Francis Clark Howell

By Simons, Elwyn L. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2011 | Go to article overview
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Francis Clark Howell


Simons, Elwyn L., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


27 NOVEMBER 1925 * 10 MARCH 2007

BORN IN KANSAS, Francis Clark Howell (27 November 1925-10 March 2007) or "Clark," as he was known to his friends and students, began his education in a one-room rural schoolhouse near Topeka, Kansas. The onset of World War II delayed his eventual collegiate studies, but, even before they began, he had struck up a correspondence with Franz Weidenreich, who was then working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

After the war, and before entering graduate school at the University of Chicago, Howell traveled to visit Weidenreich in New York, where he met George G. Simpson and Ralph von Koenigswald, among other prominent scientists. With Weidenreich, in particular, he discussed with continued interest such topics as the Neanderthal humans.

During the Depression and World War II, there were very few young Americans who went into the study of anthropology. One of the first of these was Howell, after he returned from serving in the navy, in the South Pacific, during the war. His plan for further schooling had been to work at Chicago under the anatomist Wilton Marion Krogman, who, however, about the time of Howell's entry at Chicago, took up a position at the University of Pennsylvania. Hence, Clark became one of the first students there of a Harvard-educated Bostoniani Sherry Washburn, another relatively young scientist and self-styled proponent of the "new anthropology," who was replacing Krogman at Chicago.

Like many American anthropologists, Washburn was much committed to the idea of founding a school of followers of his own scientific positions and points of view. There was much discussion between Washburn and Howell and, though Clark never became an actual disciple, they formed a strong educational team. In fact, I was able to speak with both of them at the University of Chicago during the 1950s, while reviewing pantodont fossils at the Field Museum for a Princeton thesis.

Clark had earlier launched a master's thesis on Neanderthals under Washburn and later completed a doctoral dissertation on the human cranial base. He was quick to incorporate the new, postwar evolutionary systems. His work covered novel ground because he realized that gene-flow could be restricted by geographic and climatic barriers. Howell's view was that the so-called "classic Neanderthals" of western Europe were a cold-adapted population, restricted during the early part of the last glacial period by ice sheets expanding from the Alps, Pyrenees, and Caucasus mountains. They were typically associated with coldadapted mammalian species. Earlier interglacial Neanderthal populations from a warmer period were less specialized and more like modern humans, although nevertheless "incipiently classic."

After his work on the Neanderthals, Clark's professional activities became too diverse and numerous to mention in detail. Some highlights are his participation in the fourth Pan-African Congress, Nairobi 1959; his involvement during the 1960s in organizing important symposia of the Wenner-Gren Foundation at Burg Wartenstein, Austria; and his authorship of the 1965 Time-Life book Early Man. Between 1961 and 1963, Clark excavated in Spain at the Achulean sites of Torralba and Ambrona, but found no hominid fossils. In the late 1960s, Clark initiated, organized, and directed one of his greatest accomplishments, a series of international expeditions to the Omo River valley, Ethiopia. This field work and the subsequent work in that country by his students and others has since played a major role leading to our rich current understanding of human evolution. Ultimately, Clark's Omo expeditions resulted in the collection of so many data that their analysis continued for many years.

In 1968, Clark became a founder and trustee of the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation. As a member of its Science and Grants Committee, he was responsible for overseeing and assisting students and researchers worldwide through the foundation's grants.

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