McCrady, John

October 15, 1831–October 16, 1881

Of McCrady’s taxa (scientific descriptions), two families, five genera, and thirteen species are valid today. McCrady’s detailed and clear descriptions and his excellent illustrations are especially notable. Widely recognized in his field, McCrady’s name is affixed to several species described by later zoologists.

Naturalist. McCrady was born in Charleston on October 15, 1831, the third of fourteen children of the attorney Edward McCrady and Louisa Rebecca Lane. After receiving his basic education in Charleston, McCrady attended the College of Charleston from 1846 to 1850. A superior student, he was strongly influenced by the Charleston lectures of Louis Agassiz and, at various times between 1852 and 1855, attended the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard College to study with that renowned naturalist. On September 1, 1859, he married Sarah Dismukes. The couple had six children.

Although he published some descriptions of fossil echinoderms and presented papers on other topics, McCrady was mainly interested in hydrozoans and jellyfish. In fact, his lengthy monograph “Gymnopthalmata of Charleston Harbor,” which was presented before Charleston’s Elliott Society of Natural History in 1857 and later published in the first volume of the proceedings of that society, earned him an enduring place as a pioneer in hydrozoan zoology. Of McCrady’s taxa (scientific descriptions), two families, five genera, and thirteen species are valid today. McCrady’s detailed and clear descriptions and his excellent illustrations are especially notable. Widely recognized in his field, McCrady’s name is affixed to several species described by later zoologists.

While his scientific studies, most of which he presented before the Elliott Society, were acknowledged by his Charleston peers, McCrady gained wider recognition during the late 1850s as a proponent of a science of racial differences. Though later refuted as unscientific, his publications won acclaim among defenders of slavery. Rejecting the sound scientific arguments of his fellow Charlestonian and noted mammalogist John Bachman that all humans constitute a single species, McCrady followed his teacher Agassiz in maintaining that the nonwhite races were separate and inferior creations. McCrady’s essays, published in Charleston’s Russell’s Magazine and elsewhere, represented the efforts of an able naturalist to articulate a cultural position in scientific terms.

A passionate champion of secession, McCrady served as an officer in the army of the Confederacy. Devastated by the failure of the movement, he suffered severe depression and eventually resigned the faculty post he had held at the College of Charleston since 1855. Recognizing him as a brilliant student of science, however, Agassiz persuaded McCrady in 1873 to accept a position at Harvard’s prestigious Museum of Comparative Zoology. Agassiz died a few months later, and McCrady became professor of zoology at Harvard. Frequently ill and troubled by his perception that Yankee supporters and liberal religious views prevailed at Harvard, McCrady resigned in 1877 and joined the faculty of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He devoted much of his time to formulating what he called a law of development and to criticizing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

After another illness, McCrady died in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 16, 1881. His body was returned to Sewanee for burial. Although he believed that he had been largely forgotten, McCrady left a lasting legacy through his contributions to science.

Stephens, Lester D. 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.

Stephens, Lester D., and Dale R. Calder. “John McCrady of South Carolina: Pioneer Student of North American Hydrozoa.” Archives of Natural His- tory 19 (1992): 39–54.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title McCrady, John
  • Coverage October 15, 1831–October 16, 1881
  • Author
  • Keywords Naturalist, influenced by the Charleston lectures of Louis Agassiz, hydrozoans and jellyfish, “Gymnopthalmata of Charleston Harbor,”, served as an officer in the army of the Confederacy, became professor of zoology at Harvard,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date October 25, 2020
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 20, 2016
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