fb-pixelFarish Jenkins, paleontologist, Harvard teacher - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Farish Jenkins, paleontologist, Harvard teacher

Dr. Jenkins after describing a “missing link” fossil, a fish with legs called Tiktaalik roseae.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/file 2006/Boston Globe

Farish A. Jenkins Jr. wore carefully pressed shirts and three-piece suits when he stood in front of his Harvard University classes, but he was also known to strap on a peg leg, draw chalk lines on his trousers, and demand the shoes of students sitting in the front row so he could examine their wear patterns.

"He certainly got people's attention," said A.W. Crompton, a colleague for more than 30 years at Harvard, where he is a professor emeritus. "I don't think we'll see somebody who can teach like Farish taught again for a long time."

Dr. Jenkins, who died in Brigham and Women's Hospital Sunday at 72 of complications from pneumonia, was an inveterate explorer and one of the world's leading paleontologists, known for combining field work in fossils with laboratory research on living creatures to help understand how ancient animals lived and moved.


He is credited with explaining the evolutionary transition from reptiles, which move by shifting their rib cage from side to side, to mammals, which arch their rib cages instead. He also helped discover a 375-million-year-old "missing link" creature, Tiktaalik roseae, which helped explain how sea creatures evolved to live on land.

"Farish was defined by the questions he asked," said Neil Shubin, a University of Chicago professor who conducted 30 years of fieldwork with Dr. Jenkins. "How do the great transitions in evolution happen?"

To understand that, Dr. Jenkins used the most basic tools to dig through layers of dirt in Greenland, Wyoming, and East Africa, and the most advanced ones to examine animals in his Harvard lab.

He was the rare combination of researcher who could both "go out and find stuff," and who "loved to tinker with electronics and X-ray machines," said Elizabeth Brainerd, a former student and now a professor at Brown University.


Brainerd and other former students said Dr. Jenkins spent hours offering constructive criticism on their papers and let them use equipment years after they graduated.

A reference from him was never a casual affair, she and others said.

It was always well-crafted, the product of a weekend's worth of reading, thinking, and writing.

"All of us owe him our jobs," said Stephen Gatesy, a professor at Brown who collaborated with Dr. Jenkins.

Dr. Jenkins was always willing to offer advice to former students, sometimes for years. Brainerd said that earlier in her teaching career, she would drive from Amherst to Cambridge, arriving unannounced at 6 a.m., because she knew Dr. Jenkins would be in his office and willing to answer her questions.

"He just had the most wonderful advice in all matters having to do with science," Brainerd said. "When I had big decisions in front of me, I'd know he was always there."

Dr. Jenkins was also known for his precision.

A former Marine Corps captain, he started classes at the appointed hour and finished just as the second hand swept upward.

He spent hours preparing for his classes, even after teaching them for decades. At the beginning of each semester, he memorized the class list so he could greet each student by name, and showed up early to each lecture to begin the multicolored chalk drawings that he completed as he explained the topic.

His most famous class was his "Moby-Dick" lecture during which he strapped on a peg leg and clomped around while reciting the scene from the classic novel when Captain Ahab paces the deck as his sailors listen from the bunks below.


Because of his teachings about gait, students understood that a peg leg doesn't have the arch tendon to absorb shock. No one who heard that lecture ever forgot it or the lessons it taught.

"He was a showman, but he made complex anatomy easy and fun and exciting," said ­Daniel Lieberman, another Harvard professor.

"He never did anything by half," said Lieberman, remembering the enormous bottle of champagne Dr. Jenkins brought to Lieberman's doctorate party. "Everything he did, from his science to his personal relationships to just how he dressed, he did to perfection."

Though his wardrobe and vocabulary sometimes seemed from another era, Dr. Jenkins was anything but stuffy. He wanted science to be fun, for himself and others.

Brainerd said when a visiting scientist did lung experiments with rabbits, Dr. Jenkins nicknamed the process "Pumpathumpa."

He also taught his students his own exceptionally high standards.

"I learned the value of thoroughness, depth, and patience," Gatesy said. "In today's society, it's move-move-move, fast-fast-fast. Farish is very, 'Slow down, get it right.' It's not something that's easy to pass on to students these days."

The oldest of three boys, Dr. Jenkins was born in New York City and grew up with his grandmother in Colorado while his father served in World War II.

While studying at Princeton University, he met Eleanor ­Tracy on a blind date, though not with each other.


She mentioned that she wasn't sure how to change train stations in New York to get back to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, so he drove her to the proper station, more than an hour away.

Before marrying, they dated in college and during his nearly four years in the Marine Corps.

After graduating with a master's and doctorate from Yale University, he worked at Columbia University before moving to Harvard.

Since the mid-1970s, Dr. Jenkins and his wife shared a 19th-century farmhouse and apple orchard in New Hampshire.

Dr. Jenkins, who in recent years lived in Arlington, once wrote that he traced his interest in live animal research to a serendipitous stop in Nairobi on the way back from a graduate school trip to South Africa.

"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 [rental car] 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."

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

A memorial service in ­Memorial Church at Harvard will be announced.


Shubin said the field expeditions he shared for 30 years with Dr. Jenkins were "pure Calvinist" for their suffering. They spent four summers digging in the Arctic without finding a thing, but Dr. Jenkins managed to shower every day, despite temperatures that dropped to minus 10, and kept everyone laughing and in good spirits.

"There was a joy to the whole thing," said Shubin, who had been planning another expedition with Dr. Jenkins next summer. "He loved home, he loved his wife and his family. But for him, fieldwork was where his senses came alive. . . . He would almost tingle with the sense of discovery."

Karen Weintraub can be reached at Karen@KarenWeintraub.com.