Richard Harlan

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Richard Harlan
Richard Harlan

Sculptor unknown
Bust at one time in the possession of his son, George Cuvier Harlan.

The son of a farmer and merchant in Philadelphia, Richard Harlan became a leading American figure in anatomical studies. And he would become the man who named the only fossil that now survives from the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Harlan studied medicine in the University of Pennsylvania, but before he completed his program, in 1816-1817 he shipped aboard a vessel to Calcutta as a surgeon. He completed his medical training when he returned to Philadelphia in 1818. Harlan worked in Joseph Parish's private medical school, teaching anatomy, during which time he published a text on the human brain, Anatomical Investigations (1824). In 1820 he was appointed a physician in the Philadelphia Dispensary, and in 1822 also in the Philadelphia Almshouse, where he remained in practice until 1838, when he intended to settle in France. In 1822, he also was elected a professor (lecturer) of comparative anatomy in Charles Willson Peale's Philadelphia Museum. In 1832 he accompanied other Philadelphia physicians to Montreal during a devastating cholera epidemic, to study the disease and to collect as much information as possible on its treatment. Their recommendations were much more modern than traditional approaches, including evacuation of infected areas and the establishment of specialized hospitals and wards, and were used to good advantage when the disease later appeared in Philadelphia.

But Richard Harlan's interests were much broader in scope. He was becoming a master of comparative anatomy, upon which subject he lectured. And he was an indefatigable collector of specimens–all kinds of animals and human crania. In 1815, less than a month after his nineteenth birthday, he had been elected a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, establishing himself in the community of natural historians. In 1825 he published one of his most important works, Fauna Americana, a catalogue of American mammals that was the first of its kind–one by an American scholar, no less. His intended second volume, on reptiles, was never realized, although he did author a shorter paper on "American Herpetology" in 1827.

Harlan had interests that transcended the living and fossil worlds. He was one of just three Americans who attended the 1833 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, where he presented a paper on the fossil reptiles of the United States. His most notable record of the fossil fauna of America was his "Critical Notices of Various Organic Remains Hitherto Discovered in North America," published in 1834 nearly simultaneously in Pennsylvania and Scotland. His attention to stratigraphic distributions and sources for his data made his approach a comprehensive, documented, and verifiable work. And his uniquely American focus turned to his advantage when European naturalists embraced his faunal and biostratigraphic studies.

Harlan fell prey in 1825 to his own incomplete research when he named the new genus and species Osteopera platycephala from along the Delaware River based on the found skull of a South American paca. Although he received blistering attacks from physician and naturalist John Godman (writing in hiding behind anonymity), Harlan proceeded on, his reputation untarnished. In 1835 he assembled his numerous essays in medicine and natural history and, with additions, republished them in one volume, Medical and Physical Researches.

His renown preceded him on his second European tour, in 1839. The Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle presented him with a magnificent plaster cast of what may be one of the most famous fossils in the world, the so-called "Maestrict Monitor," Mosasaurus hoffmannii ("Hoffman's mosasaur"), described by the English paleontologist Gideon Mantell in 1829. The fossil is both jaws, virtually complete, and the front portion of the skull and some vertebrae, all still arranged in matrix, found in a mine on Saint Peter's Mount near Maestrict, The Netherlands. It is from strata of Upper Cretaceous age. The animal is a mosasaur, a carnivorous marine reptile widely abundant in the seas of the Cretaceous Period. The "Maestrict Monitor" was first described in a publication by Faujas Saint-Fond in 1799, and it is illustrated there (as a "crocodile") in a handsome engraving. Interestingly, a vignette on the title-page of the volume ostensibly portrays workers removing the (already prepared!) specimen from the mine.1 The plaster cast was "inscribed" in paint to Harlan, for presentation to the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia. Parts of the inscription have flaked off, but originally it read, Donné ‡ M. le Dr. Harlan pour la Société Philosophique par le Mus. d'Hist. Nat. de Paris (presented to Dr. Harlan for the Philosophical Society by the Museum of Natural History in Paris). The cast is today in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Harlan intended to remain in France, but he was disappointed with the state of French medicine; and when news came that his collections had been destroyed in a fire in Philadelphia, he returned home to his medical practice. In 1840 he translated J. N. Gannal's History of Embalming, to which he offered notes and additional comments. In December 1842 he moved to New Orleans, but there died suddenly the following September, cutting short a notable American career in natural history. His work was also unfortunately restrained to that point by the limited frameworks established by the dominant naturalist, Georges Cuvier. He might have lived to participate in the polymathic studies of the indefatigable Joseph Leidy, who shortly later would inaugurate a Renaissance in American comparative anatomy and paleontology. Leidy, who in 1859 would be among the first American naturalists to embrace Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection and evolution, indeed based some of his own early work on studies begun by Richard Harlan.2

1. Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, Histoire Naturelle de la Montagne de Saint-Pierre de Maestrict, H. J. Jansen (Paris, "An MËme de la République François", 1799). The "Maestrict Monitor" is illustrated in plate 51.

2. Leonard Warren, Joseph Leidy: The Last Man Who Knew Everything (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 301 pp.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge-Cost Share Program