Thursday, September 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Joseph Leidy

Joseph Leidy
Statue of Joseph Leidy at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Photo by Kerrins Giraffe, via Flickr.

Thanks to the always dependable Palaeoblog for reminding me that today is 19th century naturalist Joseph Leidy's birthday. I've been meaning for a long time to talk about him here, so I think I'll do a bit of that today.

Leidy, a central figure in the history of American paleontology, is sadly overshadowed by the outrageous stunts of Cope and Marsh in their bitter, public feud over the newly discovered fossil fields of the American west. Certainly, Leidy had an interest in dinosaurs; he was the first American scientist to describe a relatively complete skeleton, Hadrosaurus foulkii. A diligent scientist and by all accounts a reasonable, fair-minded man, Leidy seems to have been exhausted by his colleagues' antics. The obituary of Leidy in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences demurely mentions the bone wars without naming the names its readers would have easily recognized. "Great rivalry and many acrimonious disputes regarding priority and nomenclature arose so that rather than become entangled in controversy, Dr. Leidy gave up this work in which he had achieved such success and devoted himself to other fields of scientific work..."


A portrait of Leidy as a young man. Handsome devil, ain't he?

In her biography of Cope, Jane P. Davidson notes that the decision to yield to Cope and Marsh likely had to do as much with practical concerns as with personal distaste for the rivalry: they simply hogged the bone beds and the resources necessary to access them. Whatever the ultimate reason for backing off of paleontology in the 1870's, Leidy's interest in the natural world was such that choosing a single field to focus on must have been nearly impossible. A wide-ranging naturalist in the truest sense of the term, Leidy collected over 1500 specimens for the herbarium at the University of Pennsylvania. His mineralogical work led him to amass an impressive collection for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences which later was purchased by the Smithsonian. He's a huge figure in the history of parasitology as well, a proponent in the burgeoning use of the microscope in scientific research. There is no way I can do him justice in this space.

Cope and Marsh were talented scientists in their own right, of course. But the fact that Leidy didn't take part in their drama (nor in any other drama, from what I can tell) elevates him above the both of them, in my mind at least. Does he have as many named taxa under his belt as Marsh? Nope. But he also didn't have the advantages of The Great Dismal Swamp's* family fortune and political clout. Maybe it would have been advantageous to have Marsh on your side if you were a Gilded Age scientist. Maybe it would have been a kick to scheme and curse the scientific establishment with Cope. But Joseph Leidy's the guy I would have wanted as a mentor and a friend.

The Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, of which he was president, has a great online exhibit of Leidy's life and work, which you ought to visit. The introduction page closes with this quote from Leidy, which perfectly demonstrates why I hold him in such high regard.
"The study of natural history in the leisure of my life, since I was 14 years of age, has been to me a constant source of happiness; and my experience of it is such that independently of its higher merits, I warmly recommend it as a pastime, than which, I believe, no other can excel it."
* With a nickname like that, who wouldn't want to knock back a few brews with O.C. Marsh?

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