Farish Jenkins Was Truly Sui Generis

Sometimes you can know someone only barely, and still feel the weight of loss when they die. I only met Farish Jenkins three times, but I’m heavyhearted after learning that he passed away this weekend.

An evolutionary biologist at Harvard and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the university’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, Jenkins is best known as part of the team that discovered Tiktaalik roseae, a 380-million-year-old fossil that represents the evolution of fish onto land. (Here’s Carl Zimmer, back in 2006, writing about the find.) But to me, Jenkins was a missing link himself–a connection to an earlier era in which people were charming and polite and wore suit vests.

Jenkins came to speak to my group of Knight Science Journalism fellows at MIT in the fall of 2010. There were 12 of us, and before each of our twice-weekly colloquia, we went around the room and briefly introduced ourselves to the speaker. In Jenkins’ case, it was unnecessary. Not only had he read the Knight program brochure that featured each of our photos and short bios, he’d memorized it. So Jenkins knew, for instance, before Wojciech Mikołuszko introduced himself, that the Polish journalist liked to write about dinosaurs. In a performance that blew our minds before he even began his presentation, Jenkins introduced each of us himself.

His talk, about the Tiktaalik discovery, didn’t just involve fossils and biology. It took us to the field with the scientists–brought us right there to the Canadian Arctic, where we witnessed not just the excitement of discovery but the realities of working in remote and frigid regions, where, Jenkins told us, you never, never want to be stuck without your flask of vodka. After the talk, Jenkins offered to schedule a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum for us. So on a chilly February day, we journeyed with the ultimate tour guide through the university’s collections.

You could open pretty much any drawer in the vast floor-to-ceiling cabinets of the vertebrate collection, and Jenkins could tell you exactly what was inside. The species, where it was found, some fascinating little detail about its biology.

Jenkins and the skull of some long-lost creature

The original type skull of Gorilla gorilla

Mary Carmichael makes some friends at Harvard

A month or so later, I was late for a meeting with evolutionary biologist Hopi Hoekstra, hopelessly adrift in Harvard’s maze of time-worn zoology buildings. I was standing like an idiot in a random hallway, trying to decide which way to go, when Jenkins emerged from a stairwell and smiled at me. He asked what I was doing there. “Looking for Hopi,” I said. He recited some directions, which I could’ve sworn involved the phrase “turn left at the camel’s derriere.” I must’ve looked even more confused, because he decided to escort me to my destination himself. We descended a flight of stairs, opened some sort of secret back door, and emerged into the public museum.

For the second time that year, I tagged along beside Jenkins through narrow hallways lined with cases of dead animals. We zigged and zagged passed all manner of birds and mammals, and then we arrived at another door. “Camel’s derriere,” he proclaimed. And there it was, on our right, the back end of a stuffed camel. An explorer’s signpost. He led the way through the door, up some more stairs, and into a hallway that led to Hoekstra’s office. He popped his head in. “I deliver to you one lost Knight fellow,” Jenkins said. Then he was off.

As my fellow Knight fellows have written in emails we’ve exchanged about Farish today, he was a rare, inimitable character who made science a joy. His loss is all of ours.

(Top photo credit: Matt McGrath)

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