cover image Joseph Leidy: The Last Man Who Knew Everything

Joseph Leidy: The Last Man Who Knew Everything

Leonard Warren. Yale University Press, $64 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-300-07359-1

Considered one of America's great biologists in his day but now barely remembered outside specialist circles, Philadelphia scientist Joseph Leidy (1823-1891) deserves a better fate; hopefully, Warren's absorbing biography will rekindle interest in this remarkable polymath. A master anatomist, microscopist, scientific illustrator and pioneer of protozoology and forensic medicine, Leidy in 1858 described and oversaw the assembly of a 28-foot, duck-billed, herbivorous Hadrosaurus, the first reasonably complete American dinosaur ever brought to light--a sensational feat that launched the nation's love affair with dinosaurs. Leidy's discovery in 1846 of Trichina larvae (the parasite that causes trichinosis in humans) in pigs earns Warren's accolade as a milestone in public health, yet, as Warren acknowledges, European biologists working out the life cycle of the parasite ignored Leidy's critical find. In this instance, as in several others, the self-effacing Leidy, though a driven, tireless researcher, refused to claim credit for the priority of his work. Almost saintly by today's standards of cutthroat careerism, Leidy, who married happily at age 41, in many ways seems an atypical scientist. He wept during theater performances, revered all life--refusing even to step on a cockroach--and shunned the limelight and avoided scientific meetings. That his work was almost completely descriptive, not experimental, makes him seem outdated, yet his generous life, narrated against a panoramic backdrop of the transformation of American science from elitist club to rigorous discipline, illumines how science progresses and reputations are made or lost. Warren is Institute Professor at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia and a professor emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania. 29 b&w illustrations, not seen by PW. (Nov.)