Campus & Community

Farish A. Jenkins Jr., 72

7 min read

Professor of biology and Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology

Whether it was digging in the Canadian Arctic, providing guidance to colleagues, or spending hours producing chalkboard illustrations for the next day’s lecture, Farish A. Jenkins Jr. was deeply committed to probing the mysteries of evolutionary biology, while engaging and inspiring his students — a number of whom would become his colleagues.

Jenkins, a Harvard professor of biology for more than 40 years, and Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, was a mentor and friend to many. His death at age 72 on Nov. 11, brought sadness to the Harvard community and beyond.

“In a University full of unique individuals, he was certainly one of a kind,” said James Hanken, Harvard professor of biology and director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Jenkins was a distinguished vertebrate paleontologist, renowned for his fieldwork, who made seminal discoveries in respiratory physiology, bird flight, and the evolution of the earliest mammals.

But Jenkins was just as well known for his engaging lectures, and the advice and counsel he gave to students and colleagues.

“His lectures were really performances,” said Andrew A. Biewener, Harvard professor of biology. “He was just so engaging and a true gentleman in the way he approached relationships. He was a great teacher, an outstanding scholar, and someone who was always willing to provide sound advice and guidance to his colleagues.”

A.W. Crompton, a Harvard professor emeritus of biology, had a hand in bringing Jenkins to Harvard in 1971. Crompton had Jenkins as a student at Yale University and agreed with others who said Jenkins’ lectures were “high-spirited,” but no less informative, according to Crompton.

“He was a fantastic teacher, and the list of students he made an impression on goes on and on,” Crompton said.

Crompton said Jenkins delivered his famous “Moby Dick” lecture while wearing a peg leg, reciting lines from the book, and mimicking Captain Ahab plodding along the decks as the crew listened below.

“It was his way of demonstrating the elements of human locomotion,” Crompton said. “There are those who have said about his lectures, ‘They may not remember a word he said, but they will never forget him.’ But all of this is not to say his lectures were not informative. He did take things very seriously, and he could be tough. Once he took up an opinion, he stuck to that opinion.”

Jenkins was also known to spend hours producing illustrations on the chalkboard for a lecture the next day.

“He was also a tremendous artist,” Hanken said, “and he even used a pencil sharpener for his chalk so he could produce these lush illustrations.”

Outside of the classroom, Jenkins was famous for his work in the field, which took him across the globe to East Africa, Greenland, and the American West. His discoveries included Tiktaalik roseae, the 375 million-year-old fossil of a fishlike creature, which Jenkins and colleagues called the missing link between fish and four-legged animals.

Neil Shubin, a professor at the University of Chicago, was a student of Jenkins at Harvard and would go on to spend 30 years in the field with his mentor and friend. Shubin was with Jenkins on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut Territory, Canada, when they discovered Tiktaalik roseae.

“He loved discovery and relished life. We would be suffering like dogs out in the field, and he would look at you and say, ‘How lucky are we?’ He was just hilarious, and after 30 years of working in the field with him, I look back and think about there being just one funny thing after another, even though we were in extreme conditions,” Shubin said.

Looking for fossils in the Arctic can be “like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Shubin said, but Jenkins was able to be a part of some amazing discoveries because of his meticulous preparation and tenacity.

“He just loved fieldwork, and he was smart about it. He made his own luck,” Shubin said. “He was absolutely tenacious. There were years where we failed to find anything, but he was able to learn from those failures. And he had the great sense to know when to quit or when to stick it out.”

Steve Gatesy, a Brown University professor and another student-turned-colleague, spent several seasons in the field with Jenkins.

“Farish was just so amazing. He could go from standing in front of a Harvard anatomy class, wearing a white lab coat, and then the next thing you know he would be back on campus with his dapper suit. Then you would see him using the X-ray machine, with a lead robe on. And then he would be out in the field, covered in mud and carrying a rifle,” said Gatesy. “In fact, someone out in Montana who met him for the first time would have thought he was a cowboy or rancher rather than a Harvard professor. But that was Farish.”

Gatesy was with Jenkins and Shubin on Ellesmere Island, and is the one who dug up the Tiktaalik.

“In many ways, Farish was an old-fashioned guy, and I say that because he had an old-fashioned work ethic. He wanted to get it right, even if it took a long time, which is the opposite of today’s turn-it-out-quickly science. That is what was so refreshing about Farish,” said Gatesy. “When he would go out in the field, he would say that it’s going to take two or three years to get our bearings, then we will know where to look, and then we may get lucky.”

“He was all about quality, which is so refreshing,” Gatesy added.

Also known for excellent posture and impeccable attire, Jenkins left a large mark on Harvard and the world of vertebrate paleontology.

He received his bachelor’s degree in geology from Princeton University, and then served several years in the Marine Corps. After the Marines, Jenkins earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Yale.

He began his teaching career at Columbia University, but he went to Harvard in 1971, attracted by the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and the revitalization of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Jenkins also taught anatomy in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

“That was a very high-level course, with physicians and medical research people, and almost everyone who took that course said it was probably the best course they ever had,” Crompton said.

Jenkins called himself a “hybrid”: an anatomist, zoologist, and vertebrate paleontologist.

“He was not just a straight paleontologist, because he did a lot with anatomy, and how living animals function, and how that relates to fossils. Because of that, he helped to change paleontology from a dull description of fossils to something that’s alive,” Crompton said.

James McCarthy, Harvard professor of biological oceanography, called Jenkins “the epitome of a Harvard professor.”

“He was a true gentleman with impeccable manners, and he loved Harvard. He cared deeply for his students, and he was for many of them the best teacher they would ever know. He was a superb scientist, and a model University citizen. Every pursuit received 100 percent of his effort, and he expected the same of his students and his faculty colleagues,” McCarthy said. “He enjoyed life to the fullest, whether teaching human anatomy at the Medical School, digging for fossils in Greenland, or tending his antique apple orchard on his farm in New Hampshire. Moreover, he delighted in helping others to enjoy life as he did.”

Jenkins met his wife, Eleanor, while he was a student at Princeton. The two lived for several years in Arlington, and also owned that rural apple farm.

In addition to his wife, Jenkins leaves a brother, Henry Edgar II of Sausalito, Calif.; a son, Henry Edgar III of Denver; a daughter, Katherine Temperance Leeds of Watertown, Mass.; and two grandchildren.