Especially interested in comparative anatomy, Holbrook developed a desire to study reptiles and amphibians, and by the mid-1820s he had begun a book describing all of the known snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, and toads in the United States.
Physician, naturalist. Holbrook was born in Beaufort on December 30, 1794, the son of Silas Holbrook, a schoolteacher, and Mary Edwards. Reared in North Wrentham (later incorporated into Norfolk), Massachusetts, Holbrook attended Day’s Academy. He graduated from Brown University in 1815 and enrolled in the medical program of the University of Pennsylvania. Sometime after receiving a medical degree in 1818, Holbrook attended medical lectures at the University of Edinburgh and then in Paris, where he made friends with several prominent naturalists. He returned to the United States in 1822 and soon thereafter established a medical practice in Charleston. In 1824 he became the professor of anatomy at the Medical College of South Carolina and, a decade later, at the newly established Medical College of the State of South Carolina, where he remained until his retirement in 1860. Held in high esteem by his students, Holbrook continued to treat private patients. On May 3, 1827, he married Harriott Pinckney Rutledge. The couple had no children.
Especially interested in comparative anatomy, Holbrook developed a desire to study reptiles and amphibians, and by the mid-1820s he had begun a book describing all of the known snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, and toads in the United States. This effort resulted in North American Herpetology, first published in four volumes between 1836 and 1840 and later revised and expanded into five volumes in 1842. The first comprehensive work on the reptiles and amphibians of North America, mainly those inhabiting the country east of the Mississippi River, it contained beautiful illustrations, mostly done from live specimens. Providing twenty-five taxa, or scientific descriptions, new to science, North American Herpetology quickly gained international notice, and its influence endures.
Soon after publishing that volume, Holbrook turned to fishes and in 1847 published the first part of his Southern Ichthyology; or A Description of the Fishes Inhabiting the Waters of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. A second part of this appeared in 1848. Realizing that he must narrow the scope of his work, Holbrook decided to restrict his study to South Carolina. Between 1855 and 1857 he published parts of a volume titled Ichthyology of South Carolina, but a fire destroyed the plates before many copies of a bound volume were printed. Holbrook then had new and improved plates produced, and a new edition appeared in 1860. Meanwhile Holbrook had published three journal articles on fishes. Altogether, he established ten new taxa of fishes, which, along with his descriptions of reptiles and amphibians, made Holbrook one of the greatest of the pioneering American naturalists. The National Academy of Sciences elected him to membership in 1868.
Although he was raised in the Northeast and had close relatives living in New England, Holbrook actively supported the South during the Civil War and even served for a time as a field surgeon for the Confederacy. He died at the home of a relative in Norfolk, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1871.
Anderson, William D., Jr. “John Edwards Holbrook’s Senckenberg Plates and the Fishes They Portray.” Archives of Natural History 30 (2003): 1–12.
Anderson, William D., Jr., and Lester D. Stephens. “John Edwards Holbrook (1794–1871) and His Southern Ichthyology (1847–1848).” Archives of Natural History 29 (2002): 317–32.
Stephens, Lester D. “John Edwards Holbrook (1794–1871) and Lewis Reeve Gibbes (1810–1894): Exemplary Naturalists in the Old South.” In Collection Building in Ichthyology and Herpetology, edited by Theodore W. Pietsch and William D. Anderson, Jr. Lawrence, Kans.: American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, 1997.
–––. Science, Race, and Religion in the American South: John Bachman and the Charleston Circle of Naturalists, 1815–1895. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.