Duke scientist-explorer Elwyn Simons, who studied living and extinct primates for more than 50 years, died in his sleep on Sunday, March 6, in Peoria, Arizona. He was 85.
Widely regarded as the founder of modern primate paleontology, Simons was an expert on the history of primates leading up to humans. Simons’ fossil-hunting expeditions and primate conservation work took him all over the globe, from the badlands of Wyoming to the Egyptian desert and the rainforests of Madagascar. From 1961 to 2012, he led more than 90 field expeditions and wrote or coauthored more than 300 books and research articles.
“I don’t know of anyone in the last half century who has influenced the field as much as he has,” said paleontologist Gregg Gunnell, who directs the Division of Fossil Primates at the Duke Lemur Center.
“No scientist has contributed more to our understanding of primate evolution and humanity's place in the primate family tree,” said paleontologist Erik Seiffert of Stony Brook University, who earned a Ph.D. under Simons’ mentorship in 2003. “He was an intrepid and absolutely tenacious explorer,” Seiffert said.
Simons was born on July 14, 1930, in Lawrence, Kansas. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Rice University and doctoral degrees from both Princeton and Oxford University. He was a professor at Yale University for 17 years before joining the Duke faculty in 1977, where he remained until his retirement in 2011.
Simons is best known for his work on the history of apes, monkeys and other primates in Egypt. For more than four decades, he and his lab and field partner Prithijit Chatrath led crews of 15 or more people into the vast desert southwest of Cairo -- once an ancient jungle -- where they painstakingly uncovered the fossil remains of thousands of extinct animals, many of which were previously unknown to science.
“It’s fun to find fossils because you never know what you’re going to find and there’s always a chance that you’ll find something quite unusual, and that kind of excitement makes it sort of like a treasure hunt,” Simons said in “Passionate Minds: The Inner World of Scientists,” by Lewis Wolpert and Alison Richards.
Simons’ wife Friderun Ankel-Simons, a scientist and author in her own right who frequently accompanied him in the field, recalls many years of “vehicles getting stuck in sand or mud, or running out of gas on the highway; sleeping in tents in magical places and seeing more stars than one ever imagined existed; hearing the desert fox calling or the lemurs quarrel in the middle of the night.”
Scott Wing, a paleobotanist at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History who went on fossil-hunting trips with Simons as an undergraduate at Yale in the 1970s, remembers one night when their nine-person field crew was forced to crowd into a single tent during a sandstorm in the Egyptian desert: “The mood was grim,” Wing said. “Elwyn reached into a bag and pulled out a bottle of horrible Egyptian rum, passed it to the nearest person after a swig, and then said: ‘Well, we could lift our spirits by singing folk songs!’ He promptly began with a rendition of ‘Geese Fly High In Kansas,’ an old tune he had learned from his grandparents.”
“Elwyn was a storyteller and always commanded an audience,” said paleontologist John Fleagle of Stony Brook University, who first met Simons at Yale in the late 1960s.
Rarely seen without his trademark flat-topped Greek fisherman’s cap, Simons was a man of boundless energy. “He never slept,” said Northern Illinois University anthropologist Daniel Gebo, a graduate student of Simons in the 1980s. “Then at some point while you were talking to him, he would say that he had to have a nap NOW and he would simply fall asleep, leaving all of us wondering what to do about what we were talking about.”
Simons’ decades of fossil-hunting in Egypt yielded tens of thousands of fossil specimens from Africa’s past, perhaps the most famous of which are several skulls of Aegyptopithecus, a 30-million-year-old ancestor of humans, monkeys and apes.
Paleontologist Kathleen Muldoon of Midwestern University remembers the first time she met Simons, at an award ceremony at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. “Elwyn happened to come over to where I was sitting with friends and asked to take an empty chair. ‘Actually, a friend of ours is just getting a drink,’ I said. ‘Yes?’ he said, ‘Well I discovered Aegyptopithecus!’ And he took the chair away.”
In addition to his work in paleontology, Simons was also a major figure in primate conservation, particularly the rare and endangered lemurs of Madagascar.
Simons joined Duke in 1977 to become the second director of the Duke Primate Center, now known as the Duke Lemur Center. The then 9-year-old center had a dwindling collection of aging animals, and was on the brink of shutting down. Some of the center’s animals, like Nigel, a Coquerel's sifaka, were the last members of their species in captivity in the United States.
Inspired by the success of captive breeding and reintroduction programs that were bringing species like the California condor and the black-footed ferret back from the brink, Simons got permission from the Malagasy government to capture wild lemurs and relocate them to North Carolina. His goal was both to diversify the gene pool of species already in captivity, and to start new captive breeding programs with others, as “a second line of defense against extinction.”
With Duke primatologist Kenneth Glander, Simons led multiple missions to Madagascar in the 1980s and 1990s to capture wild lemurs. One of them, an aye-aye named Endora, gave birth to the first of her kind to be born in captivity outside Madagascar -- a tiny male that Simons named Blue Devil, after the Duke mascot.
“He doted over every lemur that was born at the center,” said Gregg Gunnell, who remembers Simons cradling and hand-feeding a premature newborn.
The center’s collection grew steadily from 200-250 animals to more than 700 at its fullest in the mid-1980s, today representing more than 20 species, making it the world’s most diverse lemur collection outside of Madagascar.
“He knew each of the hundreds of resident lemurs by name,” said Duke Lemur Center conservation coordinator Charlie Welch.
“Once he found himself locked into one of the indoor cages for the night when everyone else had left,” Gebo said. “He thought nothing about spending the evening with sifakas on the ground in the sawdust until he was found the next morning. It did not bother him in the least.”
Simons directed the Duke Primate Center until 1992, and continued as Director of Research for another decade. In his first ten years as director the center’s budget increased six-fold and the publication rate doubled.
Simons “conducted the first-ever reintroduction of captive-bred lemurs to the wild,” said Lemur Center animal curator Andrea Katz, who met Simons while an undergraduate at Duke in the late 1970s. He also oversaw the creation of several conservation initiatives in Madagascar that continue to this day, including the establishment of a lemur conservation center called Parc Ivoloina.
Simons is a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, and was elected a “Knight of the National Order” by the government of Madagascar.
“He was a bit larger than life, and the world is a little less colorful without him in it,” said former graduate student Pat Holroyd of the University of California-Berkeley.
Primatologist Patricia Wright, now at Stony Brook University, recalls her last field expedition with Simons, a 2008 trip to Madagascar in search of the remains of lemurs that lived 10,000 years ago.
“He was tough and kind and very wise, and we found the bones,” Wright said.
Simons is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Friderun Ankel-Simons; a brother, Herbert Simons; three children, D. Brenton Simons, Cornelia Seiffert and Verne Simons; and two grandchildren, Eleanor and William Simons.
In lieu of flowers/cards/gifts, please donate to the Duke Lemur Center Division of Fossil Primates to support curation of the fossils that Elwyn discovered on his expeditions to Egypt, Madagascar and Wyoming. Donation checks should be made out to Duke University and mailed to: Division of Fossil Primates, Duke Lemur Center, 1013 Broad Street, Durham, NC 27705. Memo Line: Div. of Fossil Primates/Honor of E. Simons
Donations can also be made online at https://www.gifts.duke.edu/. Please designate your gift to the Duke Lemur Center’s Division of Fossil Primates, in memory of Elwyn Simons.