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If you like Meave Leakey's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Sylvia Earle,
Gertrude Elion,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Donald Johanson,
Richard Leakey,
Ernst Mayr,
Sally Ride,
Richard Schultes,
Donna Shirley,
Kent Weeks,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Related Links:
Meave Leakey
Leakey Foundation
Turkana Basin

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Meave Leakey
Meave Leakey
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Meave Leakey Interview

Pioneering Paleoanthropologist

June 11, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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  Meave Leakey

We've read that you were led to Africa and paleontology because a friend showed you an ad in the newspaper. Can that be true? Was that a turning point in your life?

Meave Leakey: It really was. It's amazing. That was when I was trying to apply for marine zoology jobs. I was getting a bit depressed about it actually. When you have a dream and it doesn't seem to be working out, and you are at that age, you think this is the end of everything.

This friend came to me one day and he said, "There's this very short advert in The Times newspaper. Why don't you just phone?" It was just a couple of lines, saying there's a job in Kenya to work at a primate research center. It didn't say any more than that, and there was a phone number. I decided to phone straightaway, because I was quite excited with the idea of going to Africa and it just seemed to have a lot of potential. By that time, I had realized it was going to be very difficult to get a job in marine zoology, so I was beginning to think, "Okay. If you can't do that, then do something else." And this seemed exciting. I remember on the phone call Louis (Leakey) actually answered the call, and I had, in my excitement, not looked how much change I had in my pocket, and I had all these very small coins and I was frantically feeding this machine with my coins while trying to get the information from Louis. He was basically saying, "Come to London for an interview," and telling me where to go. That interview then resulted in me getting the job and going to Kenya. So yes, it was absolutely the turning point in my life.

When you met the Leakeys for the first time, how soon did you get the feeling that this could be your life's work? Was it love at first sight or did it take a while?

Meave Leakey Interview Photo
Meave Leakey: When I first went to work at the Primate Research Centre, I was helping run the day-to-day work and overseeing things. At the same time, I was collecting data for my Ph.D. on modern monkey skeletons. There was a good collection of modern monkey skeletons that had been made by the person who was running the research center. Louis Leakey's idea had been that everyone always looks at skulls and teeth to do taxonomy, and he felt that there was as much to learn from the skeleton as there was from the skull and teeth. So he said, "It would be good to do a study to look at the postcranium of the many monkey species that there are in Africa, or at least in East Africa, and to use this collection as a basis to do that." I was really looking at the forearm bones to see how much difference there was between different species, and that was the subject. So I got to know monkey skeletons really well. After I had written up my Ph.D., I heard from Louis again.

Louis asked me to go back and look after the center while the person who was running it left, because she was leaving. She wasn't leaving. Well, she was supposed to leave in January and in the end she didn't leave until June. So I was running it while she was still there but not running it. It was a bit of an awkward time. During that time I met Richard, because when Louis went away he used to ask Richard to take over his projects and things. The first time I met Richard, he called me into his office and told me that the primate center was spending too much money and I'd better take care because there weren't that many funds. So he gave me this long lecture on spending less. I got to know him over the next few months in that capacity. Then he invited me to go to the field with him that year, because they were doing the second year's field work at Lake Turkana. Because of my interest in modern monkeys, it made sense to then start looking at fossil monkeys. So he said, "Why don't you come up and study the fossil monkeys that we're collecting," because they were collecting a lot of monkeys. But he'd only worked there one year, and in that one year had discovered what a fantastic site it was. So that really was the beginning of that long term project, which has now been going for over 30 years.

Meave Leakey Interview Photo
You mentioned meeting your husband, Richard Leakey. How soon before the two of you became a couple?

Meave Leakey: I met him in early '69. We got married in 1970.

So there was obviously chemistry from the beginning. Besides him yelling at you about the center's expenses.

Meave Leakey: I think so. And he didn't yell. He told me very nicely.

Richard is quite a controversial person and he's very outspoken. Many people don't think he's a very nice person, which is quite wrong actually. He's an incredibly generous, kind, interesting person. So I was always told, "You don't want to meet him. Meet any of the other Leakeys, but not Richard. You don't want to meet him." I never could understand when I did meet him why anyone would have told me that. I guess the people telling me didn't really know him.

What is it about paleontology that seems to bring people together? It seems there are a lot of couples in this work. Does this sort of work form a bond?

Meave Leakey: You do form bonds in the field. I think when one's in difficult situations you tend to form bonds. But at the same time, I think it's because you're a long time in the field. People who are doing different things, it means one person's away a long time, and often out of touch. Even with Richard and I, once Richard left to do other things, keeping in touch with him was quite difficult. Often what he was doing was a little bit dangerous, so it was always, "I wonder if everything is okay in Nairobi," and there was no way of finding out. I think it's very nice to be able to work with your partner in any situation, but I think to be able to do that in the field is very special. So it was great. Before he went off to Wildlife it was really fantastic. Twenty years we had actually working together like that.

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