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Alison Jolly ’62PhD dies at 76; was world expert on lemurs

"A chance invitation to babysit laboratory lemurs at Yale University in 1959, where she was a graduate student immersed in the study of sea sponges, triggered a change of direction and a distinguished career as a primatologist for Alison Jolly."

So says a Lemur Conservation Foundation remembrance of Jolly, who died at her home in England on February 6. She was 76 years old.

Another chance encounter, nearly a decade later at the University of Cambridge, set another young scientist on the path of lemur pursuit. Alison Richard, a Cambridge undergraduate, had just returned from a summer researching howler monkeys in Panama.

"I loathed it as it rained all the time, I couldn't see the animals, and there were poisonous snakes everywhere," Richard told an interviewer in 2008. She told Jolly, then a young faculty member, "and she said that I should go to Madagascar as there were no poisonous snakes, there was dry spine forest and really interesting questions about the animals."

Richard did go to Madagascar, then to Yale—where she spent 30 years at Yale as anthropology professor, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural Science, and provost—and then headed the University of Cambridge. Now back on the Yale faculty, she found time to write her own tribute to Jolly, in England's Guardian.

Already as a Yale postdoc, Jolly "pioneered in-depth field research on the behaviour and ecology of lemurs in Madagascar," Richard says. 

Like the New York Times obituary, Richard notes that Jolly made an early splash by establishing "from meticulously reported field observations the odd fact that among the lemurs she studied, females typically had priority over males, upending the longstanding assumption that male primates are always bigger, fiercer and dominant."

"Jolly never described herself as a feminist," Richard says. "She simply lived a life that led and supported feminism."

Raised in Ithaca, New York, Alison Bishop earned her Yale PhD in 1962. She met and married a budding economist from England, Richard Jolly ’66PhD, in 1963.

Her love of lemurs did not lead Jolly to ignore human primates. With her economist husband, she wrote a paper for an international conference on conservation in Madagascar that was "too controversial to be included in the published conference proceedings," because it argued for the needs of people as well as wildlife, Richard recounts.

"The paper circulated informally instead . . . helping to establish an approach to conservation that included the needs and aspirations of people as well as the island's unique and endangered natural communities."

Alison Jolly "nurtured students, too," Richard writes: "a whole generation of primatologists and conservation biologists came of age with her encouragement and support."

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The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under lemurs, Alison Richard, Alison Jolly

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