Alison Jolly, currently a visiting senior research fellow at England’s University of Sussex, has studied many aspects of primates across a long and distinguished career. But it all started serendipitously, back in 1958. Under her maiden name, Bishop, she was a newly enrolled graduate student at Yale University, moving from class to class looking for her direction. She was supposed to be studying sponges, which she did not enjoy. Then, rather suddenly, she found herself moving among lemurs. A living collection of those and other prosimians (later shifted to Duke University) had been assembled at the university to be classified and understood. Jolly had found her specialty.
At the time, a great many basic things still needed to be learned about lemurs–as remains the case today, to only a slightly lesser extent. There are no fewer than seventy species and subspecies, each unique in its way and all differing from the monkeys and apes. Jolly began by studying how lemurs and other prosimians move their hands. They hold on to things, though not precisely the way you or I do. That project could be accomplished at Yale, but as Jolly’s interests deepened, so did her need to go to Madagascar, the island home of every lemur species. In 1963, she traveled there to begin what is now nearly half a century of field studies on lemurs: their lives, deaths, and, perhaps most secretive, their births.