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Leslie Richard Severinghaus was born in 1899, the son of Charles E. and Anna Edward Severinghaus. After graduating from Cornell University in 1921, he taught English at the Peking Union Medical College in Peking, China and later served as head of the English Department and Headmaster of the Haverford School. He was a member of the Cornell University Board of Trustees. While in Peking, Leslie Severinghaus met and married Emmavail Luce who had returned to China after her 1922 graduation from Wellesley College to serve as a foreign secretary in the YWCA.