Dr. Alison Jolly was born in Ithaca, New York in 1937 as an only child to Alison Mason, a landscape artist, and Morris Bishop, a Cornell scholar of romance languages. As neither her parents were involved in the sciences, Jolly pursued the sciences to round out the family. She spent her entire childhood in Ithaca and even earned her undergraduate degree in zoology in 1959 from Cornell University.
Figure 1 Dr. Alison Jolly in the field.
In 1959, Jolly began her Ph.D. in Zoology at Yale University to study sea sponges. After 3 months of unexciting sea sponge research, a chance encounter with lemurs at a Yale primate facility sparked the beginning of her career as a renowned primatologist. Dr. John Buettner Janusch, the founder of the Duke Lemur Center, brought the first lemurs from Madagascar to Yale University to start a research colony and needed students to help babysit them from time to time.
Changing her dissertation focus from sea sponges to lemurs, Jolly traveled to Madagascar to begin field work observing ring-tailed lemurs living in the Berenty Reserve, a private property dedicated to conserving Madagascar’s biodiversity. At the time of her research, in the 1960s, it was commonly accepted that primates, like chimpanzees and gorillas, lived in male-dominated societies. Dr. Alison Jolly discovered that contrary to other primate groups, lemurs, especially ring-tailed lemurs actually live in female-dominated societies. Dr. Jolly received much criticism and disbelief towards her fi4ndings.
Figure 2 Ring-tailed Lemurs
However, Dr. Jolly’s disposition and personality allowed her to not be easily dissuaded from continuing her work. Dr. Jolly was known to not compete for her positions or give in to academic pressures. Instead, she combatted criticism by continuing to publish new findings on these female-dominate societies in lemurs every birthing season. Dr. Jolly published over 100 articles about wild ring-tailed lemurs and authored textbooks and textbook chapters on lemurs. Dr. Jolly also influenced dozens of up and coming primatologists by encouraging students to join her every field season in Madagascar. As David Attenborough once said, “A whole generation of primatologists and conservation biologists came of age with her encouragement and support."
During her Ph.D. studies, Jolly married Richard Jolly and started their family of eventually four children. Richard and Alison were supportive of each other’s professions and traded off following each other’s careers. Both partners moved to different countries around Africa so each person could move forward in their individual careers. Dr. Alison Jolly sought only visiting professor positions and never attempted to gain tenure at any her affiliated universities.
Figure 3 Dr. Alison Jolly and her husband Richard Jolly
When Dr. Jolly was not working on ring-tailed lemurs, she focused on conservation efforts towards Madagascar’s diminishing biodiversity. There are over 80 different extant species of lemurs and they are all endangered due to the pet trade, deforestation, and local cultural beliefs. Jolly and local Malagasy collaborators created The Ako Project. The Ako Project consists of illustrated children’s books that depict a day in the life of different lemurs and how each one confronts daily environmental threats. Each book is accompanied with an informative poster about each lemur and their habitats. The Ako Project has ensured that each classroom in Madagascar has at least one book per student.
Figure 4 A page from one of The Ako Project books
Dr. Allison Jolly was a decorated scientist that had won multiple awards and honorary doctorates over the course of her career. She was well-respected in and outside her field and is truly missed. Jolly passed away from battling breast cancer in 2014. She is remembered for being a giant in the field of anthropology and an inspirational female role model.
By Marie Vergamini