Tributes to Bill Kimbel from his Friends and Colleagues
I first met Bill Kimbel when I walked into a coffee shop in North Berkeley, CA. When I asked for directions to the Institute of Human Origins, the owner turned to Bill who was sitting at the front table, pointed at me and said, "She's looking for IHO." Bill then led me around the corner and across the street so I could be on time for my interview as a part time "darkroom technician" for printing black/white photographs. That was in 1990 or 91, I don't exactly remember. Bill and I became great colleagues and great friends. Along with Bill's wife Patricia, my husband Steve Melchiskey and our mutual friends Susan Portugal and Ron Kilgore, we were family. We celebrated holidays together and life's milestones together. We made wine together and drank wine together. We worked together and ate great meals together. We had so much fun together during that time.
In 1994, Don Johanson asked me to join the team in Ethiopia and photograph the field season at Hadar. Those 7 weeks were a life changing experience for me. Bill was an incredible leader. He was organized, knowledgeable and had a tremendous spirit. The Afar respected and delighted in him. As did the rest of the team of international scientists and colleagues from Addis Ababa.
I loved Bill. He was like a big brother to me, who sometimes could be so annoying! But I loved him. And I already miss him. I will always miss him. My life has been enriched immeasurably by knowing Bill Kimbel. May his memory always be a blessing.
Crushing Zinfandel grapes for making our Zinfandel Nouveau wine
1994 Hadar field season work tent
Left to right they are:
Don Johanson, IHO Director at the time
Jerry Eck- American scientist
Enrico Ferorelli, National Geographic photographer
Yoel Rak, Israeli scientist
Bill and Me in the field Hadar 1994
With Bill and Don Johanson, IHO’s 30th Anniversary celebration, Phoenix Zoo
“Bill was not only a great scientist and science communicator, but also worked behind the scenes to foster an academic and research environment free of harassment, bullying, and other abuses. I had the privilege of engaging with him in all of these areas.”
Memories of Bill by Yoel Rak PhD
In 1977, Clark Howell called Bill and asked him if he would be willing to host a bewildered foreign graduate student of his. At the time, both Bill and I were writing our dissertations, and Clark and Tim White thought it would be a good idea for me to extend my research to the newly discovered—and as yet unpublished—A. afarensis fossils. At that time, the major concern, as you may recall, was how one could distinguish between A. afarensis and A. africanus. Bill picked me up at the train station, and we hit it off. He was working frantically on the anatomy of the skull base, and I, on the facial skeleton. We were both extremely motivated and fascinated by the same things. Those were wonderful days. Our enthusiasm was contagious (remaining so even as we grew older).
Bill was exceptionally devoted to his dissertation research, leaving no stone unturned in his meticulous lab work. I was lagging behind, trying to keep up with his pace. Every night we stayed late at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and afterwards continued our intense discussions at his apartment. For years, a Polaroid picture of Bill and me—with very dark hair—hung in the museum. Somebody had written on it, “Bill, are you sure it’s the foramen magnum?” This just shows how collegial and fun it was working with him.
Bill was relentless. Later I realized that this virtue of his remained part of him throughout his career, be it in the field, the lab, or academic discussions. But his serious attitude was well balanced (thank goodness) with his fantastic sense of humor. I was always deeply impressed by Bill’s knowledge of music and politics, as well as his eagerness to hear about stories of my background. I visited Cleveland several times before leaving Berkeley and even afterwards.
On my way back to Berkeley to hand in my dissertation, I stopped in Cleveland, and Bill and I spent every night sitting around the big table in his living room, reading each other’s dissertations and discussing every detail.
In the early 80s, I was back in Israel, and Bill and I remained very close. I was always eager to find out what he had to say about manuscripts that I wrote, and even though his critiques were sometimes painful, they were always candid and to the point—no bullshit.
These were the days when Don Johanson moved to Berkeley to establish the Institute of Human Origins. I vividly remember the beginning of this institute. Not too long afterwards, Bill accepted Don’s invitation to join him there.
The next time I met up with Bill he was in Berkeley. He picked me up at the airport and handed me a delicious dish of mo shu pork from Little Shin Shin restaurant! I realized immediately that he had become a Berkeley enthusiast. From the way he smiled, it was clear that he wasn’t going back to Cleveland. The Institute was well established by then, and Bill was a prominent part of it.
During the 80s, Ethiopia was out of reach because of war and famine. Toward the end of the decade, Bill invited me to join the Institute’s expedition to Ethiopia, which was just getting organized. During that first season, the civil war was still going on, the hostile Mengistu was in power, and as an Israeli, I was very worried about being in a predominantly Muslim area. It turned out that my fears were unfounded. Bill’s demeanor and the few words that I knew in Arabic made us (especially) great friends of the local Muslim nomads. We all remained friends throughout the years.
Unfortunately, while we were in the field that first season, Bill’s father passed away. Bill and Don left the field, and I remained there alone for a couple of weeks. Bill came back for the last month of the season and resumed his extremely successful leadership role.
