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Farish A. Jenkins (1940–2012)

Farish Jenkins

Deborah Smiley

Farish Jenkins, a noted palaeontologist and charismatic professor at Harvard University, died on 11 November, after what friends say was a long struggle with cancer. He was 72.

“They just don’t make them like Farish any more,” says Hopi Hoekstra, an evolutionary biologist and curator of mammals at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Jenkins was curator of vertebrate palaeontology. “He can tell stories like no other; you’d make an excuse to stop by his office just to chat.”

Jenkins had plenty of tales to tell of his exploits as an adventurer-scientist, trekking to exotic, unexplored lands in search of fossils. One such expedition to the Canadian Arctic led Jenkins and his colleagues to discover the fossil remains of Tiktaalik roseae — a four-legged, fish-like creature uncovered on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut — which appeared to show the evolutionary transition of vertebrates from water to land. The finding sparked a media frenzy and was featured on the 6 April 2006 cover of Nature. (See also ‘The fish that crawled out of the water‘.)

“Farish would always give everybody else credit and he was just so excited about the science,” recalls Hoekstra.

Jenkins brought his excitement for science to the classroom, where he sought to engage and mentor young students. Hoekstra described one lecture for Jenkins’s vertebrate palaeontology course, in which he would wear a dark suit and use his own body as a chalkboard to illustrate the bones of the body.

“I think that there’s obviously a big gap in teaching now,” says Hoekstra. “Even more importantly, we’ve lost a dear friend and one of the most charismatic colleagues.”

Jenkins also delighted in showing journalists around the museum’s storied collection and his natural gift for storytelling was catnip for any reporter ready for a good yarn.

Jenkins is survived by his wife Eleanor. In between Jenkins’s research, teaching, traveling and digging, the couple spent leisure time on their apple farm in New Hampshire. The farm boasted a wide variety of apples, which Jenkins made into apple cider for his guests and neighbors.

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    Manda Clair Jost said:

    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, and know you will never be forgotten

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