Geologist, educator. LeConte was born in Liberty County, Georgia, on February 26, 1823, son of the planter and naturalist Louis LeConte and Ann Quarterman. After receiving most of his early education on his father’s large plantation, LeConte entered the University of Georgia in 1838 and graduated in 1841. He spent considerable time studying the natural history of his region. In 1844 he enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, and he received the M.D. degree in 1845. On January 14, 1847, LeConte married Caroline Elizabeth Nisbet, with whom he eventually had five children. Soon after his wedding, LeConte established a medical practice in Macon, Georgia.
Continuing to pursue his interest in natural history, LeConte decided in 1850 that he would study with the esteemed scientist Louis Agassiz at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard College. On completing the program in 1851, he became professor of chemistry and natural history at Oglethorpe College in Milledgeville, Georgia. A year later he joined the faculty of his alma mater as professor of geology and natural history. Like his brother John, who had been on the University of Georgia faculty since 1846, he found himself at odds with the president of the institution. Following his brother, who resigned in 1855, Joseph left in December 1856 for South Carolina College, where he served as professor of natural history.
Pleased with his situation in Columbia, LeConte endeared himself to his students, took an active part in the cultural affairs of the city, and published articles on topics in geology, religion, art, and education. His career was interrupted in 1861, however, when the Civil War began. Although he owned around sixty slaves and a large plantation inherited from his father, LeConte initially opposed secession. He offered his ardent support of the Confederacy, however, and served it by first helping to manufacture medicines and later by serving in the Nitre and Mining Bureau. As the war drew to a close, LeConte experienced harrowing encounters with Federal forces, and he recorded these in a journal that was published posthumously as’Ware Sherman in 1937.
After the war, LeConte busied himself with his teaching duties and with his writings, the most significant of which was a series of articles that became the basis for Sight: An Exposition of the Principles of Monocular and Binocular Vision. Published in 1881, it was the first full treatment of the subject in America. LeConte also continued to work on a book that appeared in 1873 as Religion and Science. In that work he endeavored to show that no significant conflicts exist between the two fields, and he indicated his emerging view of the validity of the theory of evolution. Meanwhile, in 1869, his concern over political conditions in South Carolina led him to follow his brother John to the University of California. During his tenure of three decades there, LeConte published scores of articles on many subjects, especially geology and the theory of evolution. He also published other books, the most influential of which were Elements of Geology and Evolution and Its Relation to Religious Thought. The former, published in 1877 and revised four times thereafter, became a widely used college textbook. The latter, published in 1888 and revised in 1891, solidified LeConte’s position as a leading advocate of harmonizing Christian beliefs with the theory of evolution.
Immensely popular as a teacher and a founding member of the Sierra Club, LeConte was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1875. He served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1891 and of the Geological Society of America in 1896. LeConte completed his autobiography shortly before his death on July 6, 1901, while on a camping trip in Yosemite.
Armes, W. D., ed. The Autobiography of Joseph LeConte. New York: D. Appleton, 1903.
Stephens, Lester D. Joseph LeConte: Gentle Prophet of Evolution. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.