Obituary: Dr Alison Jolly

Dr Alison Jolly, a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at Sussex, died at home in Lewes last Thursday (6 February), aged 76.

A lemur sitting on Alison Jolly's shoulderShe had been connected to the University since 1969, teaching and researching throughout the 1970s and then taking up an honorary position in the School of Life Sciences from 2001. 

She was the first scientist to do an in-depth account of the behaviour of a species of Malagasy lemurs - the ring-tailed lemur, L. catta - beginning field work in 1962.

She discovered that this species (and later, it turned out, most other lemurs) have total female dominance over males. Much of Alison’s later work centred on how this evolved, and especially how it relates to the vigorous defence of territory by female ring-tailed lemurs.  

She also argued that the evolution of intelligence has more to do with social behaviour than with ecological constraints and tool-use. 

She taught such ideas at Sussex in the 1970s using her classic textbook The Evolution of Primate Behaviour, which first came out in 1972 and is still considered important today by her field. 

Professor Pete Clifton, now Head of the School of Psychology, attended Alison’s lectures on primate behaviour as a Sussex undergraduate and says, “I still have her textbook on my bookshelves at home!” 

However, Alison was as much concerned with the conservation of Malagasy wildlife as studying it, arguing for approaches that worked with local people and government, and in particular nurturing a generation of Malagasy scientists. 

She was known throughout the country for such efforts, and was awarded a knighthood by the National Order of Madagascar in 1998. In June 2006, a new species of mouse lemur, Microcebus jollyae, was named in her honour and in January of this year a parcel of recently restored mining forest in Madagascar was named after her, reflecting the hope that in so doing the people involved will be more likely to sustain it. 

Alison’s connections to the University of Sussex extended beyond her research. 

Her husband, Professor Sir Richard Jolly, was from 1972-81 the Director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), which is based on the University of Sussex campus. He is now a Research Associate at IDS. 

One of their two daughters, Susan Jolly, previously convened the Sexuality and Development Programme at IDS. 

And their other daughter, Dr Margaretta Jolly, is a Reader in Cultural Studies in the Media and Film department at Sussex. 

In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to the Alison Jolly Scholarship, c/o Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust UK.

 A tribute to Alison Jolly by the Lemur Conservation Foundation