Joseph Leidy and The Little Turtles


Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

To celebrate the beginning of a new school year, I wanted to share some fond memories students had of the great scientist and teacher, Joseph Leidy (1823 – 1891), who also celebrated a birthday a few days ago on September 9th.  It is difficult to describe Leidy in such a short space.  Among many other things, he was America’s first vertebrate paleontologist and early explorer of the West for fossils of large extinct animals, parasitologist who discovered the source of trichinosis in undercooked pork, accomplished microscopist who was among the first to apply medical forensic evidence in a murder trial, scientific artist, and an all around nice guy (Warren 1998).  Leidy is largely lost to us today because he was a true and gracious gentleman, a misfortune in a world where scandalous personalities have an infinitely longer shelf life.

But Leidy had a lasting impact on those who met him.  Paleontologist William Berryman Scott (1858 – 1947) recalled the frantic, anxious days of being a young scientist:

We were constantly running to Philadelphia and the Academy to see Leidy’s types to compare our material with that which he had described and named, and to ask his advice and help.  And, though we were mere tyros, beginners, utterly insignificant, he was invariably kind and considerate and thoughtful, and as lavish in the gift of his time, as though he had nothing else to do. . . . He had that sweetness and gentleness of personality that are so attractive when united with greatness.  I have known a few great men in my life, and without exception they have been men of extraordinary simplicity, without any airs, or graces (William Berryman Scott 1923; quoted in Warren 1998).


Young Leidy brooding next to a Hadrosaurus leg bone.  Image credit: Mike Hardcastle at Cosmic Polymath.

Perhaps one of them most enduring stories about Leidy’s personality comes from his days teaching at a small liberal arts college in the suburbs of Philadelphia:

I heard no long ago, a story about one of our own naturalists, Dr. Joseph Leidy.  The little incident took place during the time he was actively connected with Swarthmore College.  Wishing to make some study or observations with regard to turtles, he obtained some of them from a pond near the college, saying, as he took them up, ‘I’ll bring you back again, little turtles.’

When he reached his home in the city, he found word awaiting him which necessitated an almost immediate trip abroad; but, however pressing his business was, it did not cause him to forget his promise to the little turtles.  The next day was Sunday, and, having no other time to fulfill his promise, he determined to do it then.  And now another obstacle arose.  There was no train which he could conveniently take.  But true to that old adage, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ the doctor walked out to the college, a distance of about ten miles and restored the turtles to their home.  From this little act alone we see how great must be the kind-heartedness of the man and his faithfulness to his word (The Swarthmore Phoenix, 1 December 1888).

This anecdote has been told and retold with occasional embellishment, but the essence is always the same.  Here is a human being who exercised his curiosity about Nature, but understood the responsibility to prevent unnecessary harm.  He felt such empathy and respect for Nature, that even a seemingly silly promise to some lowly reptiles was to be faithfully honored.  And if Leidy was willing to walk out ten miles just to return some turtles into a pond, how far would he go to help a student, friend, or colleague?  Whether we are the students or the teachers (or both), let us always remember what it is like to be the little turtles and how far fulfilling a promise can go.

What stories do you have about your favorite teachers?

Tortoises, terrapins, and turtles London, Paris, and Frankfort :H. Sotheran, J. Baer & co.,1872.

Thanks, Dr. Leidy!  We don’t know exactly what kind of animal Leidy returned to the waters of Crum Creek that borders the Swarthmore College campus, by Emys geographica is a North American native with some geographical distribution in Pennsylvania.  Image credit:  Tortoises, terrapins, and turtles.  1872.  London, Paris, and Frankfort:H. Sotheran, J. Baer & Co. via Biodiversity Heritage Library on Flickr.



For a number of years, students at Swarthmore College renamed their scientific society in honor of the beloved late Professor Leidy.  Image credit:  Swarthmore College, Halcyon 1897.


The Swarthmore Phoenix.  “A Reminiscence of Dr. Leidy.”  The Swarthmore Phoenix [Swarthmore, PA].  1 December 1888:  76.

Warren, Leonard.  1998.  Joseph Leidy:  The Last Man Who Knew Everything.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.


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