Alan Walker, distinguished professor of anthropology and biology at Penn State, has been named a Fellow of the British Royal Society. Founded in 1660, the Royal Society is an independent organization that serves as the United Kingdom's academy of science by advising the British government and promoting the natural and applied sciences both nationally and internationally.
Election to the fellowship of the Royal Society is recognized worldwide as a sign of the highest regard in science. New Fellows must be proposed by at least six existing Fellows and then assessed by selection committees in each major field of science. Walker, who was honored for his distinguished contributions to the world's knowledge of human origins, is one of forty-two new Fellows six new Foreign Members elected this year.
Walker is one of the world's foremost experts on the evolution of primates and humans. His research involves searching for primate and human fossils in rocks dated from about 30 million to 1 million years ago and conducting laboratory analyses of the fossils to extract as much environmental and behavioral information from them as possible. He pioneered the study of living primates as a basis for the analysis of fossils and was one of the first to use scanning electron microscope studies of enamel microwear on teeth to understand the diets of extinct mammals.
He has made many important discoveries during the past three decades at paleontological digs in Africa with his collaborators Richard and Meave Leakey, including a famous hominid specimen known as "The Black Skull." In 1995 he and Meave Leakey discovered the skeletal remains of a previously unknown species in the human lineage, which they named Australopithecus anamensis, that lived about 4 million years ago. One of the surprising revelations resulting from his subsequent analysis of these remains is that these ancestors of humans were walking upright that long ago.
The book he coauthored with Richard Leakey describing and analyzing a famous Homo erectus skeleton was awarded the Association of American Publishers' Prize for Best Book in Sociology and Anthropology in 1993. In 1997 a book he coauthored with his wife, Pat Shipman, Penn State adjunct professor of anthropology, won the General Prize in the Rhone-Poulenc Prizes for Science Books, which has been described as the most prestigious prize for science writing in the English language worldwide, for their book titled "The Wisdom of the Bones: In Search of Human Origins."
Walker was honored with a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1986 and the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life in 1992. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1988 and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996.
Born and educated in England, Walker earned a bachelor's degree with honors in geology and zoology at Cambridge University in 1962 and a doctoral degree in anatomy and paleontology at London University in 1967. He taught anatomy at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine in London; the Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda; and the University of Nairobi in Kenya before moving to the United States in 1973. From 1974 to 1978 he was a faculty member at Harvard University, where he was associated with Harvard Medical School, the Peabody Museum, and the Department of Biology. He was a professor of cell biology and anatomy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine from 1978 until he joined the Penn State faculty in 1995.
Penn State now has four faculty members in the Royal Society: Walker, Sir Roger Penrose, elected in 1972; Calyampudi R. Rao, elected in 1967; and Robert C. Vaughan, elected in 1990. Penrose is the Francis R. and Helen M. Pentz Distinguished Professor of Physics at Penn State and the Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University in England. Rao is Holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Statistics and director of the Penn State Center for Multivariate Analysis. Vaughan is professor of mathematics.