In the second season, we found a long-awaited skull, A.L. 444.
In addition to participating in the yearly Ethiopian expedition, Bill and I excavated at the Amud cave in Israel in the early 90s. This project was under the auspices of the IHO and included the participation of the archaeologist Erella Hovers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
During much of the 1990s, the Ethiopian project was difficult, frustrating, and dismal: Bill and I were caught in the crossfire between Tim White and Don Johanson, and the politics in Addis Ababa were intolerable. I can personally attest to Bill’s persistence, judiciousness, and political skill as the main factors that enabled the Institute to successfully overcome those stormy days. No doubt, the Ethiopians’ respect for Bill as an honest, no-bullshit guy whose every word can be trusted played a major role in helping keep the Institute afloat.
We were both involved in studying and describing the anatomy of the A. afarensis skull from the mid-1990s on. Endless telephone calls between the IHO and my lab in Tel Aviv lasted for hours, usually after midnight in Israel. We discussed things and sometimes shouted at each other. Bill would bark “bullshit!”— but it was great fun. When we encountered difficulty describing some morphology, Bill would inevitably attribute it to the effect of allometry—and then it was my turn to shout “bullshit!”
In the early 2000s, Bill served as the co-editor of the Journal of Human Evolution. His virtues that I had come to recognize, and have described here, were no doubt a major factor that helped the journal flourish in those years.
Charlie Lockwood’s death in 2008 was a terrible blow for all of us, but especially for Bill. He took upon himself Charlie’s unfinished description of the Drimolen 7 skull and asked me to work with him in completing the manuscript. We flew to South Africa to study the skull, undertaking our last big joint project.
A week before Bill’s death, I spoke with him via Skype, and when he told me what an important part of his life I played, my eyes filled with tears. He concluded by saying “Let’s talk next week.” My dear friend, I shall miss you terribly. Rest in peace.
(Note to Patricia Sannit from Brian Villmoare)
I wanted to let you know how much Bill meant to me, personally. You may remember me—I was one of Bill's students and was at your house for a lunch meeting in 2020 (also, once, a long time ago, I came by to replace the toilet tank valves when Bill was in Ethiopia). He and I had collaborated on a number of scientific projects in recent years.
I am one of the many for whom Bill was, in paleoanthropology, the scientific and moral standard to which we aspired, in a discipline that has a fair number of folks who have misused their positions of power. Aside from the science, he was a good advisor and friend, and I often had occasion to reach out for guidance; when I couldn't, I would try to imagine what he would do. For many of us, it is hard to imagine what this discipline looks like without Bill.
Best wishes and condolences,
Bill was a brilliant mentor–charismatic…with a great sense of humor…and was an especially close friend to Ethiopians! He will always be remembered.
It is hard to believe that Bill has left this world. He was such a huge presence in our field. I first met him in the late 90s when I was a graduate student and can still remember how encouraging he was of my work and me. He was the editor at JHE when I was first asked to be AE very early in my career, and I know he had a hand in that, too. That position in particular gave me early insight into his care, knowledge, intelligence, and meticulousness. Over the decades…we have shared many a glass of wine, dinner, and conversation across continents…most recently at the AABA meetings in 2018 when Carol, Bill, and I shared a ridiculously expensive bottle (okay, two) over dinner on his birthday, and many laughs…my heart goes out to his family, and also to his colleagues, mentees, and many friends. May his memory carry you through.
Rebecca Rogers Ackermann
His memory will be a blessing to all and his work will live on. Alexander Barbanell and I hold you in our hearts, as we toast Bill with a bottle of our favorite red wine (but he has to finish it).
Bill was so special. Who else could chat about Ethiopian jazz one minute, and then connect it to his life, and his work. Bill was a true master of both the sciences and the humanities.
I just heard the news hear in Kenya…so terribly sad. We got to spend nearly three months together in the field in Hadar back in 1994, and then about two months together in Addis in 1995. So many memories…
I am profoundly saddened to learn that my dearest friend and colleague, Bill Kimbel left this morning following a valiant battle with cancer…we became friends nearly a half century ago, and I shall miss him more than I can say.
As your (Don Johanson’s) graduate student, Bill had the fossil brain cases to describe for what would be the first ever scientific journal publication dedicated to only one scientific discovery manuscript. Bill helped me transcribe my shorthand gibberish for scientific letters to your colleagues. Bill and I and others in the lab would walk across Wade Oval to the deli for lunch or go to Tommy’s in Coventry for falafel and milkshakes as we perused the records at Record Rendezvous…we have lost our amazing and dear friend. My love and support go out to his family.
Doris Andreoli Webster
He was a dear friend, a dedicated researcher, and part of the amazing legacy that is IHO.
The world has lost a brilliant scientist.
He was a real friend and a good man. It was an honor to work with him back in the old days in Berkeley…a real intellect and a good heart.
