Harlan, Richard, 1796-1843

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.


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