Ellen Kan

This weekend, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History celebrated four of the nation’s most eminent natural scientists with the awarding of the Addison Emery Verrill Medal — the highest honor bestowed by the museum’s curators.

The Verrill Medal, established in 1959 by former Peabody Museum Director Sidney Ripley ’36, recognizes “signal practitioners in the arts of natural history and natural sciences,” according to the museum’s website. The medal has been awarded only 18 times since its inception, with the most recent awardee receiving the honor in 2008.

“It’s really fitting, on the 150th anniversary of an institution like the Peabody, to bring attention to and celebrate scholars who have each made an enormous difference to how we understand the world around us,” Peabody Museum Director David Skelly said at the award ceremony on Friday. “Each of these folks has contributed amazingly in different ways to what we think about, what we see when we walk outside and that’s never going to be more important than it is now.”

This year’s awardees are May Berenbaum ’75, professor of entomology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Naomi Pierce ’76, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University and curator at the Museum of Comparative Zoology; Neil Shubin, professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago; and Geerat Vermeij GRD ’71, professor of marine ecology and paleoecology at the University of California, Davis.

During the ceremony, Skelly also announced a fifth recipient of the Verrill Medal: British naturalist and documentary filmmaker David Attenborough. Attenborough, who was unable to attend the event, was presented with the medal in January. This year’s ceremony followed a tradition established in 1966, when five scientists received the Verrill Medal during the museum’s 100th anniversary celebration, Skelly said.

After receiving their medals, the four awardees engaged in a panel discussion moderated by 2008 Verrill medalist Alison Richard, a former University provost. The scientists discussed their influences, as well as the value and future of natural history collections. Berenbaum described these collections as “utterly invaluable,” saying that scientists discover new uses for specimens every year.

“We need baselines to understand global climate change, changes in species distributions, accumulation of environmental toxins, the origin of epidemics — you can find all these things frozen in time in museums,” Berenbaum said. “There’s no replacing these specimens, short of a time machine, and we are the lucky beneficiaries of the visionaries who collected them.”

To take advantage of having four distinguished Verrill medalists all in one place, the Peabody Museum decided to complement the awards ceremony with the Verrill Medal Symposium, according to David Heiser, the director of student programs at the Peabody. This full-day event, held on Saturday in the museum’s newly opened David Friend Hall, allowed the medalists to have more time to share their research and perspectives on natural history museums, Heiser said.

In addition to featuring speeches from each of the awardees, the Peabody also invited 10 current Yale students and recent alumni to showcase their work at the Verrill Medal Symposium. These speakers gave short presentations on topics ranging from the distribution of dinosaur skeletons to diversification of rainforests.

Daniel Field GRD ’16, one of the alumni speakers, spoke about using the fossil record to understand the evolution and distribution of birds across the world, as well as the evolution of modern flying ability. Field, who worked with the Peabody Museum’s vertebrate paleontology and vertebrate zoology collections, said the Peabody was a major factor in his decision to come to Yale for his Ph.D.

“All of the truly illustrious scientists that are getting honored with the Verrill Medal this year are not only inspiring intellectuals, but also really incredible people,” Field said. “The lineup of junior scientists that have been invited to present in the symposium are all on really exciting trajectories in their respective fields and careers too, and the opportunity to share my research with them is the highest honor.”

The Verrill Medal Symposium is the last major event planned to commemorate the museum’s 150th anniversary, although some ongoing activities will continue into the spring, Heiser said.

He added that the symposium was “tremendously rewarding” and an important opportunity to show the community the value of the museum beyond its exhibit halls.

“The exhibit halls have fantastic objects and specimens and lessons in them, but they represent less than a tenth of a percent of our collections,” Heiser said. “They also don’t successfully get across the depth and breadth of active scientific research that happens with collections in every division. So we really wanted people to understand that our collections are not just a bunch of objects sitting on shelves — they are very actively and regularly used in pushing forward the frontiers of science.”

The Verrill Medal was named after Addison Emery Verrill, Yale’s first professor of zoology and one of the Peabody Museum’s first curators.