Sherwood Larned Washburn, the father of modern primatology who first glimpsed the evolution of human behavior in the actions of monkeys and apes, died Sunday from pneumonia at Alta Bates Medical Center. He was 88.
A professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley from 1958 to his retirement in 1978 and one of a small number of faculty members appointed as “University Professor” for the nine-campus system, Washburn virtually established the field of primatology in the 1950s following his studies on baboon colonies in Kenya.
For the next two decades, his theories dominated interpretations of human social evolution and his teachings inspired several generations of students.
“Sherry Washburn established at UC Berkeley the most influential program of the century for the study of primatology, of fossil man, and the biological and cultural evolution of humanity,” UC Berkeley professor of anthropology J. Desmond Clark said in a statement. “Those who were his friends and those who continue his work will forever be in his debt. He will be missed the world over.”
Washburn was the first to propose that tool use, hunting and a gender division in labor had been critical in human evolution. He also saw 40 years ago that humans had evolved from an ancestor that walked on its knuckles, like contemporary great apes – an idea that only this year has gripped the anthropological world anew.
In one of his famous articles on the evolution of man, a 1978 article in Scientific American, Washburn had this to say about knuckle-walking:
“Gorillas and chimpanzees (and the men who play some of the forward positions in American football), however, have developed a form of locomotion called knuckle walking that enables the apes (if not the football players) to walk normally as they carry objects between their fingers and their palm.”
But it was his holistic approach, working from anatomy to function and behavior, that so inspired his students and colleagues.
“Sherwood Washburn changed the way we study human evolution,” said professor of anthropology Adrienne Zihlman of UC Santa Cruz, and a former student. His influence was so pervasive, said Zihlman, that “everyone has adopted his approach but forgotten where it came from.”
His lectures showing how bones, joints and muscles related to movement and social behavior in humans and other primates often won standing ovations from students.
Born on November 26, 1911, Washburn was the younger son of the dean of Cambridge’s Episcopal Theological School. He received a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, from Harvard College in 1935 and a doctorate in 1940, also from Harvard.
From a position at Columbia University as assistant professor of anatomy, Washburn moved to the University of Chicago where he was professor of anthropology for 11 years and chair of the department.
During his career, Washburn won virtually every medal and prize given in his field, including the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s Viking Fund Medal in 1960, the Huxley Medal in 1967 and the American Anthropological Association’s Distinguished Service Award in 1983. The Fourth International Congress of Primatology was dedicated to his honor in 1972.
Washburn is survived by two sons, Sherwood of Brooklyn, and Stan of Berkeley and five grandchildren. His brother, Bradford, is founder of Boston’s Museum of Science.
Memorial services will be announced.