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Biology Professor Left South African Plains, Settles at MCZ

By David A. Fahrenthold, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

After a childhood spent on the plains of South Africa, Fisher Professor of Natural History Alfred W. Crompton still keeps a lion just a staircase away.

One flight up from Crimpton's office in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) is an exhibit room jammed with lions, giraffes and other neighbors from his youth, stuffed and silent in a forest of tall glass cases.

Now these beasts are teaching aids, the best kind of illustrations for an expert on mammal anatomy. They are also convenient subjects to satisfy Crompton's curiosity about animals which began a long way from Cambridge.

"As kids in South Africa, it was really a wonderful country to live in because you could spend so much time out in the open," Crompton says.

Crompton's interest in animals began in the African outdoors and started him on the road to veterinary school before an interest in comparative anatomy drew him away.

Crompton turned to academic biology. He left South Africa to pursue graduate studies in Cambridge, England before returning in 1956 to run a museum in Cape Town.

The ascension of the South African Nationalists in 1949 had brought in a system of state-backed racism that would soon make that country uniquely infamous and Crompton increasingly uncomfortable with his homeland.

"When I came back from England, I had three children, and there wasn't any future for them [in South Africa]," he says. "It's difficult to guide children away from these racist modes, especially when peer pressure is so strong."

Then a widower, Crompton married his current wife Ann while working in Cape Town, bringing her three children into his family as well and making, in Ann's words, "every meal like a dinner party."

Crompton left Cape Town with his family in 1964 to run Yale's Peabody Museum, joining other South African expatriates in fleeing "like rats leaving a sinking ship." He says that he found a warmer welcome in another nation of former British subjects.

"If you're a colonial, you have to suffer under British arrogance," Crompton says. "Coming to the States was like meeting other colonials-the atmosphere was so much more relaxed, friendly and less formal."

Crompton came to Harvard in 1970, and gave the MCZ a new direction toward greater integration with undergraduate teaching.

Currently the Curator of Mammology at the MCZ, Crompton uses the animals on display there as examples for his anatomy classes.

He has also worked with live animals, using high-speed X-ray films to study animals running on a treadmill or chewing food, and has focused his research on investigating the evolution of animal anatomy.

In 1972, he combined with Harvard newcomer C. Richard Taylor, the former Lyman professor of biology, to offer Biology 21: "Structure and Physiology of Vertebrates."

"We put together a course that we thought of as 'How Animals Work,'" Crompton says. "What we tried to do was integrate anatomy and physiology."

Taylor and Crompton taught the class together for 23 years, forming a partnership that extended to research and friendship, lasting until Taylor's death two years ago.

Crompton is also a professor for Biological Sciences 2: "Organismic and Evolutionary Biology"; Biology 121 a and 121b: "Advanced Structure and Physiology of the Vertebrates"; Biology 139: "Evolution of the Vertebrates"; and Biology 322: "Functional Anatomy of Vertebrates."

But Crompton speaks of retirement within the next year, saying "I am an old man." As a professor emeritus, Crompton plans to keep his lab and continue researching the evolution of the structures animals use for suckling and swallowing.

He says that his fondest memories of teaching at Harvard are of watching his former students continue their studies and take their places in the academic community.

"Watching the careers of some students who have passed through-seeing them take professorial positions or getting Hoopes prizes for work done in the lab, coming back twenty years later and saying "That was a great course,'" Crompton says. "That's really been the best part of teaching."

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