2010 Honorary membership award recipients 


John M. Harris

John M. Harris

I received my BSc in Geology from the University of Leicester where the inspired teaching of Prof. P. C. Sylvester-Bradley persuaded me that I really wanted to be a paleontologist. He also advised me that if I wanted to go into vertebrate paleontology, I should first get a master's degree in the USA. To that end, and with the aid of a Fulbright travel grant, I spent three football seasons as a TA at the University of Texas. There I was extremely fortunate to have Jack Wilson as an advisor at a time when he co-taught vertebrate paleontology with Wann Langston and Ernie Lundelius. Between them, these three VP icons imparted a background and work ethic that provided the foundation for my subsequent career. I then spent three years at the University of Bristol as (R. J. G.) Bob Savage's research assistant. Bob taught me how to drive on Saharan sand dunes and that research is a way of life with immense personal rewards. In 1968 Bob introduced me to Louis Leakey, who invited me to take part in his son Richard's first expedition to the east side of Lake Turkana (then Lake Rudolf).

Three years later, after graduating from Bristol and spending a year teaching Geology at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, I went to work for Louis as Senior Paleontologist at the Center for Prehistory and Paleontology in Nairobi, a position that morphed into Director of Paleontology when the Center was taken over by the National Museums of Kenya in 1972. I spent nine years working for Louis and Richard — helping to build and organize the paleontological collections and providing field documentation to the famous "Hominid gang" during their fieldwork east of Lake Turkana. This led to an enduring interest in the mammals associated with early humans in East Africa and a huge international circle of friends and acquaintances.

In 1980 I joined the staff of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History as the Chief Curator of Earth Sciences, a position that fortunately allowed me to continue field and research work with the National Museums of Kenya. During the 1980s I continued working with the hominid gang and with Frank Brown as they explored the fossiliferous accumulations on the west side of Lake Turkana. I also helped Mary Leakey with the monograph on the footprints and fossils from Laetoli in Tanzania. In the mid 1990s I spent 15 months working for Thure Cerling at the University of Utah, which opened my eyes to the ways geochemistry could help us understand the diets and behavior of living and extinct mammals. During the past decade I have become increasingly aware of the fascinating potential of Rancho La Brea.

The friendships and mentoring provided by my SVP colleagues have been extremely important during my career and the meetings have been a constant source of information and inspiration. I hope I have contributed in a small way by editing the News Bulletin from 1984-9, acting as regional editor from 1998, and recently serving on the editorial board of JVP. When I see all the friends, mentors, icons and heroes that are honorary members of the society, I am both deeply honored and truly humbled to be added to that list.

Photo courtesy of John M. Harris.