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We honor and celebrate the life of Frans de Waal.

 

Frans de Waal, internationally recognized and celebrated Dutch-American primatologist, died on March 14, 2024, in his Stone Mountain, Georgia home after a heart-wrenching, difficult battle with cancer. A pioneering, creative researcher in the field of Animal Behavior, he leaves behind a rich legacy of groundbreaking research, profound insights into the animal kingdom, and a deep commitment to understanding the complex emotions and behaviors we humans share with our fellow animals. Born on October 29, 1948, in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, Frans de Waal embarked on his remarkable journey of exploration, observation and discovery of our natural world. His love affair with animals started as a young boy: he would spend hours outdoors, alone, in Nature. During the weekends, he set out on his bike with a fishnet to roam the Dutch polder ditches surrounding Waalwijk, a small city in Brabant, the South of the Netherlands, where he grew up. Even though his career focused on primate behavior, Frans was interested in all animals--including fish and birds, elephants and dolphins. His New York Times bestselling book on animal intelligence, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Norton, 2016), covered a wide range of species and reflects his broader interest.  His passions were primate behavior and the comparison between animal and human behavior. He pursued the first as a scientist and the second as the author of numerous bestselling science books. For him, nothing was more logical than looking at human society through the lens of animal behavior.  He received a Ph.D. in Biology and Ethology from the University of Utrecht in 1977. His Ph.D. advisor was the well-respected, inspiring and open-minded primatologist Jan van Hooff. Frans started his career as a Research Associate in Comparative Physiology at the University of Utrecht (1973-1981) transitioning from researching java macaque monkeys to studying apes in Burgers Zoo in Arnhem. During his observations of their large group of chimpanzees he repeatedly witnessed conflict resolution and reconciliation behavior among the members of the group. This began a revolutionary change in the way scientists perceived primates. He moved to the United States of America in 1981 after accepting a position at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. During this time, he also conducted a study of bonobos at the San Diego Zoo which was the beginning of ground-breaking research in this field. From 1991, until he retired in late 2019, as part of the Psychology Department, he considered Emory his academic home. He held a joint position (until 2018) at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center where he set up his capuchin monkey colony, and he started to observe the chimpanzees at the Yerkes Field Station. From 1996 until 2019, he was the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior, at the Psychology Department, Emory University and Professor Emeritus after September 2019.His relationship with the University of Utrecht was officially renewed in 2013 when he became Distinguished University Professor (Universiteitshoogleraar) and Professor Emeritus after November 2018. Frans was recognized by many institutions and societies. He was a proud member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2007, he was selected as one of “100 World’s Most Influential People Today” by Time magazine. And in 2011, Discover Magazine listed him as one of 47 (all-time) Great Minds of Science.  Frans de Waal‘s pioneering work shed light on primates’ intricate social structures and emotional lives, challenging deep-rooted beliefs about the uniqueness of human characteristics and abilities such as reconciliation, consolation, altruism, morality and cooperation. He demonstrated the profound similarities between humans and our closest evolutionary relatives through meticulous observation and ingenious rigorous experimentation under controlled conditions. His creative energy fed all his observations and research. His first book, Chimpanzee Politics (1982), compared the schmoozing and scheming of chimpanzees involved in power struggles with that of human politicians. The book was placed on the recommended reading list of the US Congress. His other books drew parallels between primate and human behavior, studying topics of aggression, morality, emotion, intelligence, gender and culture.  His 13 best-selling books have been translated into over twenty languages and appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. They received numerous awards such as the 2020 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for “Mama’s Last Hug” and the 1989 Los Angeles Times Book Award for “Peacemaking Among Primates”. His writings and talks captivated audiences worldwide, inspiring scientists and laypeople alike to rethink their perceptions of animals and our place within Nature and the animal kingdom. He was a convincing and respected scientist and, at the same time, a talented and compelling speaker, highly entertaining, relaxed and fun. Beyond these contributions, Frans de Waal was a dedicated and enthusiastic mentor, inspiring countless students and researchers to pursue careers in primatology and ethology or in other disciplines, but most of all, to find their own niche. He found great joy and satisfaction in teaching and mentoring. He never was the type of scientist isolated in his ivory tower. His own students--graduates, undergraduates, post-docs, and assistants--thrived under his guidance and shared many stories about how much they learned and grew and had fun in De Waal’s lab! They could challenge each other, argue, disagree, and still go for drinks at the end of the day. Frans encouraged them to be as creative as possible within the parameters of their research. According to them, he instilled a culture of scientific adventure, an open-minded journey into the minds of other species and possibly our ancestral past. He wholeheartedly supported his students in their fields of choice and encouraged them to follow their passions.  Frans de Waal’s impact extended far beyond the confines of academia. He was a passionate advocate for animal welfare, using his platform to raise awareness about the ethical treatment of animals and the importance of conservation efforts to preserve the planet’s biodiversity. In addition to his professional achievement, Frans will be remembered for his warmth, humor, and boundless curiosity, his unwavering optimism and his ability to always concentrate on the positive side of things. He approached every aspect of life with a sense of wonder and awe, embodying the spirit of scientific inquiry and intellectual curiosity until the very end. Although brilliant and extremely successful, he remained modest, low-key, gentle, and approachable. He repeatedly expressed, especially during his last few months, how thankful he was for a stimulating, rich and pleasant life, full of opportunities, fun, love and support as well as for the worldwide recognition he enjoyed. He is survived by his “favorite primate,” his loving wife, Catherine Marin, her French family, his five brothers and his extended Dutch family, many friends in Atlanta and all over the world, and a grateful scientific community, who will continue to honor his memory by carrying forward his passion for understanding and appreciating the wonders of the natural world.  His influence will continue to be felt in the countless lives he touched and the ongoing work of the researchers he inspired.  

 

He will be greatly missed.

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