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Joseph LeConte: Scientist and Savant (1823 - 1901)

On his first visit to Yosemite in July 1870, the renowned geologist and teacher Joseph LeConte watched the sun rise from Glacier Point. The shadow of sun-capped Half Dome stretched clear across the valley before him, and directly opposite, he could see the "gauzy veil of Yosemite Falls."

More than 3,000 feet below his vantage point, the Merced River wound its "lazy serpentine way" through meadows and forests. "I have heard and read much about this wonderful valley," he wrote in his journal, "but I can truly say I have never imagined the grandeur of the reality."

So began a lifetime of commitment to the preservation of the wild and beautiful Sierra Nevada, which noted writer and explorer John Muir called the "Range of Light." LeConte's first trip to Yosemite also sparked an enduring friendship with John Muir. As a scientist, Joseph LeConte validated the idea of the glacial origins of Yosemite Valley as originally advanced by John Muir. In 1892, they joined forces with several like-minded friends to found the Sierra Club.

A native of Georgia, LeConte received the degree of Doctor of Medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. After setting up practice in Macon, Georgia, Le Conte realized that his first love was research and teaching. He took up the study of geology with Dr. Louis Agassiz at Harvard for a year before beginning his teaching career at the University of Georgia.

During the Civil War, he taught chemistry and geology at South Carolina College. After the war, because "rebels" were not eligible for employment, LeConte traveled west and, with his brother John, took part in the organization of the University of California. With considerable prescience, LeConte remarked at the time, "This University is destined to be one of the greatest in the land."

The move to California marked a new and exciting change in his life. He later wrote, "Those early years in California were very active ones for me; the wonderful new country, so different from any I had previously seen, the climate, the splendid scenery, the active, energetic people, and the magnificent field for scientific, and especially for geologic investigations, stimulating my intellectual activity to the highest degree."

Summer after summer, LeConte returned to Yosemite to conduct scientific research and to renew his spirit. Renowned for his prolific scholarship, LeConte published many works on geology, including a standard textbook, Elements of Geology, that was used for years by college students.

His students responded to his winning personality and lauded both his teaching skills and his scholarly abilities. In 1874, LeConte was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a scientist. In 1891, he served as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Joseph LeConte was a charter member of the Sierra Club, and served on the board of directors from 1892-1898. Later, his son, Joseph N. LeConte ("Little Joe"), succeeded him as a board member until 1940.

LeConte died in Yosemite Valley in 1901 at the age of 76 on the eve of the Club's first High Trip, which was inspired by A Journal of Ramblings Through the High Sierra, his account of his first trip to Yosemite 31 years earlier. Trip participant Edward T. Parsons remembered seeing LeConte--before he fell ill--standing on a rock in the spray of lower Yosemite Falls. He "raised his arms aloft and shouted in the exuberance of his joy and delight at the magnificent spectacle before him."

The Sierra Club built, in 1903-04, the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley as a lasting tribute to this great man.

More about Joseph LeConte


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