I am so sad to learn that my mentor and inspiration for many years, Bill Kimbel, passed away yesterday morning after a battle with cancer. Bill was the seemingly gruff, bearded man who greeted a young me 36 years ago when I knocked on the door of the Institute for Human Origins and told him I’d like to go to Africa to do fieldwork with Don Johanson’s team. He stroked his beard and laughed the hearty laugh that was his trademark, and then welcomed me to help with the typing and filing. Bill was my boss, my friend, and my advocate. He opened many doors for me and continually gave me opportunities to prove I was capable of more. He did eventually invite me to work with him in Ethiopian and in Israel, and let me direct the IHO’s casting program for nearly a decade. He was a great teacher, an intense thinker, a wise leader, a benevolent manager, a good friend, and a wonderful man. He will be deeply missed by so many people lucky enough to know him and work with him. My heart goes out to his family.
Michael T. Black
I am so very sorry to hear the passing of Bill Kimbel. He was a wonderful person and a great scientist. He will be missed by many here in Ethiopia.
To know him and learn from him was one of the greater joys and privileges in my life. Thank you for everything, Dr. Bill Kimbel.
I don’t have anything profound to add to the many comments from scientists across the world mourning our collective loss. Bill Kimbel took me on as a graduate student and believed in me from day one. I know I disappointed him by not becoming a field paleoanthropologist but he stood by me even while lovingly mocking my mouse experiments. The last time we spoke in person, at the meetings in 2019, he said “You’ve got to find your way back to anthropology. We need you.” The pandemic has complicated that, but when I have time and energy to think about fossils again, it will be because of Bill. He made so much possible for so many of us. I will miss him always.
Lynn Copes Tommasini
And then it hit me. On that very same road that I was taking Mimi to the station on, Bill said something that I remember every time I drive it. I had just picked you guys up from the same train station, and we had not even gotten to Uzes. We were on the part of the drive that I personally really love and out of nowhere Bill said “the vacation could end here and I would be happy.” He said this as the light and scenery and friendship of being back together were perfect. I have since told Mimi he got it and not everyone that comes to see us does.
Bill was honest, passionate, generous, intelligent, and kind. And I am very sorry for your loss.
All my love,
I wanted to add my voice to the many students who have reached out to say how wonderful your husband was as a mentor and how lucky I feel to have known him. But first, let me say I am so sorry for your loss. I hope you and your family are hanging in there. Bill talked about you all often, I almost feel as if I know you.
We haven't met but my name is Paige, and I'm a historian of science/paleoanthropology. Bill supervised my PhD from 2012–2020, after which time we began working on a historical project on Dart's Taung Child manuscript (1929) while I undertook my current postdoc in Europe.
Once in 2021, when he was struggling with his health, Bill told me that you suggested he focus on our Dart project because it made him happy. Thank you for that. In addition to the many things I'm grateful for while he was my mentor, I have lately been especially holding onto my gratitude for having that time to work with him on this project after my PhD (as he liked to remind me: “we're colleagues now”), to see him truly light up and enjoy doing historical work.
I'm not sure what I'll do with it now, without him, though that's a decision for later. Bernard Wood has already kindly offered a hand (perhaps Bill would have approved). But overall, it brings me some comfort that our project brought him joy in his final year. Still, I'm beyond saddened and angry that he didn't have many more years or decades of such fun; his intellectual curiosity could have occupied him for at least five lifetimes.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to celebrate his life at ASU on May 28, I'll come in from Copenhagen for the event. Overall, words fail me but for now please know that your family is in my thoughts and that this Rift Valley–sized loss is felt across many corners of the world.
I’ve heard that you’re in palliative care at home now. I wish that I could have spoken to you one more time, but I accept that I probably will not. So I wanted to say thank you. Thank you for mentoring me. Thank you for opening doors for me. And thank you for teaching me how to look at fossils and tell their stories. I try to see the world through your eyes a bit every time I look at a fossil or a review a paper, but I know that I come up short. Thank you for letting me coauthor the Yearbook paper with you. Thank you for P3s. Thank you for taking a chance on training a dumb southern hick. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without you. Also, f*** fossils. More importantly, thank you for your friendship. Thank you for chats over meals and beers. Thank you for sharing music. Love you Bill.
Dear Ato Bill,
It is with great sadness that I learned of your passing. I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to do field work in Hadar when I was still a student. The joy of searching and finding hominins, of sitting at the dinner table under the tent with eminent researchers, the challenge of putting back together a skull found in hundreds of pieces and to finally have a little australopithecine face peering back at us; these experiences were the most thrilling of my professional career and I owe them to you. I want to thank you also for allowing me to do my Ph.D. on some of the wonderful fossils that were found in Hadar and for the continuing support when starting a field project in Southern Ethiopia. Your impact on my professional career and in the field in general was tremendous.
Again, than you.
While everyone is lauding Bill’s achievements in understanding human evolution and paleoanthropology, I will always remember him for helping me become a better person. He was a great man.
Bill’s passing was a great loss for IHO (he was director for 13 years, and a very good one, too), SHESC, ASU and—most important—paleoanthropology. In addition to being a world-class scholar, he was good at herding the cats.
G. A. Clark, PhD
Regents' Professor Emeritus
ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change