skip to content

Department of Zoology


Professor Jenny Clack, F.R.S., F.L.S.


Jenny was a palaeontologist. Why restate what everyone who knew Jenny already knows? Well, the fact that they already know it, without having to think, is the point: Jenny was resolute in her dedication to her chosen field of study. Her ability to focus her energies on her scientific interests became legendary. There were, of course, other Jennys: the motorcyclist, the Rioja drinker, the birder (carried through life from her youth), the choir member (she was perhaps the only Manchester rationalist to sing regularly in English cathedrals), the artist (she was very gifted at drawing). But her science was the unwavering focus of her life, and in this context there just has to be a mention of Jenny’s husband, Rob, fittingly the rock upon whose support and dedication Jenny rested.

I first met Jenny when she was still Jennifer Agnew. She was a research student of Alec Panchen in Newcastle, working already on early tetrapods. Incidentally, that still makes her a member of a Cambridge dynasty, because Alec himself was a research student of F.R. (Rex) Parrington, Director of the Museum of Zoology from 1938 to 1970. It was, however, a decade before Jenny arrived in Cambridge, having been appointed as Assistant Curator in the Museum. Jenny was the only one of the Curators of her era to have received a formal training in museum work. The formalities of her subsequent career are dealt with by Jason Head and Tim Smithson in their obituary. After her work became more widely known, there were many distinctions of which Jenny was justly proud. Again, these are mentioned in the obituary.

Jenny and I taught together in IB Animal Biology. The course was Vertebrate Biology, and we divided it so that Jenny dealt with the non-amniotes and I dealt with the amniotes. We took considerable care in presenting a seamless story, and we demonstrated in each other’s practical classes. One happy memory was the ritual of standing together each year in the short wing of the Elementary Laboratory during the final practical of the Lent Term and acknowledging the arrrival of Spring as we looked out of the windows. After the first week of a month’s worth of classes, the whole enterprise was conducted in an insistent atmosphere of elderly fish. There is no smell that so gladdens the heart of a vertebrate zoologist of a certain vintage (the one to which Jenny and I both belonged).

Despite her steely focus and her unerring confidence within her field of study, Jenny could be quite shy, as Jason and Tim note. But, goodness was she tough! The Greenland expeditions speak for themselves, but her illness over her last five years demonstrated her courage to an almost epic degree. She would have hated me saying this. The occasional discrete and oblique enquiry after her health was tolerated (and answered truthfully) but neither solicited nor encouraged. Her illness over this period very definitely did not define her, and so it is very much not what stays in the mind when I think of Jenny.

What does stay in my mind is a series of characteristic facial expressions: Jenny gently amused by some vagary of human nature, Jenny overcome by barely controlled enthusiasm for some quirk of vertebrate zoology, and perhaps most of all Jenny with her head tipped to one side, and with an eyebrow raised, when she was not convinced by some statement or argument that she felt to be defective. (Believe me, you didn’t want to be a recipient of the latter, although I often was.) Intriguingly, there are no bad photographs of Jenny that I have ever been aware of; somehow, the camera always treated her well. In evidence, look at the photograph on this web site,  also hangs in the Balfour Library.

Adrian Friday
6 May 2020

Jennifer Clack by her first PhD student Per Ahlberg in Nature 22 April 2020

Jenny Clack  by Timothy Smithson in The Guardian 9th April 2020

Professor Jenny Clack, F.R.S., F.L.S.

Written by Jason J. Head and Timothy R. Smithson

Jenny Clack, Professor Emerita in the Department of Zoology and former Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology in the University Museum of Zoology, passed away on March 26 after living with cancer for five years. A World-renowned palaeontologist and leading authority on the evolution of vertebrates onto land, Jenny had been a member of the department and museum for 39 years.

Originally from Manchester, Jenny attended Bolton School and then the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, where she received a degree in Zoology in 1970. She received a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester and took her first professional position at the City of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. She returned to Newcastle upon Tyne to conduct postgraduate research in 1978, receiving her PhD in 1984. During this time, Jenny began her career at Cambridge, initially as an Assistant Curator from 1981-1995 then Senior Assistant Curator until being promoted to Reader in 2000. She was promoted to a personal chair in 2006 as the first Professor and Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology in the history of Cambridge, titles that she held through her retirement in 2015.

A childhood fascination with nature and palaeontology drove Jenny’s research. Her PhD study on the Carboniferous stem-amniote Pholiderpeton revealed early stages in the early evolution of the stapes, the primary auditory ossicle in tetrapods. This work typified Jenny’s skills as an original thinker, a detailed, exacting anatomist and a deft fossil preparator. With a focus on Devonian-Carboniferous vertebrates, Jenny developed a research program in the University Museum of Zoology that integrated field-based discoveries with comparative anatomy, functional morphology, and developmental data to reconstruct the early histories of tetrapods and their sarcopterygian relatives. Her expeditions to upper Devonian sections in East Greenland in 1987 and 1998 produced multiple articulated skeletons of the stem tetrapod Acanthostega gunnari and important remains of the enigmatic stem-tetrapod Ichthyostega. These discoveries provided new information on tetrapod origins, from skull and sensory system evolution, to the origins of limbs from fins, to the environmental contexts for the “terrestrialization” of tetrapods. She maintained career-long research on vertebrate evolution and faunal transitions across the mass extinctions of the late and end-Devonian, culminating in the NERC funded, multi-institutional TW:eed (Tetrapod World: early evolution and diversification) project based on field studies from the Scottish Borders.

