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Sonia Harmand

Richard Leakey at the Provost's Lecture Series: "Living Off the Grid with Good Access to Energy and Water". Paleoanthropologist, politician, explorer and environmentalist, Richard Erskine Frere Leakey is chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), and Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University.
Famed paleoanthropologist, conservationist and SBU professor Richard Leakey leaves a lasting legacy

By Daniel Dunaief

A revered scientist, conservationist, Kenyan, and faculty member at Stony Brook University, Richard Leakey died on Jan. 2 at the age of 77.

Leakey made several significant human fossil discoveries, wrote books and ground breaking journal articles, appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1977, and saved elephants and rhinoceros from poaching.

Leakey, who received honorary degrees from numerous institutions including Stony Brook, was also a professor in SBU’s Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the founder of the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

“I considered him my brother,” said former Stony Brook President Shirley Kenny, who had helped recruit Leakey to join the university and developed a close relationship with him over the course of over two decades. When she learned of his death, she was “devastated.”

The Stony Brook connection

Leakey was visiting Manhattan in 2001 when he met with Kenny and Lawrence Martin, who is the director of the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI). Eager to make a good first impression and “nervous about asking this great, incredible man to come and give a lecture,” Kenny got a manicure before the meal. “He wouldn’t have noticed if I had nails,” she laughed.

When Kenny learned that Leakey was in town to find new leg prosthetics after he lost his legs in a 1993 plane crash, the Stony Brook President asked if he had health insurance, which he didn’t. 

Richard Leakey examines fossils at the Turkana Basin Institute.

“Jewish mother that I am, I said, ‘Richard, you have to have medical insurance.’ We arranged for him to be this faculty member at Stony Brook, who came for a certain amount of time each year to give lectures and work with students, to have students work on his digs,” Kenny recalled.

Leakey, who didn’t graduate from college, was proud of his role at Stony Brook and relished the opportunity to teach, several friends and faculty members recalled. Audiences appreciated the opportunity to hear about the most recent discoveries into human origins, especially from someone with Leakey’s world-renowned reputation.

He was just a  “spellbinding public speaker,” said Martin, who first met Leakey when Martin was a graduate student in 1979. 

“When [Leakey] got an honorary degree, he had two to three minutes to make an acceptance speech,” Martin said. “There was not a sound from the moment he got up. It’s one of only two occasions when the entire student body rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.” The other was when famed physicist C.N. Yang received an honorary degree.

Leakey was such a draw that he gave some of his bigger talks at the Staller Center for the Arts, which had to accommodate overflow space for the audience demand.

Patricia Wright, Distinguished Service Professor and founder of a research station Centre ValBio at Stony Brook, recalled how a primate conservation class responded to him.

In his provocative style, Leakey would come in and say something “totally outrageous,” she recalled. The students, who might have otherwise been starstruck and been inclined to write everything he said, felt compelled to speak and would respond, saying, “Wait a second, it shouldn’t be like that.” The class would then discuss a conservation issue with Leakey, which opened up an effective dialogue.

“They loved him because he was so charming and was able to turn their minds around,” Wright said. “I loved those classes and watching him with my students.”

In the world of conservation, Leakey took unconventional approaches that proved effective. In 1989, five years after the landmark discovery of Turkana Boy, a 1.5-million-year-old fossil of one of the most complete early human skeletons, Leakey arranged the burning of 12 tons of ivory tusks in Kenya, signaling that they belonged on live animals.

“We can absolutely say that there are elephants and rhinoceros that are alive today that wouldn’t have been alive if it weren’t for Richard Leakey,” Wright said.

Words of wisdom

In addition to leading by example, Leakey dispensed valuable advice, often over food he prepared specially (more about that in the None of the Above column in this issue).

Leakey “left me with a huge gift, the gift of being confident in what I’m doing, as long I’m doing it with principles,” said Sonia Harmand, Associate Professor in Anthropology at Stony Brook. Leakey urged Harmand not to be “scared of breaking boundaries” and trying something nobody else had tried, she said. “Have faith in what you think you want to do. Never be afraid of being judged.”

Richard Leakey and Joe Biden in 2017 at the Stars of Stony Brook gala at Chelsea Piers. Photo from SBU

Harmand made a significant archaeological discovery, for which she received some skeptical comments. Leakey suggested that she consider such questions a point of pride and a reflection of the value of the work.

“You start to have enemies when you start to be famous and important,” Harmand said Leakey told her. It made her think she should be pleased that people were scrutinizing and criticizing her work. 

Wright, meanwhile, appreciated how Leakey gave her the strength to live life the way she wanted. He urged her to put in the time and effort to work on politics and networking.

Several people suggested that Leakey, who battled physical challenges throughout his life without complaint, also inspired them. “He really taught me about courage and strength,” Kenny said. “I had the kind of courage that let me take on paths I didn’t know if I could handle. He taught me physical courage.”

Indeed, Leakey displayed the kind of physical courage and belief in his convictions people typically associate with a character from a Tom Clancy novel.

