Penn State mourns passing of Alan Walker

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State community is mourning the death of Alan Walker, Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Biology, who passed away on Nov. 20.  He was 79 years old.

“Not only was Alan a brilliant scientist, he was a lovely person as well,” noted Susan Welch, dean of the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts.  “He contributed enthusiastically to his department and college and did much to establish Penn State anthropology as the leading department in its field.”

“By dint of his impeccable scholarship, unstinting enthusiasm for good science, remarkable ingenuity, and unmatched intellectual generosity, Alan Walker created an ecosystem of excellence in which his students and colleagues at Penn State thrived,” added Nina Jablonski, Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology.

Walker was born in Leicester, England on August 23, 1938. He was the second of four sons born to Cyril Walker and Edith Tidd Walker. Following his childhood fascination with animals and fossils, Walker graduated with honors in the natural sciences (geology, zoology, mineralogy, petrology, and paleontology). He then obtained a grant to attend the University of London, where he earned a doctorate in anatomy and paleontology under the mentorship of John Napier. He later received an honorary D.Sc. from the University of Chicago.

After graduating from the University of London, Walker embarked on a career that established him as one of the leading anthropologists and evolutionary biologists of his generation. His groundbreaking research has been instrumental in shaping scientific understanding of primates — particularly Oligocene and Miocene apes and Plio-Pleistocene hominids — and the early evolution of humans. Walker was among the first to work with living and fossil primates simultaneously, which has greatly enhanced researchers’ ability to interpret locomotion from the shape of limbs and inner ears, and primate diets from tooth enamel scratches; his research also helped to develop a greater understanding of how development contributes to the shape of the head and face. Walker is especially known for being part of the team led by Richard Leakey that discovered the skeleton of the “Turkana Boy” in 1984, and for his own discovery of the Black Skull near Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1985.

In addition to his research discoveries, Walker brought new techniques such as stereoscopic measuring and electron microscopy to bear on the analysis of fossil finds. He also shaped one of the most innovative anatomy programs in the United States at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. At a time in the late 1970s and 1980s when the field of molecular biology was gaining significant momentum, Walker assembled a team of anatomists doing research in whole organism evolutionary biology as anatomy instructors for generations of medical students and anthropologists-in-training — a configuration that remains the model for the discipline to this day.

Walker left Johns Hopkins to join the Penn State faculty in 1995. He became a distinguished professor in 1996 and then an Evan Pugh Professor in 2002 before retiring with emeritus status in 2010.

Walker received numerous accolades for his work, including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (1996) and the National Academy of Sciences (2003), and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (1999). In 2017, he received the Charles R. Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Walker is survived by his wife of 42 years, former Penn State anthropology professor and author Pat Shipman, of Moncure, North Carolina; his elder brother, Trevor, and younger brother, Michael, both of whom live in England; and his son, Simon; daughter-in-law, Shellene; and granddaughters, Bryn and Meghan, of Morrisville, North Carolina. In addition to his parents, Walker was preceded in death by his first wife, Patricia Nicholson, and younger brother, Gerald. He also will be remembered fondly by countless former students and colleagues in several countries.

In accordance with his wishes, there will be no funeral or memorial services.  Condolences may be sent to Dr. Pat Shipman at 3140 Chatham Church Road, Moncure, North Carolina, 27559, or pat.shipman9@gmail.com. In lieu of flowers, friends and family in the United States may send donations to St John’s College, Cambridge, at www.cantab.org/giveonline; in the United Kingdom, donations can be made online at https://johnian.joh.cam.ac.uk/giving/donate.

Media Contacts: 

William Hessert

Work Phone: 
814-865-9988

Lead Writer, College of the Liberal Arts

Last Updated November 22, 2017