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The Passing of Dr. Richard Leakey

January 4, 2022

To Our Campus Community,

It was with deep sadness that I learned of the passing of Dr. Richard Leakey, a global leader in both paleoanthropology and conservation as well as an esteemed Stony Brook University professor. The world has lost one of its most visionary researchers and dedicated conservationists. And yet Dr. Leakey’s memory will live on — through his loving family; his friends; his colleagues who span countries, fields, and disciplines; and the many people he inspired throughout his incredible career. Indeed, his impact is impossible to forget.

Born in Kenya to a family of paleoanthropologists, Richard Leakey served for years as the director of the National Museums of Kenya. Two truly groundbreaking fossil hunters, Dr. Leakey and his wife Meave led expeditions throughout the Turkana Basin region in East Africa that would transform the way we think of human evolution. Their 1984 discovery of “Turkana Boy” — an almost complete skeleton of a juvenile Homo erectus, dated at 1.6 million years old — marked a new era of research and knowledge of early Hominidae. The following year, their team of experienced Kenyan fossil hunters made another stunning discovery of the first — and only — skull of a new hominid species, Australopithecus aethiopicus, a fossil that is still the subject of analysis, debate, and wonder.

Dr. Leakey was a scientist and a scholar who held a true reverence for life: a respect and love for living beings in all their forms. In 1989, he left the museum to become a head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, working tirelessly to defend Kenyan wildlife from harm, focusing on the reorganization of its national parks system, and making headlines with his powerful stance against the poaching of elephants and rhinoceroses. He quickly distinguished himself as a global leader in elephant conservation and was a tenacious advocate for Kenya’s elephants in the face of impending extinction due to poaching and human interference. His career remained defined by his mutual commitment to animal and environmental advocacy. He founded his own anti-corruption political party, Safina, and in 1998 became a member of the Kenyan Parliament. He was quickly appointed as the Head of Kenya’s Civil Service as well as Secretary of the Cabinet, combining his work as a humanitarian and dedication to conservation.

Dr. Leakey joined our faculty in 2002 and shortly began the foundational plans for the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), a partnership with Stony Brook University to create a permanent infrastructure for research in the Turkana Basin. TBI now operates two field research stations around Lake Turkana. An international and multidisciplinary enterprise, TBI successfully facilitates anthropological fieldwork as well as trains and employs African scientists. It is the preeminent archive of fossil evidence for human evolution, working with local communities to guard deposits.

Among other international awards and honors, Richard Leakey was a Fellow of the Royal Society, the Chair of TBI, a recipient of the Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society, a recipient of the Humane Society of the United States Joseph Wood Krutch Medal, and a beloved Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook. It was this University’s honor to be the academic home of such a visionary scholar for the last two decades. Dr. Leakey’s expertise and leadership in three different fields — paleoanthropology, animal conservation, and politics — are truly inspiring, and an embodiment of the ethos by which Stony Brook University defines itself: interdisciplinary research excellence and an understanding that it is only through the collaboration among various fields, disciplines, and industries that we can effect positive change in the world.

I am grateful to Dr. Leakey not only for the major discoveries he made during his lifetime but also for the important example he set for scholars everywhere. Stony Brook University will feel his absence profoundly. We send our heartfelt condolences to Meave and the entire Leakey family.

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Maurie McInnis