Home > Awards > Past Award Winners > 2009 (Romer-Simpson Medal) Farish A. Jenkins, Jr.

2009 Romer-Simpson Medal Recipient

Farish A. Jenkins, Jr.

Farish A. Jenkins, Jr.

Although the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and I were hatched out in the same year, it would not be for eighteen years, until 1958, that Glenn Lowell Jepsen of Princeton's Geology Department would initiate the fermentation of my interests in vertebrates, their adaptations and evolutionary history. Having worked summers on my Aunt's ranch in Wyoming (she provided, incidentally, my early lessons in handling firearms and hunting), I was predisposed to fieldwork; Jep's investigations of Early Tertiary faunas in South Dakota and Wyoming piqued my fascination with the new data that could be gathered to formulate novel insights.

Prior to graduating from Princeton in 1961, I had signed up to serve in the United States Marine Corps. Commissioned at Quantico, Virginia, I was further trained as an artillery officer at Lawton, Oklahoma, cascading expensive, high explosive ordinance onto stockpiles of junk cars, and ultimately was sent overseas for duty in Okinawa, Japan, the Philippines, and afloat on the South China Sea. When I returned in 1963, I married Eleanor Bristol Tracy, and she has remained the best that has ever befallen me as wife, mother, grandmother, friend and farmer.

I had deferred my Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and entry into the graduate program in Geology at Yale, and once released from service began my graduate training in 1964. The vibrant faculty included an extraordinary assemblage of scientists with interests in paleontology. Karl Waage (biostratigraphy), Lee MacAlester (invertebrates), Ted Delevoryas (paleobotany), Elwyn Simons (Tertiary mammals, especially primates), Keith Thomson (fishes), John Ostrom (dinosaurs), and Jim Hopson and Fuzz Crompton (synapsids) not only represented the richest intellectual array, but their extraordinary expertise also challenged me to consider how I might ever distinguish myself professionally. My problem was exacerbated when I learned that no less a personage than Alfred Sherwood Romer had publicly declared that the fundamentals of all major aspects of vertebrate evolution were now understood. Were we to be left then, to build our careers with carefully stacked minutiae? Fortunately, one need not possess a perspective across the last forty years of vertebrate paleontology to know that our opportunities were never so limited. Even in the last ten years there have been titanic discoveries that have fundamentally altered our understanding of vertebrate evolution.

My own forward pathway opened when I realized that I couldn't make sense of my dissertation topic—the evolutionary emergence of mammalian postcranial morphology—without becoming trained in anatomy. I was the first student from the Graduate School at Yale to be allowed to cross town to the Medical School and take courses in anatomy and embryology. I began conducting my own dissections of possums and other mammals in the basement of the Peabody Museum. Journeying to South Africa, I profited from field experience with Fuzz Crompton, and from museum visits that were essential to my dissertation. A serendipitous stop in Nairobi on my return flight home led me to rent a Morris Minor, hardly field-worthy, but the only car I could afford. For three weeks I ran a solo safari through the grassland savannas and woodlands of Kenya and Tanzania; there I discovered, often with very close and extremely naive encounters, the diversity, elegance and behaviors of the East African fauna. At the time, Black rhinos in the bush were as thick as rats in a dump. With my camera set on self-timer, I managed to pose with one—before the beast came on with a charge. I barely made it back to my Morris Minor in time, lost a lens cap on the way, but became, as a result of those three weeks, as much intrigued by living vertebrates as by their extinct relatives.

I had thus become something of a hybrid—anatomist, zoologist and vertebrate paleontologist. Yet it was my anatomical training that landed me my first appointment. In 1968 I joined the Department of Anatomy at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, in good measure through the intercession of another anatomist-paleontologist, Ronald Singer of the University of Chicago. This was a happy beginning. Odd circumstances propelled me into the directorship of the Gross Anatomy course in my second year when I was still learning anatomy and no more than two pages ahead of any student. Radiological equipment and animal facilities made possible my first comparative studies of limb posture and locomotion in living mammals. Tree shrews ricocheted across my bookshelves and desk.

In 1971 I accepted an appointment at Harvard, attracted by the resurgence of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and the revitalization of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. In this environment there developed superb opportunities for promoting functional and paleontological studies, teaching and associating with exceptional students and technical staff.

The Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, a collaborative enterprise between the two universities focused on biomedical engineering and physician-scientist training, had just been founded when I arrived in 1971, and I was readily induced to undertake a role in teaching anatomy. For nearly three decades I was privileged to teach a remarkable succession of classes populated with bright intellects training in medicine, medical engineering and medical physics, organismic and evolutionary biology, and biological anthropology. And finally I did learn my anatomy. At the same time I offered a course in vertebrate evolution, initially collaborating with Fuzz Crompton, but now take it all on myself, from fish to humans.