In 1967, Leakey was on a Kenyan flight that had to divert because of a dust storm. Despite earlier reports that the land in the Lake Turkana region was volcanic, Leakey thought he saw sedimentary rock, which could contain fossils. He rented a helicopter and landed with only seven minutes of extra gas to spare for the return trip. When he got out of the helicopter, he found fossils. He quickly appeared at a National Geographic meeting, where he urged the group to fund the search on the east side of Turkana.

The chairman of the society told him “if you don’t find fossils, don’t bother to come back to National Geographic,” Martin said the chairman told Leakey. The findings were more than enough for the group to continue funding Leakey’s research, including on the west side of Lake Turkana, where he discovered Turkana Boy. 

Life-altering contact

For several of those who knew Leakey, the interaction was life-altering.

When he was a high school student in Nairobi, Isaiah Nengo heard a talk Leakey gave about plate tectonics and evolution.

“I was completely blown away,” said Nengo, who is now Associate Director at the Turkana Basin Institute.

As a second-year student at the University of Nairobi, Nengo attended an evolution lecture by Leakey. At that point, he was hooked, deciding to become a paleoanthropologist.

Nengo, whose parents’ education stopped around fourth grade, wrote to Leakey after he graduated from college, not expecting to hear back.

“It goes to tell you what kind of person [Leakey] was,” Nengo said. “This kid from the University of Nairobi out of nowhere writing him a letter, and he wrote back.”

Nengo, who said he heard similar stories from others in Kenya, including some who are currently colleagues at TBI, volunteered for a few months, until he got a fellowship.

He said Leakey helped fund a post-baccalaureate one-year program in the United States.

“The best gift you could get is the gift of knowledge,” Nengo said. “From [Leakey], I got the gift of knowledge, which changed the trajectory of my life.”

Like others who were prepared to change their lives after interacting with Leakey, Harmand had been in a comfortable job at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France when Leakey suggested she join Stony Brook and the Turkana Basin Institute in 2011. “I’m not sure I would have taken” the job, but for Leakey. The work was only supposed to last a couple of years, but she never left.

“He marked my life forever and my career forever,” Harmand said. “We also had a very deep friendship” that extended to the next generation, as her nine-year-old daughter Scarlett has forged a connection with Leakey’s granddaughter Kika, whose mother Samira is the daughter of Richard and Meave Leakey.

With three daughters, including Louise Leakey, who conducts field research at Turkana Basin institute, Leakey was a strong advocate for women.

Women are “equally capable as men and for him, this was not even a question,” Harmand said.

A passion for Kenya

In addition to being pleased with his connection to Stony Brook University, Leakey, who accepted the ceremonial key to a French city in his first language of Swahili, was a proud Kenyan. He set out to employ, train, include and inspire Kenyans in research projects and encouraged the children of staff members to come see the fossils, Martin said.

Leakey also helped raise money from people who traveled to Kenya to support educational fellowships. He contributed to the construction of maternity clinics on either side of Lake Turkana so women could give birth in safe, sterile conditions with electric light, Martin added.

Kenyans recognized Leakey when he traveled and appreciated his contribution to the country.

“We were driving to his farm, when we got stopped,” Martin said. “Everybody knew him and wanted to shake his hand and say hello. He was a local hero who was seen as a Kenyan doing things for his fellow Kenyans,” Martin said.

Harmand recalled one of the last times she spoke with him; he reiterated his passion for his home country.

Leakey made it clear “how important it is to involve Kenyans in what we do,” Harmand said. “We are training the next generation of human origin scientists in Kenya. He is the son of Kenya.”

A passion for science

While Leakey had a genuine interest in a variety of fields, he was, at his core, a scientist. Nengo called him a “polymath” who knew a great deal about a wide range of scientific subjects.

In one of her final conversations with Leakey, Wright said he took her aside after a meal she described as “exquisite” and asked her about bones she’d found in Madagascar.

The conventional wisdom about human origins in the island nation was that humans had come from Borneo 2,000 years ago.

In the middle of Madagascar, however, Wright had found bones from hippos and birds that had cut marks from humans that dated back 10,000 years.

Leakey told her that she “had to find those people,” she recalled. “You will be letting down all of Madagascar if you don’t find their origins.”

Wright said that conversation, which had its intended effect, was “emblematic of his burning desire to know and to learn about hominid history and the burning desire to collect and assemble pieces of history.”

Birthday presents

Leakey, who gave so much of himself to so many people, didn’t like receiving gifts, Martin said, but he welcomed receiving cheese, wine or cooking tools, including pots and pans.

When Leakey reached his 70th birthday, Martin asked him what he planned to do to celebrate. He had scheduled a sailing trip, but he wasn’t sure if he could pull together a crew. Martin offered to be a part of his crew for a journey that lasted over a week aboard a 38-foot catamaran.

Leakey’s daughters Samira and Louise joined Martin as deck hands, giving Richard Leakey the opportunity to take the helm during his journey along the coast of Kenya near his home in Lamu.

“When he was steering the boat, it was the only time he wasn’t challenged by his disabilities,” Martin said. “He didn’t need his feet. Driving wasn’t particularly easy. When he was sitting in the catamaran, it didn’t heel; it went fast, and he could steer the boat. Watching him, I had the sense that he felt completely free.”