Patricia Chapple Wright
(This column was first published in the December 2, 2002 issue of The Buffalo News.)
Add Patricia Chapple Wright to the list of heroes from western New York.
Place her up there with other scientists who honor this region: people like Nobel laureate chemist/mathematician Herbert Hauptman; Roger Tory Peterson, the artist who brought nature identification to the amateur; Perkin Medal-winning chemist Edith Flanigen; and Wilson Greatbach, inventor of the implantable heart pacemaker.
Professor Wright is a primatologist who studies lemurs, those monkey-like, fox-faced and big tailed rain forest animals whose range is restricted to the island of Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa. In recognition of her research on these interesting primates she has just been named to the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. And, best of all, she earned one of the $250,000 MacArthur "genius" awards for "high achievement and high promise."
But there is more to her story.
Dr. Wright is indeed a western New Yorker. She was brought up in Lyndonville and today her father and her mother, a Springville native, reside in Avon.
As a youngster, Wright was not enthusiastic about cold winters. Instead she stayed indoors and read widely about the natural history of warmer regions. After graduating from Reed College she married and moved to New York City. There her career in primatology started, as she says, "as a kind of fluke. After attending a hard rock concert at the Fillmore East I wandered into a pet store across the street. There I bought a beautiful little owl monkey and that changed my life."
The monkey seemed so lonely that she set out to find it a mate. Finding none in pet stores, she traveled all the way down to South America to get one. And then she became really hooked: "The questions started to nag. Why were these monkeys monogamous, unlike most other primates?" And when a baby monkey was born, "Why did the father provide most of the child care?"
To study these problems in the wild cost money, something this Brooklyn housewife didn't have. She went to a family friend, Nancy Mulligan of Avon, for assistance but Ms. Mulligan's lawyer warned her against funding a person not affiliated with an institution. Unwilling to give up, Wright went to a dean at Stony Brook University. She told him that she had a grant but needed an appointment to undertake her research. The dean agreed to give her the appointment in exchange for assigning the college a quarter of her funds "for overhead," and her benefactor then agreed as well.
Not only did that set Wright off on her career, but it led her eventually to Madagascar where her still greater contributions were to be made. There she studied lemurs, even discovering a new species, the golden bamboo lemur, which remains like several others critically endangered. The threat: slash-and-burn farming by the indigenous people.
Here once again this brash young woman stepped forward. She went to a government agency to seek to have the forest where she was working protected. Okay, she was told, but only if she could come up with funding. That she did, much of it coming from her MacArthur award.
Most important, she is involving the local people in what must be designated "her" Ranomafana National Park, creating work alternatives and educational opportunities while gaining their support to save the park's biodiversity.
To find out more about this fine scientist/conservationist I recommend the video of Michael Apted's Me and Isaac Newton, and Janet Bohlen's book, For the Wild Places, both available from the Erie County Library.*
Dr. Wright is, I believe, a perfect model for today's young people.-- Gerry Rising
* Fo more information about continuing conservation activities on Madagascar, see the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments website.