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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 872

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This is the grave of John LeConte.

Born in 1825 in New York, LeConte grew up in one of the nation’s leading scientific families. His father, also named John, was an important botanist and later developed a great interest in the turtles of North America. John Jr.’s mother died shortly after his birth, though not of childbirth (directly at least) and he was raised by his father, who never remarried. Yet, despite his family’s prestige, he did not attend a fancy college, instead graduating from Mount Saint Mary College in Maryland and then the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

The family was loaded. Like a lot of northern wealth, that money was based in southern slavery. LeConte’s uncle had a big plantation in Georgia and he had spent a lot of time there. So he never had to really bother practicing as a doctor. Instead, he spent his time like his father and other family members, exploring the natural world of the United States. He wasn’t the only one of his generation to go in this direction. His cousin Joseph became a well-known geologist who later worked with John Muir. John and Joseph spent a summer traversing the Great Lakes and Ohio River in a birchbark canoe. While on this trip, LeConte started collecting beetle species. Soon after, he published his first papers on beetles, really the first American to take the animals seriously in an academic way.

LeConte went on to become the nation’s leading expert on beetles and one of the founding entomologists in the United States. He would travel the nation and world collecting beetles, preserving them in vats of alcohol and shipping them back east. Basing himself out of Philadelphia, he attached himself to several exploratory missions into the American West and with railroad crews (probably serving as a doctor) so he could collect beetles and traveled to Honduras and Egypt for beetle study as well. During the Civil War, unlike much of his family (including his cousin Joseph), LeConte did not commit treason in defense of slavery. Instead, he was a surgeon with the California volunteers and became a lieutenant colonel. He continued his beetle work after the war. Hundreds of species of beetles are named after him, as is a mineral he discovered while searching for bat guano in a Honduran cave. His work was not all discovery. He wrote quite a bit on the crop damage caused by insects, for instance. Most of his major publications were classifications of beetles, as one would expect from the founder of such a field in the nation.

Later in life, LeConte got a nice patronage job as the head of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. I don’t know if he needed the money by this point, since he certainly could burn through cash on his travels. He had married well too; his wife was the daughter of Supreme Court justice Robert Grier and may have inherited money that way as well. Just don’t know though. Anyway, he held that position until his death in 1883. He was 58 years old. His papers reside at the American Philosophical Society, which he was closely affiliated with for decades.

John LeConte is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. This was an example of the benefit of a chatty grave. I’d never heard of him before and don’t know a heck of a lot about beetles myself. But hey, I was interested!

I suppose some of you would expect some famous politician or Revolutionary War leader on July 4. But I’d rather talk about beetles.

If you would like this series to cover other entomologists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Samuel Hubbard Scudder, who was also known for his paleontology work, is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Ann Haven Morgan, who was a scholar of the mayfly before moving on to more general zoology, is in New London, Connecticut. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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