William Elford Leach

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For other people named William Leach, see William Leach (disambiguation).
William Elford Leach
Libinia emarginata.png
Libinia emarginata from Leach's Zoological Miscellany. Leach described the species in 1815.
Born (1791-02-02)2 February 1791
Died 25 August 1836(1836-08-25) (aged 45)
San Sebastiano Curone
Nationality English
Fields Natural history, entomology, marine biology

William Elford Leach, MD, FRS (2 February 1791 – 25 August 1836)[1] was an English zoologist and marine biologist.

Life and work[edit]

Elford Leach was born at Hoe Gate, Plymouth, the son of an attorney.[2] At the age of twelve he began a medical apprenticeship at the Devonshire and Exeter Hospital, studying anatomy and chemistry.[1] By this time he was already collecting marine animals from Plymouth Sound and along the Devon coast. At seventeen he began studying medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, finishing his training at the University of Edinburgh before graduating M.D. from the University of St Andrews (where he had never studied).[1][3]

From 1813, Leach concentrated on his zoological interests and was employed as an 'Assistant Librarian' (what would later be called Assistant Keeper[1]) in the Natural History Department of the British Museum, where he had responsibility for the zoological collections.[1] Here he threw himself into the task of reorganising and modernising these collections, many of which had been neglected since Hans Sloane left them to the nation. 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 and other invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds.[4]

Illustration from Adam White's A Popular History of British Crustacea, 1857, showing three genera of crustacea named by Leach as anagrams of Carolina: Cirolana, Conilera and Rocinela

Leach's nomenclature was a little eccentric – he named nineteen species and one genus 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 Carolina, or anagrams of that name such as Cirolana, Conilera and Rocinela,[5] after an unknown lady.[2] These include the marine isopod crustacean Cirolana cranchi which he named in 1818 after both Carolina and Cranch.[5][6][a]

In 1821, he suffered a nervous breakdown due to overwork and he resigned from the museum in March 1822. His elder sister Jane took him to continental Europe to convalesce, and they travelled through France, Italy and Malta. He died from cholera in San Sebastiano Curone, near Tortona, north of Genoa on 25 August 1836.[1]


Leach's Storm-petrel was named after him by Coenraad Jacob Temminck in 1820, who was unaware that it had already 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.[4]

The Blue-winged Kookaburra, Dacelo leachii, was also named for him.[4]


Leach's written works during his time at the British Museum include the following:[1]

  • The Zoological Miscellany (1814–1817)
  • Monograph on the British Crabs, Lobsters, Prawns and other Crustacea with pedunculated eyes (1815–1820)
  • 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. ^ Other such genera include Nelocira. Other genera created by Leach have classical names such as Hippolyte, Eurydice and Palaemon.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Keith Harrison & Eric Smith (2008). Rifle-Green by Nature: A Regency Naturalist and his Family, William Elford Leach. London: The Ray Society. ISBN 978-0-9-03874-35-9. 
  2. ^ a b 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. 
  3. ^  Thomas Seccombe (1892). "Leach, William Elford". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 32. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  4. ^ a b c Barbara Mearns & Richard Mearns (1988). Biographies for Birdwatchers. Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-487422-3. 
  5. ^ a b "Cirolana cranchi Leach, 1818". WorMS. 
  6. ^ White, Adam (1857). A Popular History of British Crustacea; Comprising a Familiar Account of Their Classification and Habits. Lovell Reeve. p. 250. 

External links[edit]