Harvard celebrates the life of Farish Jenkins, paleontologist who discovered “missing link” fish

Suzanne Kreiter
Suzanne Kreiter
Farish A. Jenkins, Jr., professor of zoology at Harvard University, was fondly remembered by families, students, and colleagues at a memorial service Saturday.

After reading several marvelous stories about the life of the late Harvard paleontologist Farish Jenkins, I was filled with regret that I never had the chance to experience his wit and intelligence firsthand. This weekend, I attended a packed memorial service at Harvard University’s Memorial Church—a farewell celebration that was full of emotion, humor, and whimsy as colleagues, students, and family members remembered Jenkins’ life as a teacher, discoverer, and father.

Obituaries so far have compared Jenkins, 72, to a real-life Indiana Jones -- albeit of paleontology—and recounted the way he would educate students about gait by strapping on a peg leg, strutting across a classroom floor while reading from Moby Dick. He is well-known for discovering Tiktaalik roseae, a link between life in the sea and land. The fossilized fish has many of the characteristics of a land animal, including fins that it could have used to prop itself up, like very primitive legs. But he is perhaps most fondly remembered for his enthusiasm, curiosity, and attention to detail: from every piece of his outfit to his interest in other people, down to memorizing their names and biographies in advance of every class or meeting.

His daughter, Katherine Temperance Leeds, gave a glimpse behind the scenes of Jenkins’ character: the times Jenkins would ask her to help him memorize the names and biographies of his students. He also clearly had a lively spirit, seeing the fun in everyday moments, from the wagers he made with his children to pass the time in an airport when they were young, to betting with the nurse who checked his vital signs about his blood pressure. His son, Henry Edgar Jenkins, said the family had even placed bets on how many people would attend the memorial service, and then read a moving poem dedicated to his dad.

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Jenkins was a beloved teacher, but also a professor who shaped life at Harvard in powerful ways. James J. McCarthy, a professor of biological oceanography, recounted Jenkins’ leadership in standing up at a faculty meeting in early 2006 and challenging Harvard’s then-president, Larry Summers, informing him the university was in chaos, and faculty could no longer put trust in their leader.

Neil Shubin, associate dean at the University of Chicago, recalled a failed expedition to Greenland in the late 1980s, for which they had been ill-prepared. They’d brought the wrong boots, the wrong food, the wrong equipment. The experience, he said, spurred them to say, “Never do anything for the first time.”

Late in the trip, Shubin recalled, an Arctic storm descended. As he and Jenkins clung to poles in their tent, trying to get the thing to stay up as they were assailed by winds and weather, Shubin admitted feeling miserable. But when he looked over at Jenkins, he recounted, the man had a glint in his eye, and said, “Aren’t we lucky! We get paid to do this.”

Ken Dial, a professor of biology at the University of Montana, brought out the peg leg that Jenkins used to wear in classses. Everyone laughed as he turned his back to the audience and briefly swiveled his hips, modeling Jenkins’ hip girdle—a belt attached to a long stick with two balls on the end that faintly recalled a peacock fanning its tail. The device was used to show the role hip motion played in gait. He said that initially, he thought he might reenact Jenkins’ famous lecture, but realized that would be like singing at Luciano Pavarotti’s funeral.

Then he brought people to tears as he described a pending trip to Tanzania—one that he had planned to take with Jenkins. On the phone, Jenkins had assured him that he would be there, and Dial said Jenkins would be there: that he would see Jenkins in every animal he saw, from the graceful movements of the giraffe to the warthog digging for treasures in the dirt.