William Elford Leach

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For other people named William Leach, see William Leach (disambiguation).
Libinia emarginata from Leach's Zoological Miscellany. Leach described the species in 1815.

William Elford Leach, FRS (2 February 1790 – 25 August 1836) was an English zoologist and marine biologist.

Leach was born at Hoe Gate, Plymouth, the son of a solicitor.[1] At the age of twelve he went to school in Exeter, studying anatomy and chemistry.[1] By this time he was already collecting marine samples from Plymouth Sound and along the Devon coast. At seventeen he began studying medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, finishing his qualification at the University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews.[2]

In 1813, Leach returned to his zoological interests and was employed as assistant librarian in the Zoological Department at the British Museum.[1] He set himself to sorting out the collections, many of which had been neglected since they had been left to the museum by Hans Sloane. During his time there he was made assistant keeper of the natural history department and became an expert on crustaceans and molluscs. In 1815, Leach published the first bibliography of entomology in Brewster's Edinburgh Encyclopedia (see Timeline of entomology – 1800–1850). In 1817, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. His book Synopsis of the Mollusca of Great Britain was dedicated to Marie Jules César Savigny, Georges Cuvier, and Giuseppe Saverio Poli and was posthumously completed by John Edward Gray. Leach also worked and published on insects, myriapods, arachnids, mammals and birds.[3]

Leach's nomenclature was a little eccentric – he named twenty-seven species after his friend John Cranch, who had collected the species in Africa and later died on HMS Congo. He named nine genera after Caroline or anagrams of that name, after an unknown lady.[1]

In 1821, he suffered a nervous breakdown due to overwork and he resigned from the museum in March 1822. His elder sister took him to continental Europe to convalesce, and they travelled through France, Italy and Greece. He died of cholera in the Palazzo San Sebastiano, near Tortona, north of Genoa on 25 August 1836.[2]

Leach's Storm-petrel was named after him by Coenraad Jacob Temminck in 1820, without him being aware that it had previously been described by Vieillot. A specimen of this bird had been purchased by Leach on behalf of the British Museum for £5 15s in the sale of the collection of William Bullock in 1819. At the same sale he also bought a Great Auk and an egg for just over £16.[3]

The Blue-winged Kookaburra, Dacelo leachii, was also named for him.[3]


Leach's written works during his time at the British Museum include the following:[2]

  • The Zoological Miscellany (1814–1817)
  • Monograph on the British Crabs, Lobsters, Prawns and other Crustacea with pedunculated eyes (1815–1817)
  • Systematic catalogue of the Specimens of the Indigenous Mammalia and Birds that are preserved at the British Museum (1816)
  • Synopsis of the Mollusca of Great Britain (circulated 1820, but not published until 1852)


  1. ^ a b c d David M. Damkaer (2002). "Adding pages". The Copepodologist's Cabinet: A Biographical and Bibliographical History, Volume 1. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 240. American Philosophical Society. pp. 131–155. ISBN 978-0-87169-240-5. 
  2. ^ a b c  Thomas Seccombe (1892). "Leach, William Elford". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 32. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  3. ^ a b c Barbara Mearns & Richard Mearns (1988). Biographies for Birdwatchers. Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-487422-3. 

External links[edit]

  • BHL The zoological miscellany : being descriptions of new, or interesting animals. Three volumes. 1814–1817
  • BHL Malacostraca podophthalmata Britanniae. 1815
  • BHL Molluscorum Britanniæ synopsis. 1852, Edited by John Edward Gray
  • BHL Leach's Systematic catalogue of the specimens of the indigenous mammalia and birds in the British Museum. 1882, Edited by Osbert Salvin