Joseph Le Conte’s grave

Joseph Le Conte (1823–1901) is probably the most eminent geologist in Mountain View Cemetery. Born in Georgia to a wealthy family, he graduated from the University of Georgia in 1841 and earned an M.D. in New York in 1845. Five years later he gave up his practice in Macon to study geology and zoology at Harvard under Louis Agassiz, earning a B.S. in 1851. He then taught geology at three different universities, then endured the Civil War on the losing side, before riding the transcontinental railroad to Oakland in 1869, where he became the first professor of geology at UC Berkeley and his brother John the acting president, later a professor of physics. He spent the rest of his life here. The Cal paleo museum has a page about his role during this time. A much longer memoir, by Cal botanist Eugene Hilgard, was published by the National Academy of Sciences in 1907 and is fascinating reading.

In 1870 he first visited the Sierra Nevada, a six-week excursion on horseback, and traveled the West extensively thereafter. He moved with his family to Berkeley in 1874; “He always greatly admired and enjoyed the site of the university and town,” Hilgard says. The next year he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Le Conte’s textbook Elements of Geology was published in 1878 and went through four editions before his death. He was a dedicated and brilliant teacher who once said, “We never know any subject perfectly until we teach it.” As a writer, I can relate to that.

He died of heart failure in his beloved Yosemite Valley, which he was showing to his eldest daughter, on 6 July 1901. The funeral was a week later. “Many came from long distances to pay this last tribute of respect to Joseph Le Conte; the regents, faculties, and students of the university, where all activities had been suspended for the day, and a long line of carriages formed an imposing procession, accompanying the body to Mountain View Cemetery, near Oakland, where it was interred alongside of his brother John. A few months later the grave was marked with a large granite boulder procured by the Sierra Club from the vicinity of the camp where he died, in the Yosemite Valley.” So the “Yosemite” engraved on the stone must refer to the place where he died. Among his achievements, Le Conte was a founder of the Sierra Club.

Hilgard wrote of him, “It was Le Conte who through whom the University of California first became known to the outside world as a school and center of science on the western border of the continent; and for a number of years he almost alone kept it in view of the world of science. His presence and connection with the University was largely instrumental in attracting to it other men who otherwise would have hesitated to emigrate from their eastern homes to what was then the outskirts of civilization; and his ceaseless scientific activity acted as a strong stimulus both to his colleagues and to the students coming under his instruction, whose affection and esteem remained with him through life. . . . His modesty and simplicity survived, unscathed, the applause and laudations bestowed upon him, and his strong will and cheerful disposition carried him up to a mature age in undiminished mental vigor, despite an apparently frail body.”

7 Responses to “Joseph Le Conte’s grave”

  1. Andrew Alden Says:

    I revisited Le Conte in this post from 2020, “Black geology matters.”

  2. Andrew Alden Says:

    And now UC Berkeley has taken down the name of Le Conte Hall, the physics department building, which was named for both Joseph and John Le Conte. See the Berkeleyside today.

  3. Andrew Alden Says:

    Another critical look at Le Conte was published last year in Boom California: The Golden State’s Scientific White Supremacist

  4. Andrew Says:

    I recently became aware of efforts to remove Le Conte’s name from features that honored him: Le Conte Hall at UC Berkeley and Le Conte Elementary School and Le Conte Street in Berkeley. In fact, Le Conte came from a wealthy (i.e. slave-holding) family, remained a staunch supporter of Secession, despaired of the fiasco of Reconstruction, and shared the widespread belief in the inherent inferiority of Africans.

    I approve of those efforts. Geologists will continue to acknowledge Le Conte’s contributions to their science, whether or not a building bears his name.

  5. Andrew Says:

    Apropos of 19th-century geology in California, I was pointed to Up and Down California, a blog reposting every day of the Whitney expedition of 1860-61. Today they reached the New Idria mining district.

  6. nicole fitzhugh Says:

    There’s a ship named after him on the Alaskan Inner Passage Marine Highway Route as well.

  7. theparsley Says:

    Wonderful story. Looks like he died doing what he loved.

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