Altmann, Stuart Allen, age 86, passed away in Princeton, New Jersey on October 13, 2016 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in Los Angeles, California. He was both a scientist and an artist, working as a biologist for his professional life and pursuing ceramics expertly as an avocation. His formal scientific training began at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he first completed a Bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s degree in Biology in 1953. He studied under George Bartholomew, researching the mobbing behavior of birds. He was drafted into the Army and served from 1954 to 1956 as a research scientist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. At the end of his army service, he hitched a ride to Panama on army transport planes and used his carefully accumulated leave time to study the Barro Colorado howler monkeys, publishing a paper that is still cited today for its descriptions of primate vocalizations. He attended Harvard University between 1956 and 1960 as E. O. Wilson’s first Ph.D. student, adopting a decidedly sociobiological perspective that he and Wilson developed in extensive conversations comparing primates and social insects. He conducted his Ph.D. research on the rhesus macaques on Cayo Santiago in Puerto Rico, while he was revitalizing and managing the colony under the sponsorship of W. F. Windle at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This research, motivated by his interest in communication, produced a series of papers between 1962 and 1968 that represent a seminal contribution to primate behavioral ecology. The first of these analyzed reproductive behavior; it is still commonly cited in the twenty-first century, and Altmann’s “priority of access” model (Altmann 1962) has greatly influenced subsequent work on the relationship between dominance rank and mating success in male mammals. What set Altmann apart from his peers was his ability to frame problems conceptually, use mathematical models to make strong predictions and then draw on his natural history insights and systematic observations to test them. What emerged was a new way of thinking and framing of behavioral questions. His quantitative approach transformed the study of primate behavior. In addition, in an era when interest in behavior as an adaptation was burgeoning, Altmann set high standards for a very detailed understanding of the functional consequences of behaviors such as foraging, and of how we evaluate adaptation in nature.
In the summer of 1958, he met his future wife Jeanne when they were both working for the NIH, and they married in 1959. He began his first faculty position at the University of Alberta in 1960, and moved to Yerkes National Primate Research Center in 1965. In 1970, he moved to a joint appointment in the Biology Department (which later became the Department of Ecology and Evolution) and the Anatomy Department at the University of Chicago. He became Emeritus Professor at University of Chicago in 1995, and beginning in 1998 was a Senior Lecturer at rank of Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. In 1963–1964, Stuart and Jeanne Altmann made their first trip to Amboseli in southern Kenya, to study the baboons that would later become the subject of one of the world’s best-known long-term field studies of primates. In 1971, they began collecting the longitudinal data on this population that is still being collected today. Stuart and Jeanne were fortunate to spend decades working together in a rich, intellectual partnership.
Stuart approached his avocations with a passion and an attention to detail. He got equal pleasure from designing a home as from baking muffins to share with family and friends. He started an apple orchard on the family property in West Virginia, chronicling the taste and productivity of dozens of varieties and making gallons of cider.
Throughout his life Stuart loved sculpture and ceramics. He insisted that art be functional and also cared deeply about the aesthetics of shape and form. He created a ceramics studio in their Chicago and Princeton homes. He loved throwing pots and continually honed his skills and learned new techniques.
With his camera and artistic eye, Stuart captured beautiful moments in the lives of each of his grandchildren, who he enjoyed immensely. Listening to music and singing brought Stuart great pleasure, even in his last days. He loved a wide range of music from Bach to Coltrane, the deep melodious voice of Paul Robeson and the drums of West Africa. He was a captivating storyteller - stories of his adventures in the woods and travels around the world, and beloved bedtime stories for his children and grandchildren.
He will be sadly and deeply missed by Jeanne, his wife of 57 years, his son Michael Altmann of Minneapolis, Minnesota, his daughter Rachel Altmann of Portland, Oregon, grandchildren Elliot, Alice, and Benjamin, sister Ruth Nebron of Van Nuys, California and many friends, colleagues and associates.