Extraordinary students who passed through our doctoral program have become, through the years, professional colleagues, collaborators and friends: John Fleagle, Hans-Dieter Sues, Kathleen Smith, Deedra McClearn, Steve Gatesy, Neil Shubin and Dave Blackburn, to name but a few. They have returned to me far more than they received, I do believe.

Fieldwork over the years was invariably a draw for me, not only for the potential for discoveries, but also for the joyful freedom of exploration itself. First into the Cloverly Formation of Montana, then southward across Wyoming, Colorado and Utah through various Mesozoic formations, I subsequently settled during the late seventies and early eighties in northeastern Arizona; here the silty facies of the Kayenta Formation produced an important Early Jurassic fauna. By then, it seemed to me, the west was becoming crowded, and I looked for new territories. The Triassic sediments of Namibia and Morocco offered stunning African grandeur but were ungenerous with fossil vertebrates. I then turned north, to the far North, into the Triassic of East Greenland at 71° North Latitude, and in a series of seven expeditions (during the period 1988–2001) discovered a diverse vertebrate fauna in the Fleming Fjord Formation. My field explorations could never have been as extensive, nor would they have been as productive, without the logistical savvy and prospecting talents of Chuck Schaff, Bill Amaral and the late Will Downs, and the scientific acumen of my colleagues Steve Gatesy and Neil Shubin. In 1999 I teamed up with Neil and Ted Daeschler on our first of six expeditions into the Devonian of the Canadian Arctic; this work led to the discovery of Tiktaalik roseae, the elpistostegalian central to understanding the emergence of tetrapods.

Two aspects of my research career have been especially gratifying. First, I never particularly constrained myself to one taxon or another, but ranged widely and serendipitously as discoveries in the field were brought to the microscope. This is definitely a more difficult pathway to follow, but at least I wasn't starting with any preconceived notions, and always learned much along the way. Such unrestrained behavior linked me to many rich collaborations: with David Krause (on multituberculates), Fuzz Crompton (on Mesozoic mammals), Neil Shubin (on frogs), Steve Gatesy (on theropod trackways), Denis Walsh and Bob Carroll (on caecilians), Kevin Padian (on Eudimorphodon), and Anne Warren (on Gerrothorax).

Functional anatomy has been the second and equally favored aspect of my research. I employed high speed cineradiography and treadmills (and other devices, including a wind tunnel and a rope mill) to gain access to in vivo musculoskeletal mechanisms of animals moving and breathing—the walking, trotting and galloping of mammals, the flight of birds, and the brachiation of monkeys. At times these productions reached almost circus-like proportions, and in any case could never have been accomplished without such astute experimentalists and master functional anatomists as Wim Wiejs, Dennis Bramble, Ted Goslow, Steve Gatsey and Ken Dial. From such work came novel insights of which we can be particularly proud.

When I first joined the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in the mid-sixties the meetings were quite small and utterly informal; I knew almost no one except the very big names and I was mostly too shy to approach them. I never expected to be elected President, which did happen in 1981-1982, nor receive the Romer-Simpson Medal, which now rather overwhelms me. And I certainly never anticipated the scariest development to befall me in all my years of SVP membership. In 1977 I was strolling along a Los Angeles sidewalk with a group SVP meeting attendees, one of whom was Malcolm McKenna. Without a preface, Malcolm spontaneously launched a diatribe of complaints: "this d*** chowder and marching society...," "someone's got to organize this thing...," and on and on. The focus of his dissatisfaction was the lack of quality control of presentations from the platform, some of which were delivered with that kind of folksy informality that sprang from the first meeting held in the Bio Labs at Harvard in 1940 and persisted for more than 30 years. "What we need is a Program Officer, like they have for any serious scientific organization!..." was Malcolm's final outburst. At which point all my walking companions looked at me. So it was that I became that first Program Officer, and a deeply worried man. I was fairly convinced that by breaking Romerian tradition, by selecting and assigning papers to be delivered from the platform, and by setting up poster sessions, I would reap the lasting disapprobation of the entire membership. In retrospect, I can only suppose that Malcolm"s opinion was more widely shared than I realized. I never received one complaint. Of all my undertakings for SVP, I remain most proud of this effort, for our technical and poster sessions have continued to provide unparalleled opportunities for scientific exchange that have meant so much to me and others over the years. As the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has grown in membership, complexity and organizational efficacy, and now requires the most talented administrators and scientists to manage its business, I have always held it to be my deep privilege to have been a loyal participant who, once upon a time, promoted its evolution.

Photo courtesy of Farish A. Jenkins, Jr.