Alumnus Robert Sapolsky honored with 2008 Lewis Thomas Prize
by TALLEY HENNING BROWN
It is a rare child who dreams of growing up to be a mountain gorilla. When, for young Robert Morris Sapolsky, such lofty aspirations proved less than feasible, he decided on the next most exciting life — becoming a scientist. Upon graduating with a Ph.D. from The Rockefeller University in 1984, Dr. Sapolsky began what would become a lifelong, passionate pursuit studying the baboons of the East African Serengeti Plain. The fruit of that labor, a book aptly titled A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, has won numerous awards. At a ceremony in Caspary Auditorium on June 2, Rockefeller added to the acclaim with the 2008 Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science.
Dr. Sapolsky’s devotion to science was germinating long before his graduate studies in Bruce S. McEwen’s neuroendocrinology laboratory. As a boy growing up in New York City, he frequented the American Museum of Natural History and found himself endlessly fascinated by the dioramas, in particular the African mountain gorillas. Evincing that same boyish enthusiasm, A Primate’s Memoir spells out in humorous, sometimes excruciating detail his unprecedented experiences living with and studying the baboons and the conclusions he has drawn from them about humans and our relationship to our fellow animals.
“Robert reveals to the reader a consanguinity not only between animal and human societies but, equally as prescient, between peoples who live at divergent ends of the cultural spectrum,” said Rockefeller president Paul Nurse, speaking at the prize ceremony this summer. “He writes with a humor that is simultaneously self-deprecating and reverent of humanity, reflected in all its foolish bravado, its daring inventiveness, its humbling fellow-feeling.”
Established in 1993 by The Rockefeller University Board of Trustees, the prize is named after its first recipient — writer, educator and physician-scientist Lewis Thomas. The award honors “the rare individual who bridges the worlds of science and the humanities — whose voice and vision can tell us about science’s aesthetic and philosophical dimensions.” Past recipients of the award include Jared Diamond, Oliver Sachs, Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins.
Dr. Sapolsky is also the author of four other award-winning books and over 400 scientific papers and is a frequent contributor to popular periodicals. In addition to his role as research associate at the Institute of Primate Research of the National Museums of Kenya, Sapolsky is an expert on the effects of stress on the brain and holds the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professorship in the departments of biological sciences and neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University and the department of neurosurgery at the Stanford School of Medicine. In addition to the Lewis Thomas Prize, Sapolsky has received a Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.