Few careers include both research on lemurs in Africa and successful negotiation of environmental reform. But Alison Richard — one-time University provost and former Director of the Yale Peabody Museum — has somehow managed all this and more.
The Peabody Museum presented Richard with the Addison Amery Verrill Medal for achievement on Wednesday, its highest honor for achievement in the natural sciences. The award ceremony, which was preceded by Michael Novacek’s lecture on global trauma to ecosystems, was held in Luce Hall in front of an audience of about 170 faculty members and administrators.
Richard’s career as an anthropologist involved the study of primates on the island of Madagascar. Working alongside Malagasy colleagues, Richard led a movement to preserve the nation’s resources and became the world’s leading authority on the behavior of primates and an advocate for the plight of lemurs in Madagascar.
“One of the great things Alison did was to establish relationships with the people in Madagascar,” current Peabody Director Michael Donoghue said at the ceremony. “These connections are what have made her effective.”
Richard left her position as chair of the anthropology department in 1991 to direct the Peabody Museum. She was appointed provost of Yale in 1994 and in 2003, the British-born anthropologist left Yale to become the first female vice=chancellor of Cambridge University in England. Throughout her time as an administrator at Yale, she kept up with her field work in Madagascar.
As Provost, Richard led the charge to reorganize the biological sciences at Yale, which led to the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which was created during her tenure.
In a speech at the ceremony, University President Richard Levin described her critical role in strongly advocating for “the greening of the Blue,” her name for Yale’s efforts at environmental responsibility and leadership.
“She is a person of strategic ambition and vision,” Levin said.
Richard, in accepting the award, expressed her approval of Yale’s and the Peabody’s efforts at environmental responsibility.
“I’m very proud that Yale is stepping up to lead their country,” she said.
She pointed out that the medal’s significance was more than academic and highlighted the growing importance of the natural sciences outside of the science community, a theme also presented in Novacek’s talk.
His lecture, “Biodiversity Past, Present, and Future: From the Island of Madagascar to Island Earth” described Earth’s five previous “extinction events” and the possible global traumas which caused them.
With this in mind, he presented an ominous prediction: “Extinction is an expected outcome.”
Novacek discussed recent trends in public awareness of environmental matters, and particularly global warming, suggesting that the science community needs to continue to increase awareness to combat issues like global warming.
Richard agreed that Yale’s efforts at environmental responsibility and awareness would be effective only if they could expand to the nation and the world community at large.
“It isn’t only about this institution,” she said.
The event was co-sponsored by the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies.