of the winds is untenable. This conclusion is now universally accepted, great as was the value of Maury's work in the pioneer days of meteorology.

In No. 23 it is shown that solar light has no sensible influence on combustion. This paper, as well as Nos. 16 and 17, was extensively reproduced in Europe. The same remark applies to Nos. 24 and 26, which have been already discussed.

In Nos. 25 and 39 an account is given of investigations regarding the depth, transparency, and color-tints displayed in some remarkable bodies of water.

No. 35 contains the description and discussion of some unique experiments on the propagation of vibrations through water, the source of disturbance being explosions of great violence. The results were wholly new, and attracted much attention in Europe.

In Nos. 37 and 41 the principles of capillarity are very thoroughly discussed, and illustrated by some new experiments.

Many others of these papers might be summarized, but only by exceeding the limits of a brief biographical sketch.


1. "Case of Carcinoma of the Stomach" ("New York Medical Gazette," 1842).

2. "On the Mechanism of Vomiting" ("New York Lancet," 1842).

8. "On Carcinoma in General, and Cancer of the Stomach" (ibid., 1842).

4. "On the Explanation of the Difference in Size of the Male and Female Urinary Bladder" (ibid., 1842).

5. "An Essay on the Origin of Syphilis" ("New York Journal of Medical and Collateral Sciences," 1844).

6. "Remarks on Cases of Inflamed Knee-Joint" (ibid., 1844).

7. "Extraordinary Effects of a Stroke of Lightning.—Singular Phenomena" (ibid., 1844).

8. Observations on Geophagy "(Southern Medical and Surgical Journal," 1845).

9. "Experiments illustrating the Seat of Volition in the Alligator, or Crocodilus Lucius of Cuvier. With Strictures on the Reflex Theory" ("New York Journal of Medical and Collateral Sciences," 1845 and 1846).

10. "Statistical Researches on Cancer" ("Southern Medical and Surgical Journal," 1846).

11. "On the Quarantine Regulations at Savannah, Ga." ("New York Journal of Medical and Collateral Sciences," 1846).

12. "Remarks on the Physiology of the Voice" ("Southern Medical and Surgical Journal," 1846.

13. "Dr. Bennet Dowler's Contributions to the Natural History of the Alligator" (ibid., 1847).

14. "On Sulphuric Ether" (ibid., 1847).

15. "The Philosophy of Medicine: An Address" (ibid., 1849).

16. "Observations on a Remarkable Exudation of Ice from the Stems of Vegetables, and on a Singular Protrusion of Icy Columns from Certain Kinds of Earth during Frosty Weather" ("Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science," 1850; also, "Philosophical Magazine," 1850). 17. "Observations on the Freezing of Vegetables, and on the Causes which enable some Plants to endure the Action of Extreme Cold" ("American Journal of Science," 1852; also "Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science," 1851).

18. "On the Venomous Serpents of Georgia" ("Southern Medical and Surgical Journal," 1853).

19. "On the Descent of Glaciers" ("American Journal of Science," 1855).

20. "Review of Lieutenant M. F. Maury's Work on the 'Physical Geography of the Sea'" ("Southern Quarterly Review," 1856).

21. "The Mechanical Agencies of Heat" (ibid., 1856).

22. "Influence of the Study of the Physical Sciences on the Imaginative Faculties." An Inaugural Address, delivered December 1, 1857 (Columbia, S. C, 1858).

23. "Preliminary Researches on the Alleged Influence of Solar Light on the Process of Combustion" ("American Journal of Science," 1857; also, "Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science," 1857; and "Philosophical Magazine," 1858).

24. "On the Influence of Musical Sounds on the Flame of a Jet of Coal-Gas" ("American Journal of Science," 1858; "Philosophical Magazine," 1858).

25. "On the Optical Phenomena presented by the Silver Spring in Marion County, Florida (U. S.)," ("American Journal of Science," 1861; also, "Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science," 1860).

26. "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" ("Philosophical Magazine," 1864).

27. "Limiting Velocity of Meteoric Stones reaching the Surface of the Earth" ("Nature," 1871).

28. "Vital Statistics: Illustrated by the Laws of Mortality from Cancer" ("Western Lancet," 1872).

29. "Heat generated by Meteoric Stones in traversing the Atmosphere" ("Nature," 1872).

30. "The Nebular Hypothesis" ("Popular Science Monthly," 1873).

31. Articles on "Bonanza," "Comstock Lode," and "Death Valley," in "Johnson's Cyclopædia," vol. iv, Appendix, 1876.

32. "Mars and his Moons" ("Popular Science Monthly," 1879).

33. "Origin and Distribution of Lakes; Meteorology of the Pacific Coast" ("Mining and Scientific Press" and Supplement, 1880-'81).

34. "Influence of Modern Methods of popularizing Science" ("Berkeleyan," 1882).

35. "Sound-Shadows in Water" ("American Journal of Science," 1882; also, "Philosophical Magazine," 1882).

36. "Origin of Jointed Structures in Undisturbed Clay and Marl Deposits" ("American Journal of Science," 1882).

37. "Apparent Attractions and Repulsions of Small Floating Bodies" ("American Journal of Science," 1882; also, "Philosophical Magazine," 1882).

38. "Amount of Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere" ("Philosophical Magazine," 1882).

39. "Physical Studies of Lake Tahoe" ("Overland Monthly," three papers, 1883-1884).

40. "The Part played by Accident in Discoveries" ("Berkeleyan," 1884).

41. "Horizontal Motions of Small Floating Bodies, in relation to the Validity and Postulates of the Theory of Capillarity" ("American Journal of Science," 1384; also, "Journal de Physique," 1885).

42. "Criticism of Bassnett's Theory of the Sun" ("Overland Monthly," 1885).

43. "The Evidence of the Senses" ("North American Review," 1885).

44. "The Metric System" ("Overland Monthly," 1885).

45. "Thought Transference" (ibid., 1885).

46. "Barometer Exposure" ("Science," 1886).

47. "Electrical Phenomena on a Mountain" (ibid., 1887).

48. "Standing Tiptoe; a Mechanical Problem" (ibid., 1887).

49. "Vital Statistics, and the True Coefficient of Mortality, illustrated by Cancer" ("Tenth Biennial Report of the State Board of Health of California," 1888).

50. "The Decadence of Truthfulness" (1889).

About fifty additional papers are omitted from this list.