Famous primatologist died last week

Professor and honorary doctor Frans de Waal passes away

Frans de Waal tijdens diesrede 2013
Frans de Waal doing a speech for UU's anniversary in 2013. Photo: DUB / Annemarie Sint Jago

Frans de Waal died last Thursday of metastatic stomach cancer in his hometown – Atlanta, in the United States. The news was broken by the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on Saturday.

The primatologist became famous thanks to his research on monkeys. He studied conflict resolution, reconciliation, empathy and the evolution of morality, making comparisons with the behaviours of humans and other species.

Frans de Waal was considered one of the most important scientists of our time. Time Magazine ranked him among the most influential people in the world in 2007. 

Chimpanzees in Arnhem
De Waal studied biology in Groningen, Nijmegen and Utrecht. He obtained his PhD at UU in 1977 under Professor Jan van Hooff. Between 1975 and 1981, research on a chimpanzee colony at Burgers Zoo in Arnhem laid the foundation for his knowledge of primatology and ethology. Burgers Zoo is still a property of the Van Hooff family.

De Waal then left for America, initially to the University of Wisconsin. Later, he served as a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and as the director of the Living Links Centre at the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre. Emory University's obituary praises him for “bringing apes and humans a little closer together.”

Anniversary speech
De Waal returned to UU several times, including for lectures. In 2011, he was a guest at the first edition of the De Beschaving festival, which took place at Utrecht Science Park.

De Waal received an honorary doctorate from UU in 2013, on the university's anniversary. He was also the one who gave the anniversary speech at Dom Church. Entertainingly, De Waal showed that monkeys exhibit emotions one might be inclined to label as human.

He also discussed his most famous video, which shows a capuchin monkey clearly showing that he does not think it is fair to get a piece of cucumber as a reward for a certain job, while his neighbour was treated to a grape.

At the time, honorary supervisor and psychologist Willem Koops said: “Like no other, Frans de Waal has stimulated us psychologists and developmental psychologists not to overestimate the uniqueness of human behaviour, but rather understand it as a variant in an evolutionary primatological context.”

Thinking in boxes
Six months later, De Waal was appointed as the tenth University Professor at UU. This title is reserved for excellent scientists whose influence transcends their fields. He also became a visiting professor at Maastricht University.

In 2014, he told the newspaper NRC Handelsblad that the Dutch had become friendlier since his departure, but he had less flattering words about the university. He found it strange that he had to teach in English and was surprised by the lack of female professors and the compartmentalization of disciplines. “I am a biologist, but in the US, I work at the psychology faculty together with psychologists, other biologists, neuroscientists and so on. Everyone there thinks that's normal.”