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Abstract

Leo Lesquereux emigrated from his native Switzerland to Ohio in 1848, and quickly established himself as one of America's foremost bryologists and paleobotanists. Working with the state geological surveys of Pennsylvania and several states in the Mississippi Valley, he contributed some of the earliest descriptions of the Carboniferous flora in North America and helped flesh out the basic geology of coal formation.

The autobiography of Leo Lesquereux provides an engaging account of the early life of one of Victorian America's best known bryologists and paleobotanists. Consisting of 14 letters addressed to his friend, J. Peter Lesley, the letters cover only the years between Lesquereux's childhood in Switzerland and his emigration to the United States in 1848. Written after his retirement at the age of 78, they shed light on his education, the illness that led to his loss of hearing, and his studies of peat deposits in Europe, and they provide short vignettes about watchmaking and about his peers Louis and August Agassiz and Arnold Guyot.

Background note

A bryologist and pioneering paleobotanist of the American coal measures, Leo Lesquereux was born in Fleurier, Switzerland, on November 18, 1806, the son of Aimé Lesquereux and his wife Marie Anne. From early in life, Leo exhibited an unusual propensity for enduring physical and financial adversity and overcoming it with aplomb. As a boy, for example, he suffered a fall while climbing rocks near home that left him mangled and comatose, but within months he recovered and resumed in his passion for the outdoors undeterred.

A shy and indifferent student, Lesquereux studied with the village priest in Fleurier and nearby Motiers until he was 13. Although he initially wished to follow his father's trade of watchmaker, he was instead sent to study for the ministry at the College at Neuchâtel, entering the second class with Arnold Guyot and August Agassiz (brother of Louis), who became fast friends. But while Guyot and Agassiz soon distinguished themselves academically, Lesquereux struggled with the demands of school, which were exacerbated by the need to work as a tutor for as much as four hours a day in order to earn his keep. He had only begun to hit his stride academically in the year before his graduation in 1827, only to find that his family's financial troubles would force him to suspend his plans for further study.

With the assistance of one of his instructors in philosophy, Lesquereux secured a position teaching French in an upper class household in Eisenach, Saxony, intending to earn the money himself to continue toward the ministry. Although his days were fully occupied with his duties, Lesquereux found that he had time to socialize in the afternoons and evenings, and he became accepted in the high society of the Saxon nobility. The most concrete outcome of this experience was his engagement to Sophia von Wolffskeel, the daughter of one a decorated Napoleonic General and one of Goethe's confidantes, Henriette von Wolffskeel.

With finances presenting an obstacle to marriage, Lesquereux returned home in the hopes of bettering himself. Taking a position as instructor at the college at La Chaux de Fonds in the Jura Mountains, he was well enough established by July 1830 to return to Eisenach to marry, but in a pattern repeated throughout his life, his moment of success was soon followed by hardship. Two years after marrying, Lesquereux took seriously ill and suffered partial impairment of hearing, and during the course of treatments for his condition, his Eustachian tubes burst. Left profoundly deaf, Lesquereux was forced to abandon teaching, and after a period of being supported by his wife, he joined his father engraving watches and tempering watch springs.

During these difficult years, Lesquereux developed a interest in natural history, and gained a small reputation in bryology as a diligent collector of rare mosses. In search of sphagnum and other species, Lesquereux became familiar with the peat deposits that line the high Jura valleys, and when he learned of a prize offered by his canton for the best essay on the origin and use of peat, he seized the opportunity. Joining the natural historical society of Neuchâtel recently founded by Louis Agassiz, Lesquereux devised a special augur for sampling peat, and began researching fundamental issues in its origin, composition, and development of peat deposits, taking careful measurements of internal temperatures, analyzing structures, and for the first time demonstrating the deformation of sphagnum under pressure. The cantonal commission which oversaw the prize, headed by Agassiz, awarded him a gold medal, and Lesquereux's report, Quelques Recherches sur les Marais Tourbeux en Général (1844) -- his first publication of any kind -- was given wide distribution.

Beginning in July 1845, with the money earned from this award, Lesquereux extended his studies to include peat deposits and low grade coal formations across northern Europe, winning additional support from the Prussian government interested in the economic potential. During this time, Lesquereux encountered specimens of fossil plants from the coal measures for the first time while visiting the laboratory of Wilhelm Schimper at Strasburg, and began to branch out in his interests.

When Lesquereux lost his position during the revolutions of 1848, he chose to follow Louis Agassiz and Guyot to the United States, bringing his family with him. After a brief stay in Cambridge, where Agassiz was unable to secure an appointment for him, Lesquereux settled in Columbus, Ohio, and returned to selling watches. After an initial period of financial duress, the now middle-aged paleobotanist set about earning the funds to enable his return to science. His impact on American bryology and paleobotany followed closely. Lesquereux's Musci Americani Exsiccata (1856), written with William S. Sullivant, was an important contribution to American bryology, and on the strength of this work, he and Sullivant were given the opportunity to describe the mosses collected on the Wilkes Expedition (1828-1842) and the Amiel Whipple Expedition along the 35th parallel (1853). His two volume Icones Muscorum (1864) was an important summary of mosses in the eastern United States.

In paleobotany, Lesquereux's contribution was equally fundamental. Working with the state geological surveys in the Midwest and south, he contributed pioneering analyses of the Paleozoic floras of Arkansas, Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, and the Dakotas, and his Catalogue of the Fossil ... from the Coal Measures of North America, prepared for the First Pennsylvania Geological Survey in 1858, was the first work to attempt a comprehensive survey of the rich Carboniferous flora of the state. His Description of the Coal Flora of the Carboniferous Formation (3 vols., 1879-1884), written for the second Geological Survey, became the standard work on the subject.