The impact of Jenny’s research for understanding vertebrate evolution cannot be overstated. She took a moribund, poorly-understood field of study and transformed it into one of the most informative, best understood evolutionary transitions in the fossil record. Her work revolutionized our understanding of the evolution of the tetrapod body form and sensory systems and diversity changes across one of the greatest mass extinctions in Earth History. She popularized these topics in her popular, critically-acclaimed book Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods.

Jenny’s research was supported and enriched through the multiple students and postdoctoral fellows whom she supervised and who have gone on to leading research careers in vertebrate evolution. These include postdocs Michael Coates (University of Chicago) and Stephanie Pierce (Harvard University), PhD students Per Ahlberg (University of Uppsala), Paul Upchurch (University College, London), and Michael S.Y. Lee (Flinders University), and master’s students Matt Friedman (University of Michigan) and Brian Swartz (Moorpark College). Jenny additionally taught undergraduate courses in the Department of Zoology. She lectured for years on vertebrate origins and early evolution in the Natural Sciences Tripos 1B course and taught “M1: Topics in Vertebrate Evolution” throughout her career.

Ever a museum scientist, Jenny expanded the University Museum of Zoology’s fossil collections throughout her career, building one the most important Carboniferous vertebrate collections in the UK. She enjoyed developing exhibits on fossils and evolution for the public galleries and used the UMZC galleries and collections for specimen-based learning in her course practical demonstrations. Several of Jenny’s later PhD students have all followed in her early-career footsteps as public educators in leading museums, including Roz Wade (UMZC), Esther Sharp (Science Museum, London) and Kelly Richards (Oxford University Museum of Natural History).

Jenny’s accomplishments have been globally recognized. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (2009), and Foreign Honorary Member of both the American Arts and Sciences (2009) and Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (2014). She received the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, USA, for ‘preeminence in zoology or palaeontology’ in 2008, being the first British recipient since 1942, the first woman since 1951, and the first vertebrate palaeontologist since 1956. Jenny was the first vertebrate palaeontologist to receive the Lapworth Medal from the Palaeontological Society (2015) and received the T. Neville George Medal by the Geological Society of Glasgow in 2013.

Although soft-spoken and given to shyness, Jenny could be intimidating, forceful, and quietly funny. This is evident in the taxonomic names she constructed- often humorous, always cleverly layered with multiple meanings. She named a Carboniferous stem-amniote Eucritta melanolimnetes (“Creature from the Black Lagoon”) in Nature, named Silvanerpeton after Silvanus, the Roman god of the woods for fossil collector Stan Wood and because the fossil locality had previously been a wood, and named a large hind-footed whatcheeriid Pederpes for the Latin for “foot” and for the name of its discoverer, Peder Aspen. She commonly gave personal names (“Grace”, “Boris”, “Mr. Magic”) to individual specimens under her examination, resulting in discussions that were delightful combinations of technical anatomy and casual familiarity.

Jenny is survived by Rob Clack, her husband of 40 years, himself an accomplished fossil preparator and field worker. Together they shared loves of motorcycling, choir, wine, gardening, and jewellery making, including a fine pair of silver ear rings fashioned after the stapes of Acanthostega.

She will be missed.

Announcement by the Head of Department, 26th March 2020.

We are very sad to announce the death of our colleague Jenny Clack. Jenny died peacefully at home.

Jenny joined the Museum and Department as an Assistant Curator in 1981. She subsequently obtained her PhD in 1984. The University's arcane regulations meant that Jenny was an assistant curator for many years before becoming a Senior Assistant Curator in 1995. However, she finally started to get the recognition she deserved becoming a Reader in 2000 and Professor in 2007. Jenny is, of course, best known for her work on the origin and evolution of early tetrapods and her breakthrough studies on "Gaining Ground" the title of her excellent popular book. A fuller appreciation of Jenny's scientific impact will be posted at a later date.  Jenny received many honours including being made FRS in 2009.

Jenny's career was the subject of a BBC documentary (Beautiful Minds, 2012). It tells the extraordinary story of how Jenny's passion for science led her to overcome the barriers she faced as a woman and because she came from a humble background. It is a wonderful programme and well worth watching if it is broadcast again.  

We send our deepest condolences to Jenny's family and friends. We have a lost an inspirational and outstanding scientist and colleague.

The Director of the Museum of Zoology Professor Rebecca Kilner's tribute

In the Museum, we were greatly saddened to hear of Jenny’s death. Jenny was such a longstanding member of the Museum’s community, and such a wonderful colleague in the wider Department too, that it is hard for all of us to imagine life without her.

Jenny worked at the Museum for almost 40 years, beginning with her appointment as Assistant Curator in 1981 and continuing after her retirement in 2015 as Emeritus Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology. She was lauded internationally for her research yet she wore her exceptional scientific achievements with great modesty. She was a warm and gently supportive colleague who quietly got on with her work, making brilliant discovery after brilliant discovery. Jenny’s immense scientific legacy includes several current stars of palaeontology, who were trained in her lab. Her work lives on in the Museum through the many specimens she collected and prepared, and through some of the displays in our public galleries. One of the highlights is a life-size model of Acanthostega, the fossil fish described by Jenny and her team which rewrote the evolutionary textbooks in explaining how vertebrate life moved out of the sea and onto the land.

We will be posting a fuller tribute to Jenny and her scientific discoveries here soon. In the meantime, here is Jenny herself, featuring in a short film made in 2016 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Department. Here she describes one of the ‘Eureka’ moments in her distinguished scientific career.