Harlan, Richard, 1796-1843

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1796-09-19
Death 1843-09-30

Biographical notes:

A naturalist and one of America's earliest comparative anatomists and paleontologists, Richard Harlan was born in Philadelphia on September 19, 1796. The eighth of ten children born to Quaker parents, he applied himself to the study of medicine under Joseph Parrish. However even as a student, he devoted much of his attention to natural history. These interests, as well as the opportunity to gain practical experience as a physician, led him to interrupt his medical study to sign on as ship's surgeon aboard the William Savery, during a thirteen month voyage to Calcutta in 1816-1817.

After completing his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1818 with a dissertation on the vital principle, Harlan soon gained recognition as a bright, though occasionally irrascible young man. His old mentor Parrish hired the young naturalist as an instructor of anatomy at his private medical school, and Harlan extended his practice by working as a physician with the Philadelphia Dispensary in 1820 and with the Almshouse from 1822 to 1838. At the same time, he devoted equal energy to establishing his reputation as an innovative natural historian. With a particular zeal for vertebrate paleontology, physiology, and comparative anatomy, he gained election to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1815, joining a vibrant community of young scientists, and became an active member in the Academy of Medicine.

By the time that Charles Willson Peale hired him to become professor of anatomy at the Philadelphia Museum Company in 1821, Harlan's scientific reputation in the city was secure. Two of his early works in animal physiology -- on the generation of animal heat and the process of absorption -- had led Nathaniel Chapman and Thomas Say to propose him for membership in the American Philosophical Society in 1822, and thereafter he became a regular fixture at meetings and contributed regularly to committees reviewing scientific and medical works. Harlan also submitted several articles to the APS Transactions on herpetology, comparative anatomy, and paleontology. He later became a founding member of the Geological Society of Pennsylvania and was one of the principle figures laboring to establish a state geological survey.

As might be expected, Harlan's earliest works arose out of the dissecting room. His Anatomical Investigations and Inquiry into the Functions of the Brain in Man, and in the Lower Order of Animals, both published in 1824, were detailed studies of the anatomy and function of the brain, distinguished by their comparative perspective. At around the same time, Harlan began to assemble a cabinet of anatomical specimens, which eventually grew in size to rival that of his friend, Samuel George Morton, including 275 crania by 1839.

Among the 64 works that Harlabn published during his career, few had greater impact, or were more controversial, than his Fauna Americana (1825). The first comprehensive systematic zoological survey of North America, including even a few fossil forms, the Fauna sparked a two year spat with John Godman, among others, who impugned both its originality and its accuracy. Harlan was accused at various points of muddling his Linnaean systematics and of outright plagiarism of Demerest's recently published Mammalogie, however in his defence, the book did contain descriptions of new species collected during the Stephen Harriman Long expedition and by Constantine Rafinesque. Although the criticism caused Harlan to refrain from producing a planned second volume on reptiles, the Fauna was followed by a smaller, but nevertheless important American Herpetology in 1827, one of a number of Harlan's works devoted to the study of reptiles.

Even as Harlan's scientific career progressed, he seems not to have neglected his medical practice. A respected physician and educator, he attained a degree of renown localled when the cholera pandemic first struck the northern parts of North America in 1832. Harlan and two of his colleagues were dispatched to Montreal to observe the response of Canadian physicians, with hopes of devising more effective means of averting or treating the disease. At the recommendation of Harlan and his committee, Philadelphia quickly established a series of emergency dispensaries and hospitals and a system for evacuating heavily infected areas that were credited with substantially lowering the morality. For his services, the city awarded Harlan a silver pitcher.

Like many American naturalists of his day, Harlan viewed his European colleagues with admiration and a touch of envy, and he looked particularly to the French master of comaparative anatomy Georges Cuvier for a scientific model. (Ironically, while Cuvier was said to have boasted that he could reconstruct any vertebrate from a single bone, Harlan was not always so insightful or fortunate: in the most notorious instance, Harlan classified a recently discovered fossil whale Basilosaurus as a reptile.) To further his scientific reputation among his peers, Harlan undertook a tour of Europe in 1833, establishing contacts with naturalists and medical researchers and more generally imbibing the rarified air of the British Museum, the Jardin des Plantes, and other centers of scientific inquiry. His arrival in Liverpool coincided with the third annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Cambridge, where he was invited to deliver a paper on fossil reptiles. Having stirred the good-natured opposition of William Buckland, Harlan was also introduced to John Edward Gray, John Dalton, and Adam Sedgwick, among others, and he befriended a fellow enthusiast for fossil reptiles, Gideon Mantell. From Cambridge, he traveled to the hospitals and museums of London, visited Mantell's home in Lewes, and after crossing to the continent, took in the scientific and touristic sights of France and Italy, twice paying visits to the widow of the recently deceased Cuvier. After his return to the United States in December 1833, Harlan prepared a summary, of sorts, of his research to this point. His Medical and Physical Researches (1835) contained a collection of articles on zoology, physiology, and clinical medicine, ranging from neuroanatomy to the effects of poisons.

Harlan decided to return to France in January 1839, intending to remain several years. A fire, however, destroyed the anatomical collections that he had left in Philadelphia, causing him to abandon his plans and return home. The sole concrete product of this second European trip was a translation of Gannal's History of Embalming (l840), a topic that had excited Harlan' curiosity for several years. Two years later, in December 1842, he moved to New Orleans, quickly assuming a privileged position at the top of the local medical community, becoming vice president of the Louisiana Medico-Chirurgical Society. In 1843, however, these promising beginnings were cut short when he died suddenly of apoplexy. He was survived by his wife Mary Hart Simmons Howell and by four children, one of whom, George Cuvier Harlan (b. 1835) became a distinguished ophthalmologist.

From the guide to the Richard Harlan Journals, 1816-1817, 1833, (American Philosophical Society)



Biographical notes are generated from the bibliographic and archival source records supplied by data contributors.

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Subjects:

  • Americans Abroad
  • Medicine
  • Medicine--Practice--France
  • Science and Technology
  • Travel
  • International Travel
  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta
  • Paleontology

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • France (as recorded)
  • Alps (as recorded)
  • India (as recorded)
  • Paris (France) (as recorded)
  • Ireland (as recorded)
  • Switzerland (as recorded)
  • Italy (as recorded)
  • London (England) (as recorded)
  • Edinburgh (Scotland) (as recorded)
  • West (U.S.) (as recorded)