Wednesday, October 19, 2016

In memoriam: Stuart A. Altmann

Stuart and Jeanne as highly intelligent, organised, energetic and devoted partners, parents and pack leaders.
Stuart Altmann was extraordinarily brilliant, kind and full of life. Though I think he would agree that Jeanne Altmann probably surpasses him in these qualities, I know of no more exceptional and inspiring people, whether individually or to quote Stuart’s obituary, as a couple in “rich, intellectual partnership”.

Stuart had many passions, and loved to share them. Some of my favourite memories are of him enthusiastically introducing me to proper mole at an Oaxacan restaurant, or whipping up a batch of sourdough waffles from his own decades old sourdough starter, while discoursing on meticulously labelled varieties of cider from the orchard he has lovingly stocked with heirloom apples. Not once, throughout the making and eating of breakfast, did Stuart ever take Jeanne for granted. This would sound sappy if it weren’t so invariably true of both of them, but even when asking his wife to “please pass the salt”, Stuart was genuinely grateful and honoured to be asking her. He liked to relate an anecdote about how his children would come home from school and ask why their parents were so abnormal as to never be seen arguing. I gather they did occasionally disagree, as he also said that since Jeanne was always right about people, he’d long ago given up objecting to her choice of field assistants. They did agree that marrying each other was “the best decision I ever made”.

The baboon project Stuart and Jeanne began in Amboseli is the stuff of legend. I loved to visit Stuart’s office in Eno Hall at Princeton, where he would talk animatedly of modelling baboon foraging behaviour and reminisce about the early days of sociobiology. Stuart was one of the first people to attempt to study animal societies in the wild. This was so unheard of at the time he was looking for a PhD supervisor at Harvard, that he had to go knocking on the doors of various professors who studied behaviour of any kind. Don Griffin, who was later such a proponent of conscious thought in non-humans must have been having a bad day, because Stuart barely got to explain before being told to get out of Griffin’s office. Eventually, someone suggested he approach E. O. Wilson, a promising young ant specialist who was probably going to be appointed as professor soon. The two hit it off, and spent many evenings in the field comparing notes on the rich social lives of their monkeys and ants on Cayo Santiago. Stuart coined the term Sociobiology, the title of Wilson’s famous book decades later.
A pot Stuart made and one of my most treasured possessions

Just as often, we would speak of art, for Stuart was a superb professional potter. He drew his inspiration from many cultures, and the Altmann’s beautiful home in the woods was filled with glorious pottery and paintings. He loved showing me the studio he had set up in their garage, and when he had Alzheimer’s, and couldn’t remember which of the lovely pots were his, he still derived great pleasure from the simplicity of their forms. He brought me to the little studio Jeanne had set up for him in the basement of their new home, and although he never used it, he was happy and proud to show it off. 

The other great source of lasting joy in Stuart’s life was, of course, his family. When not passionately discussing the finer points of their art collection, Stuart would proudly point at beautiful photographs of his family and tell me about them. When his Alzheimer’s was fairly advanced, he was still tickled pink by a photograph he had taken of a beloved granddaughter as a toddler, studying his sock with characteristic Altmann intensity and intellectual curiosity. It was almost a relief that he had forgotten she was no longer alive.

Stuart led one of the richest lives possible, in every dimension. I am proud to have known him.

A memorial service will be held on Thursday, October 20th at 5pm in the atrium at Guyot Hall, Princeton University.

In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Fanconia Anemia Research Fund ( or the Penland School of Crafts (

Friday, September 23, 2016

Birds of Okinawa

Like many islands, Okinawa is full of endemics (species found nowhere else). We were lucky enough to have superb views to both male and female Okinawa woodpeckers as well as a family of Ryukyu robins complete with demanding fledgelings. The Ryukyu scops owl calls almost incessantly in the evenings when we were looking for elusive rhino beetles (Trypoxylus dichotomus). And of course the flightless Okinawa rail, with it's lipstick red bill and legs was a real highlight. Well worth sleeping in the car for a few hours in between nocturnal beetling and dawn, to see the rails when they were most active and busy feeding along route 2, which runs through the Yanbaru forest in the north of Okinawa. There are very sweet signs in Japanese and other languages all along the road, possibly marking the spots of previous rail roadkills. We were also most impressed by the conservation efforts to save the rails, which include a rather successful anti-mongoose fence across the island of Okinawa.