By Sharal Camisa, Executive Director
It is with immense sadness that we share news of the passing of Ann Getty. She died on Monday, September 14, 2020. She was 79 years old.
Ann Gilbert was born in Wheatland, California. While working in the orchards, she dreamed of growing up to become a scientist or explorer, and after graduating from high school in 1958, she got her chance. She left the farm for UC Berkeley to study anthropology and biology, and for the rest of her life, she remained devoted to philanthropic support of science and academic research.
Ann joined The Leakey Foundation in 1973 as a Fellow with her husband Gordon Getty who later became the Chairman of the Board. Together they helped the Foundation grow to become the world class funding institution and educational outreach organization that it is today.
Ann’s nephew Dr. Henry Gilbert said, “Anyone who knew her understood that she was a hard working farm girl who didn’t mind getting her hands dirty.”
He also shared memories about her intellectual curiosity. “I remember her talking wistfully with Uncle Gordon on Rousseau’s naivety about human nature. She viscerally understood the importance of human origins research and saw the value of those who devoted their lives to the pursuit of knowledge. She was a daughter of the Enlightenment, and knew that by understanding our natural origins, we would better understand how to exist in the present.
“When she learned that I was studying human origins, she invited me to go to Turkey with her, Clark Howell, Desmond Clark, Garniss Curtis and Tim White for paleontology survey work. In Turkey she had aligned a dream team to work with Erksin Guleç, a female paleontologist fighting to survive in a pretty patriarchal system.” He continued, “Aunt Ann was happy to give justice to Dr. Guleç for her hard work and resilience. They seemed to inspire each other.”
While probably most recognized for her interests in art, music and interior design, it was Ann’s passion for science that provided such depth to her philosophical and social perspectives. In the early 1990s, she began to visit Ethiopia on paleoanthropological excavations with Dr. Tim White and others. Not only did the Gettys provide funding for the expedition and support for the National Museum of Ethiopia, they lent logistical help by flying team members from San Francisco to Addis Ababa in a private 727.
Dr. White shared, “Early in the 1990s Ann completed courses in biological anthropology and human osteology at Berkeley. This kindled a deep and lasting enthusiasm for human evolution–a passion that immediately drew her to fieldwork in Ethiopia and Turkey.
“Ever alert to identifying a need and then generously meeting it, Ann made foundational contributions to the development of infrastructure and professional personnel in both countries, and at Berkeley. An accomplished field and museum paleontologist, Ann was one of the few who excavated the Ardipithecus fossils in the 1990s.
“As a long-term member of the Middle Awash research project, Ann worked with Desmond Clark and Clark Howell in a laboratory she renovated and equipped in Addis Ababa. There, and in the field, she tirelessly and inspirationally worked shoulder-to-shoulder with generations of younger scholars such as Berhane Asfaw, Giday WoldeGabriel, Yonas Beyene, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, Sileshi Semaw, Erksin Savas, and Cesur Pehlevan. Ann’s kindness, work ethic, insight, dedication, generosity, and humility transcended borders and boundaries. We all deeply mourn her passing.”
Ethiopian scholar and Leakey Foundation grantee Dr. Berhane Asfaw wrote, “I remember how she never took a day off in those hot and dusty, multi-season excavations. The sediment in which Ardipithecus was embedded was so hard to excavate it had to be sprayed with water to remove the sediment gradually; Ann was on the excavation floor excavating and removing the dirt with us. Besides the scientific work, Ann invested a lot to upgrade the human evolutionary research laboratory in Ethiopia. She toiled like a daily laborer to clean the floor of the laboratory. Then, Ann created a very comfortable research facility by furnishing the lab with fossil storage cabinets she brought from San Francisco. Further, Ann redesigned the National Museum’s garden and worked with gardeners and the Museum staff.
“When President Obama visited Ethiopia in 2015, I had a chance to inform him that the discovery of the special hominid skeleton on exhibit was made possible by the grant from NSF and the participation of multiple USA researchers like Ann Getty. The President was very happy to learn that Ann was one of the excavating personnel of this iconic 4.4 million-year-old early hominid. President Obama told me that she is a good friend of his.
“It was because of the support of Ann and Gordon that our research continued and was successful and strong. Her humbleness and work ethic remain imprinted in all of us who had the chance to work with her. Ann will be missed; she will always live in my memories.”
One of Ann’s collaborators and friends, Alan Almquist shared, “I had known Ann Getty for many years but only through our mutual field work in Ethiopia did I become aware of her passion for anthropology and human origins. Ann joined the field team in the Middle Awash and soon after she arrived in camp, she wasted no time getting to work. Ann worked tirelessly from the early morning to the late hot afternoon when most of us stayed in camp doing lab work and trying to stay cool. Ann was a caring person. She knew drinking water in the Afar was a scarce commodity, so when she arrived, she brought with her dozens of water bottles that she had shipped from the states. It was a welcome treat, sure beat the “filtered” river water we had to deal with, and went great with the scotch that Desmond brought for our nightly single drink.”
In a March 11, 2016, interview in Haute Living Ann remembered her time in Ethiopia, “It was very hot, and our biggest luxury was a tent—but I did enjoy the sense of discovery.” She went on to say, “Working in this large area, we conducted surface surveying to discover any fossils that were exposed. We found the presence of pig, antelope and colobus monkey fossils, which were an indication that hominids could be present in the same environment. We even searched for fossil mice, and it takes a very keen eye to find their jaws. When exploring for tiny fossils in sediment you have to discern the very subtle differences between the two.”
“I don’t think people know it, but I am actually quite shy,” said Ann. “I am most comfortable in the company of scientists.”
Dr. Gilbert said, “Some of the happiest times I saw Aunt Ann were in the field, in the zone. But I saw her happy in many environments; she was happiest when she could have a positive influence on people.”
Ann was also a gracious host, opening her home for countless gatherings and fundraisers for the Foundation. Executive Director Sharal Camisa remembers one such occasion, “Mr. and Mrs. Getty were hosting a dinner and auction for the Foundation at their home, with all proceeds benefiting research grants. Mrs. Getty was feeling under the weather, so she did not attend. The auction must have gotten rather ‘lively’ because the next thing I knew, Mrs. Getty’s granddaughter, in her nightgown, came into the dining room and asked me for an auction booklet. Mrs. Getty was interested in bidding on an item or two!”
Her impact on the science of human origins is immeasurable. Leakey Foundation Trustee Mike Smith shared, “Behind her public persona was a person who very thoughtfully and carefully steered her wealth to deserving humanitarian and academic causes. Ann was exceptional in many ways, very bright, caring, generous of course, and very funny. Like Gordon, she was never self-important.”
Words are most difficult to capture our feelings of grief as Ann was more than a benefactor to The Leakey Foundation. She was a student and a hard worker, and an advocate with a profound intellect. We will remember Ann Getty as kind, witty, dedicated and generous beyond measure.