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Joseph Leidy

AKA Joseph Mellick Leidy

Born: 9-Sep-1823
Birthplace: Philadelphia, PA
Died: 30-Apr-1891
Location of death: Philadelphia, PA
Cause of death: Stroke
Remains: Cremated

Gender: Male
Religion: Agnostic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Biologist, Educator, Paleontologist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Trichinosis and dinosaurs

Military service: US Army (Civil War)

As a boy Joseph Leidy rarely played with other children, preferring to explore woods and ponds, and often sketching the plants, bugs, and rocks he found. By the age of 16 he was working in a pharmacy, where his growing expertise in the medical applications of plants made him a valued employee. He first saw a microscope while attending medical school, and after expressing his delight with the machine, he received one as a birthday present from his mother. Suspicious of his breakfast ham, he examined it and discovered the cysts of Trichina spiralis, then determined that this parasite is the cause of trichinosis when meat is undercooked. "Cooking food", he wrote, "... secures us from many parasitic affections. If we could with as little objection treat the water we drink and the air we breathe in the same manner we would greatly diminish our liability to diseases."

He earned his MD at the age of 21, but practiced medicine for only three years before being drawn into a research career spanning several sciences. As a parasitologist, he wrote detailed descriptions of fungi and protozoa, and discovered and described more than 100 new species of intestinal parasites. He explained how houseflies can spread disease, and demonstrated that hookworm parasites in cats can cause anemia in humans. As a paleontologist, he described Poebrotherium wilsoni, an early camel fossil found in South Dakota, as well as the first relatively complete dinosaur skeleton, and his skill and training in anatomy allowed him to see the function of fossils, even in isolation. He was also a respected expert in anthropology, botany, human anatomy, protozoology, and mineralogy, and a skilled illustrator.

During the American Civil War, he returned to the practice of medicine, serving as a surgeon for the Union Army. In 1874 Leidy presented a human corpse to a Philadelphia museum -- colloquially called "Soap Lady", the body had been buried for at least several generations and had slowly transformed into a waxy, soap-like substance called adipocere. According to anecdotes, Leidy obtained the remains of this petrified woman from a cemetery's caretaker by pretending to be the corpse's grandson.

Before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Leidy had already written that environmental factors could cause alterations in organisms, and when Darwin's theory was published, Leidy was one of the theory's first and most enthusiastic supporters. He advocated cremation, especially in urban areas, for environmental reasons. He was a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences, the first President of the American Association of Anatomists, and the namesake of Mt Leidy in Wyoming.

Father: Phillip Leidy (hatter)
Mother: Catherine Mellick Leidy (d. 1824 childbirth)
Brother: Thomas Leidy
Mother: Christina Taliana Mellick Leidy (stepmother)
Wife: Anna Hardin Leidy (m. 1864)
Daughter: Alwina Leidy Noble ("Allie", b. 1870, adopted 1876, d. 1895)

    High School: William Mann's Classical Academy, Philadelphia, PA (1839)
    Medical School: University of Pennsylvania (1844)
    Teacher: Anatomy, University of Pennsylvania (1846-53)
    Professor: Anatomy, University of Pennsylvania (1853-84)
    Professor: Natural History, Swarthmore College (1871-85)
    Professor: Comparative Anatomy and Zoology, University of Pennsylvania (1884-91)

    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    American Association of Anatomists President (1888-89)
    American Philosophical Society
    National Academy of Sciences (charter member, 1863)
    Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences Chairman, Board of Curators (1846-91)
    Wagner Free Institute of Science President & Curator (1885-91)
    Zoological Society of Philadelphia (1876-91)
    German Ancestry
    Risk Factors: Smoking

Author of books:
On the Fossil Horses of America (1848)
Flora and Fauna within Living Animals (1853)
An Elementary Treatise on Human Anatomy (1861)
Cretaceous Reptiles of the United States (1865)
Extinct Fauna of Dakota and Nebraska (1869)
Fresh-Water Rhizopods of North America (1879)


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