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LEA, ISAAC (b. Wilmington, Delaware, 4 March
1792; d. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 8 December
Unlike those of some contemporaries, Lea's disputes
with fellow scientists were never acrimonious. He
thought Rafinesque's descriptions “very imperfect”;
and in a “rectification” of T. A. Conrad's errors and
omissions, he asserted his own claims to priority in
discoveries (1854). His report on the footprints of the
reptile Sauropus primaevus in the Old Red Sandstone
was disputed by Agassiz, who asserted that no air-breathing
animals had existed earlier than the new
Red Sandstone. Lea maintained his position in a
carefully argued and illustrated monograph, which
he ultimately reproduced in elephant folio, with a
lithograph of the footprint in actual size. Of some
importance then, the matter is of less concern now
that fossils of air-breathers have been found in other
Lea was a striking example of the self-taught
amateur who by single-minded attention to a limited
subject makes a comprehensive, basic, and lasting
contribution to knowledge. He expressed the spirit
that guided him in 1826: “To scrutinize the first cause
is vain; we must make ourselves acquainted with the
effects and compare them. In this we have ample
room to engage all our faculties.” Lea served as
president of the Academy of Natural Sciences,
vice-president of the American Philosophical Society
(where he was also chairman of the finance and publications
committees), and president of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science. He
received an honorary LL.D. from Harvard in 1852 and
was a member or fellow of a score of foreign academies.
On visits to England and Europe in 1832 and
1852-1853 he was warmly received by Alexander von
Humboldt, William Buckland, Charles Lyell, Roderick
Murchison, and Adam Sedgwick; and he inspected
and named specimens of Unionidae in the British
Museum, the Jardin des Plantes, and private collections.
Lea did his scientific work at the end of days filled
with business and social obligations. Having joined
Mathew Carey's publishing firm in 1821 after his
marriage to Carey's daughter Frances Anne, he
eventually became president, but retired in 1851. He
was rich, with the obligations that wealth entails.
Commenting on several unexpected family deaths
that left him in 1845 responsible for the children of
four relatives, he exclaimed to J. C. Jay, “God knows
when I shall have leisure to pursue my wishes in our
beautiful branch of Science.” Of his three children,
M. Carey Lea was a pioneer in photochemistry; and
Henry Charles Lea, whose first published paper was on
shells, became, after retiring from the publishing
firm, the historian of the Inquisition. Lea bequeathed
his collection, numbering nearly 10,000 specimens,
to the National Museum, Washington.
I. ORIGINAL WORKS.
Lea's contributions are analyzed
in Newton P. Scudder, Published Writings of Isaac Lea,
LL.D., Bulletin. United States National Museum, no. 23
(Washington, D.C., 1885). The Academy of Natural
Sciences of Philadelphia and the American Philosophical
Society Library possess correspondence used in this sketch.
Lea's journals of foreign travel are available on film at the
American Philosophical Society Library.
II. SECONDARY LITERATURE.
The principal biographical
sketch is by Newton P. Scudder, introducing Lea's Published
Writings, cited above. For other data see “A Sketch
of the History of Conchology in the United States,” in
American Journal of Science and Arts, 2nd ser., 33 (1862),
161-180; W. H. Dall, “Isaac Lea, LL.D.,” in Science,8
(17 Dec. 1886), 556-558; Joseph Leidy, “Biographical
Notice,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical
Society,24 (1887), 400-403; and W. J. Youmans, Pioneers
of Science in America (New York, 1896), 260-269.