Scientist, educator. LeConte was born in Liberty County, Georgia, on December 4, 1818, the eldest surviving son of the planter and naturalist Louis LeConte and Ann Quarterman. Reared on a large plantation, LeConte received most of his early education at home. He graduated from the University of Georgia in 1838 and enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York the next year. Soon after receiving the M.D. degree in 1841, he established a medical practice in Savannah, Georgia. Married to Eleanor Josephine Graham in 1841, he had three children.
During his years in Savannah, LeConte wrote several scholarly articles, and in 1846 the University of Georgia appointed him as professor of natural philosophy (chemistry and physics). While there, he published an admirable study of the formation of extruding ice columns in frozen soil. Following disputes with university administrators in 1855, LeConte resigned and returned to the College of Physicians and Surgeons as a lecturer. A year later he moved to Columbia, South Carolina, to become professor of natural philosophy at South Carolina College. During his tenure in Columbia, LeConte continued his scientific inquiries, including a notable paper on the effects of musical sounds on a gas-jet flame, published in 1858. At the request of the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, LeConte and his brother Joseph, by then also on the South Carolina College faculty, began to develop a table of the “Constants of Nature,” and they drafted the manuscript of a textbook in college chemistry.
As the secession movement gained momentum in South Carolina, LeConte expressed opposition, but when the crisis worsened, he changed his position. Heir to a large portion of his late father’s plantation, including sixty slaves, LeConte readily consented to aid the Confederacy. During the Civil War he supervised the Nitre and Mining Bureau operations in upper South Carolina. As Union troops neared Columbia early in 1865, LeConte and his brother were charged with responsibility for removing the Nitre and Mining Bureau equipment, but Federal troops intercepted and plundered their wagon train. When he returned to Columbia, LeConte found his family safe and his home intact, but he soon learned that his manuscripts and other papers had been destroyed in the fire that devastated a considerable portion of Columbia.
Discouraged by his losses and displeased with the state of affairs in South Carolina during the ensuing months, LeConte sought employment elsewhere. In 1869 he became professor of physics at the newly established University of California, where he successfully performed his duties for two decades, including service as acting president in 1869 and as president from 1875 to 1881. Although less productive in scholarly writing during his years in California, he published several important scientific articles. LeConte was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1878. He died in his home in Berkeley, California, on April 29, 1891.
Lupold, John. “From Physician to Physicist: The Scientific Career of John LeConte, 1818–1891.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1970.
Stephens, Lester D. Joseph LeConte: Gentle Prophet of Evolution. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.