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Farish A. Jenkins, Jr (1940-2012)

Posted by , on 14 November 2012

       On the morning of Sunday, November 11th, the world lost a great gentleman scholar – Professor Farish A. Jenkins, Jr of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. Farish was an anachronism in today’s world who would have relished in lengthy discourse with the great comparative anatomists of the mid 19th century, his gold watch tucked neatly at home in the pocket of an English waistcoat. He had the admirable skill of speaking with equal measure of comfort and respect not only among the chairs of academic departments but also with his doe-eyed undergraduate advisees. But hidden only slightly beneath the surface of his genteel nature lay a delightfully off color sense of humor punctuated by a deep, hearty chuckle that was infectious in part because no one could help but be amused by how much he tickled himself.

     Farish earned his PhD in Geology at Yale where he entered the great world of paleontology. Always one to look beyond his boundaries of comfort, he sought out training in anatomy at the medical school because after all, these were more than rocks. They were once living, breathing things with movement and three-dimesional form before they were crushed to a flattened and barely articulated state. From his deep understanding of anatomy sprung forth a long and fascinating career in functional morphology that spanned the full spectrum of vertebrate taxa. In his later years, through close friendships with several of us in the embryo world, he developed an additional appreciation for the embryonic origins of adult form and function. So much so that his classic vertebrate anatomy course has been merged and reformatted, along with Dr. Arkhat Abzhanov, to embrace a developmental perspective. Farish was a magnificent instructor. His teaching profoundly impacted thousands if not tens of thousands of students who passed before his colorfully chalked boards – painstakingly laid out in the hours before each class. Even beyond the walls of the classroom, I can’t imagine anyone ever crossed Farish’s path without learning something.

       Farish unknowingly wrote his own tribute in his unscripted speech to the students at his recent Festschrift at Harvard: “This is for the students here, and those who would be students…you entering vertebrate biology whether with molecular systematic interests or organism interests, ecological interests, whatever your interests. You’ve got a great career. Why? Because you will take joy in two things. Here’s where the joys have come in my life. Discovery. When a discovery hits you, you’re looking at something and you don’t see it. And then all of a sudden you do see it. But you didn’t see it because you weren’t prepared to see it. You will make discoveries. Those will be days of your life’s highest elation, and it’s one of the most wonderful things that’s ever happened to me. Days of discovery…The other great happiness that is waiting for you as students is that you will become teachers…Doing something that is entirely happy and joyful. Because if you are good teachers, you will convey your enthusiasm, your love and your insight so that all of a sudden you turn out classes of people who really appreciate the natural world of organisms, and the phenomenon, the incredibly interesting phenomenon, of evolution. And this gives you great joy and gives them great joy…” 

       The days immediately following Farish’s “retirement” party in June were filled with meetings with all of his friend-colleagues to discuss future projects and fun left to be had. One retires from a job but not from a life’s passion. As such, Farish never really retired but continued to dig deeper and found joy in chasing that next discovery. In recent weeks he still took great satisfaction from teaching, beaming at me with pride when my confidence built to erase the carefully sculpted pencil lines of the master and replace them with my own mind’s representation of the bleached bones that we both inspected through his old dissecting microscope. His passing leaves a void but also an inspiration to carry on in his styling – even if none of us could quite pull off his style.

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