By Bob Silliman (Atlanta Science Tavern Contributor)
In 1848 Leo Lesquereux left his native Switzerland for America. Initially a teacher and then a watchmaker, he had turned to natural science and had become the foremost expert on peat in Europe. Finding it prudent to take his family to the New World in this age of revolution in the Old, he hoped to transform his knowledge of peat into a new scientific employment in America joining the vital enterprises of his fellow Swiss emigrant, the celebrated Louis Agassiz. Although his connection with Agassiz was a distinct advantage, the fact that he was profoundly deaf was a serious drawback in the work he chose, explorations in fossil botany, and in everything else.
Yet after unstinting labor he became the leading student of coal flora and a pioneer in the establishment of fossil botany in the country. Travel in an unfamiliar land to discover new specimens was full of difficulty, as were his attempts to communicate with “the Yankees.” Sometimes he encountered bizarre situations. Once, travelling by steamboat on the Tennessee River, a new passenger came on board. Friendly conversation between the two men posed a challenge. The blindness of the one prevented him from seeing the words the deaf man wrote on his tablet. The other with his poorly spoken English couldn’t follow the discourse of the second. But the dilemma was resolved. When Lesquereux posed a question, his companion replied by pointing to a passage from the Bible that provided an appropriate reply. When the steamer reached Gunthersville, Alabama, the common destination of the travelling pair, and they were disembarking they suddenly fell from the dock into the swollen river. Together they scrambled up the muddy bank and in the morning, more or less dried out, they continued their journey together on foot.
Deafness, which Lesquereux regarded as a divine test of character and purpose was nonetheless a heavy cross to bear and not to be wished upon anyone. Yet Lesquereux, believing his career was under divine direction, saw more than one advantage in his disability. In his social isolation he was able to concentrate on his scientific work more completely than he otherwise could have and was able greatly to enlarge the scope of his scientific achievement.
Bob Silliman earned his Ph.D.in the Special Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at Princeton. He is retired from Emory University, where he taught European History and the History of Science. His research and publications have focused on the role of biographical components in the development of the sciences, especially 19th-century physics and geology. Bob is currently working on a biography of Leo Lesquereux.