Leebody, John Robinson (1840–1927), scientist, commentator, and college president, was born in January 1840 in Ballinderry, Co. Antrim, the second son of Rev. Henry Leebody (d. 1879), presbyterian minister there, and his wife, Madeline Sophia (née Robinson). He was educated privately by his father and at the RBAI, from which he proceeded in 1859 to QCB. He graduated as first honorman and gold medallist in mathematical science from the Queen's University in Ireland in 1862 (MA in 1863), and attended theological classes in the Assembly's College, Belfast (1862–5). On the establishment of Magee College in Derry in 1865 he was appointed professor of mathematics and natural philosophy there.
Leebody's career at Magee was to be a varied and distinguished one, and at the same time he played a leading part in many cultural and scientific activities locally. He taught both mathematics and physics and provided pioneering and well-attended extension classes in science from 1868 to 1899. Since he was an advocate of the education of women, these courses were made open to both ladies and gentlemen in 1870. Women students were admitted to the college's undergraduate courses in 1883 under the aegis of the RUI; some of them went on afterwards to Girton College, Cambridge, because Leebody's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Welsh (qv) (1843–1921), was mistress of Girton.
A laboratory was equipped for Leebody at Magee by late 1872, and in 1873, in response to legislation, he was appointed city analyst, and in 1874 analyst for the county of Londonderry. He remained public analyst until 1923. His Notes on the analysis of artificial fertilisers and drinking waters was published in 1875, and he also had a private practice in chemical analysis. He was involved in the long-running discussions concerning the improvement of the city's water supply, during which he pointed to the hazards of contamination were the supply to derive from water drained from cultivated land. In 1878 he was elected a fellow of the Institute of Chemistry in London, and in 1882 he was awarded the honorary degree of D.Sc. by the Queen's University in Ireland. Leebody succeeded Thomas Witherow (qv) in 1891 as president of the college (and also on the senate of the RUI in 1890), a post he held until his death in 1927. Much of his energy had for long been expended in seeking an adequate place for the college within the changing systems for higher education in Ireland until its linkage to Dublin University was established in 1909. This he summarised in a history of the college in 1915.
Leebody played a major part in the initiation of the Government School of Art in the city in 1874. He also gave his backing to the Government Science School classes conducted from 1871 under the auspices of the Science and Art Department in South Kensington in the male school room of First Derry presbyterian church. He lectured regularly to local societies on scientific topics, with astronomy and spectrum analysis being a special interest. Most of his reflective writing was addressed to a consideration of the intellectual issues raised in contemporary English thought. Much of this, delivered in lectures on college occasions, was published only in the local press, but some reached a wider readership in the 1870s in (among others) Fraser's Magazine and the British and Foreign Evangelical Review. While Leebody wrote from an orthodox (and moderate evangelical) presbyterian viewpoint, he held in 1876 that it would be unwise to teach the rising generation that the scientific theories of Huxley, Tyndall, and Darwin were mere absurdities: his Religious teaching and modern thought was published in London in 1889. His ‘Notes on the birds of Lough Swilly’, in the first volume of The Irish Naturalist (1892), was an excursus into local ornithology. His interest above all was in the progress of science in its practical applications, which was examined in his Smyth lectures in the college on ‘The results and influence of nineteenth-century science’ in 1899 and 1900.
Leebody was a founder member of the North-West Golf Club in 1891. Not usually active in local politics, and earlier a Liberal supporter, he spoke on behalf of the Conservative candidate for North Tyrone in the election of 1892. In September 1866 he married Mary Isabella Welsh (1846–1911), a keen field botanist, who was the third daughter of John Welsh of Gransha, Kircubbin, Co. Down, a farmer whose family claimed descent from John Knox. They had three daughters and two sons. Leebody died 21 August 1927 at his residence (6 College Avenue) in the college. An Ulster protestant Victorian, he worked at one of the peripheries of academic life in Ireland for over sixty years.