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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14 Responses to Farish Jenkins Was Truly Sui Generis

  1. Farish was just amazing. The story of his Tiktaalik paper in Nature has a connection with Brazil. (Here goes my chauvinism here…)

    To make the case that Tiktaalik was a part-time land animal, he wanted to prove that the way the ribs of the animal were tightly connected was a sign that its torso needed more support (underwater it would have about the same density of the environment medium, so there was no problem, but in land it needed bones to keep its body from becoming a dragging-pancake squashed in the ground).

    Farish was looking for a living animal that would have faced the same evolutionary problem, and eventually he contacted his friend Paulo Vanzolini, a famous biologist (and samba composer) from Sao Paulo who is a specialist in Amazon biodiversity. (Farish was so kind and cool that he could become friends with virtually everyone he met.) Vanzolini helped him find a species of anteater which had the ribcage shape he was looking for, and then he became more confident in pushing forward the argument for the land transition of Tiktaalik. (The Brazilian animal had to evolve extra-hard rib support because of the way it used to stretch from trees, and this is how current comparative zoology got into the study.)

  2. Hillary Rosner says:

    That’s fascinating, Rafa.

  3. Pingback: Farish A. Jenkins (1940 – 2012) : Nature News Blog

  4. I just wanted to thank you for writing such a beautiful post about my father. You captured him perfectly and brought tears to my eyes yet again. I am hoping that perhpas you wouldn’t mind if I quoted you at his memorial? What I’m writing is in the works, but it would be wonderful if I could. Thanks again. I know that each person he taught, worked with, helped was as equally important to him and he was to you. – Tess

  5. Hillary Rosner says:

    Of course, Tess. I’d be honored. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  6. Tasha Larman says:

    Dr. Jenkins was the most incredible teacher I’ve ever had, so unfathomably passionate and with incomparable moral and intellectual standards. He made me and countless others love biology and made college feel worthwhile. I will never forget walking into his 8am lectures and watching him standing at the chalkboard finishing up 5 panels worth of impeccably drawn and shaded fossils he must have begun hours earlier. And he did this MULTIPLE times a week! I don’t think I even loved evolutionary biology that much, but I continued his courses for 3 years simply because he made the topic so fascinating. I know many others did the same. I had a reunion with him last year after I spotted him from a mile away at the airport in Boston, sitting at a terminal wearing a head-to-toe safari outfit (including a hat). Turns out he was en route to Tanzania for a dig, no surprise. He will never be forgotten. Rest in peace.

  7. Manda Clair Jost says:

    Ah… My heart breaks to hear this news. Farish was one of my dearest professors at the MCZ, and I could write a small book about all of the inspiring, hilarious, educational, scandalous, and loving things he used to say and do. I hadn’t heard he was ill. He taught my family to make apple champagne, with instructions that began, “Get yourself a large glass jug”. I remember his amazing chalk drawings, his sense of humor, his choice in both words and ties, the discovery of Tiktaalik, and very kind support during my dissertation years and at my defense. There was never a man on Earth quite like Farish Jenkins and I suppose there never will be again. Rest well, dear man, and know you will never be forgotten

  8. Manda Clair Jost says:

    Tess, I am so sorry for your loss. Your kind father was a giant among vertebrate paleontologists, and among teachers — which you surely know. If there is a public memorial, would you mind sharing the information here, or contacting me privately? I am easy to find. Bless you and your family at this difficult time, when we should all be celebrating what an amazing gift it has been for us all to have known him-

  9. Angelo W. Traniello says:

    Sorry for your loss, Tess and Eleanor. Life has some wonderful twists and turns and obviously your father provided many people with his inspiration.

  10. Pingback: Farish A. Jenkins, Jr., 1940-2012 « Why Evolution Is True

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  12. Pingback: Farish Jenkins Was Truly Sui Generis « Remembering Farish Jenkins, Jr.

  13. Arhat Abzhanov says:

    The news was absolutely devastating to me and my heart goes out to all of Farish’s family and everyone who knew and loved Farish. He was absolutely one of a kind in this world and I am quite grateful that fate, time and space allowed me to meet with Farish and become his colleague and friend. He was simply an amazing human being, always caring, always careful, never making any shortcuts, never taking any pause. He had a pile of projects, in process and unfinished, on his desk last time when I visited him recently.

    How I wish he could see the finished festschrift book and I am so happy that we had a nice celebration to honor his contributions this summer, which he clearly enjoyed. This is the least we could have done to applaud his long, productive and most singular career. It was a special treat to be able to teach a class with Farish and learn so much from his wonderful style. I hope that all of the students who ever took his classes realized what an extraordinary opportunity it was for them to learn biology from a true master.

    Lastly, I must confess I am secretly glad that we shared a passion for apples. I grew up helping my parents to take care of their apple orchard near Alma Ata in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains covered with the original forest of the wild apple trees. Farish was crazy about apples, knew much about them and had a respectable collection of different varieties in his own apple orchard. He brought a big basket full of delicious apples to his class so students could enjoy them as well. He wanted to see those wild apple forests and I hoped one day to take him to my homeland and I know he would love the natural beauty of the place.

    Good buy, Farish, our dear friend, and we will always remember you.

  14. Chunlin Sun says:

    Dear Tess, I am Chunlin Sun from Jilin University of China. Farish is my good friend. You have a great and kindly father.His great scientific contribution and sincerity will never be forgotten. We will always remember him. Rest in peace, Farish, my dearest friend. Please convey my sympathy to your mother,Eleanor. Thank you.
    Chunlin Sun
    Prof. and Ph.D.
    Director of Reseach Center of Stratigraphy and Paleontology, Jilin University, China