Lesquereux was elected a member of the APS in January 1861 and a member of the National Academy of Sciences three years later. He remained active in research well into his 70s, curtailing field work only when he retired in 1884. He died five years later on October 20, 1889.

Scope and content

The autobiography of Leo Lesquereux provides an engaging account of the early life of one of Victorian America's best known bryologists and paleobotanists. Consisting of 14 letters addressed to his friend, J. Peter Lesley, the letters cover only the years between Lesquereux's childhood in Switzerland and his emigration to the United States in 1848. Written after his retirement at the age of 78, they shed light on his education, the illness that led to his loss of hearing, and his studies of peat deposits in Europe, and they provide short vignettes about watchmaking and about his peers Louis and August Agassiz and Arnold Guyot.

Each of the letters was copied, presumably by Lesley. These were apparently used by Lesley as a resource in preparing his obituaries of Lesquereux in 1890 and 1895. The autobiography also includes two cartes de visite of Lesquereux, taken in 1864 and 1879.

Collection information

Provenance

Gift of Mrs. Leila Jackson Poullada, 2000.

Preferred citation

Cite as: Leo Lesquereux Autobiography, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Catalogued by rsc, 2003.

Related material

Lesquereux correspondence appears in the papers of Louis Agassiz (B Ag12), John L. LeConte (B L493), J. Peter Lesley (B L56), and Jacob Stauffer (B St15).

The papers of Lesquereux's collaborators William S. Sturtivant and Lousi Agassiz are available at Harvard University.

Bibliography

Lesley, J. Peter, "Obituary Notice of Leo Lesquereux," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 28 (1890): 65-70.

Lesley, J. Peter, "Memoir of Leo Lesquereux," Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 3 (1895): 187-212.

Indexing Terms

Genre(s)

  • Autobiography

Geographic Name(s)

  • Germany--Description and travel--19th century
  • Prussia--Description and travel--19th century

Personal Name(s)

  • Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873
  • Guyot, A., (Arnold), 1807-1884
  • Lesley, J. P., (J. Peter), 1819-1903
  • Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889

Subject(s)

  • Bryology
  • Coal--Geology
  • Paleobotanists
  • Peat bogs
  • Swiss--United States
Collection overview
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALsS to J. Peter Lesley
1885-1886 14 letters Request Series
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALsS Cy to J. Peter Lesley
1885-1886 14 letters Request Series

Copies of Lesquereux's autobiographical letters made by J. Peter Lesley.

Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
Cartes de visite
1864-1879 1 folder Request Series
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
Wrappers for letters
ca.1886 1 folder Request Series

Original wrappers in which letters were housed, with notes on front by Lesley and another hand.



Detailed Inventory
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALsS to J. Peter Lesley
1885-1886 14 letters Request Series
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #1
1885 December 21 5p. Folder 1
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #2
1886 January 21 11p. Folder 1
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #3
1886 February 3 10p. Folder 1
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #4
1886 February 9 14p. Folder 2
Request Item

Includes lithograph depicting Eisenach

Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #5
1886 February 19 7p. Folder 2
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #6
1886 March 2 12p. Folder 3
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #7
1886 March 18 8p. Folder 3
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #8
1886 March 26 8p. Folder 3
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #9
1886 April 3 10p. Folder 4
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #10
1886 April 7 13p. Folder 4
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #11
1886 April 14 12p. Folder 5
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #12
1886 April 24 14p. Folder 5
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #13
1886 May 7 14p. Folder 6
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS to J. Peter Lesley #14
1886 May 20 20p. Folder 7
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALsS Cy to J. Peter Lesley
1885-1886 14 letters Request Series

Copies of Lesquereux's autobiographical letters made by J. Peter Lesley.

Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS Cy to J. Peter Lesley #1-3
1885 Dec. 21-1886 Feb. 3 pp.1-39 Folder 1
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS Cy to J. Peter Lesley #4-5
1886 Feb. 9-Feb. 19 pp.40-67 Folder 2
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS Cy to J. Peter Lesley #6-8
1886 March 2-March 26 pp.68-106 Folder 3
Request Item

NB: letter of March 18 misdated as March 11.

Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS Cy to J. Peter Lesley #9-10
1886 April 3-April 7 pp.107-136 Folder 4
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS Cy to J. Peter Lesley #11-12
1886 April 14-April 24 pp.137-175 Folder 5
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS Cy to J. Peter Lesley #13
1886 May 7 pp.176-195 Folder 6
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
ALS Cy to J. Peter Lesley #14
1886 May 18 pp.196-226 Folder 7
Request Item
Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
Cartes de visite
1864-1879 1 folder Request Series
Clarke's Union Photographic Gallery.
Carte de visite of Leo Lesquereux, New York
1864 1 item Request Item
Elliott and Armstead.
Carte de visite of Leo Lesquereux, Columbus, Ohio
1879 1 item Request Item
Leo Lesquereux, portrait, bust
1864 1.0 Item(s) Request Item

Abstract: Bust length, 3/4 view of Lesquereux.

Access digital object:
http://diglib.amphilsoc.org/fedora/repository/graphics:714

Lesquereux, Leo, 1806-1889.
Wrappers for letters
ca.1886 1 folder Request Series

Original wrappers in which letters were housed, with notes on front by Lesley and another hand.