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photo by Bill DiLillo


The Origins of an Academic
Harvard Prof/UVM alumnus returns for President’s Lecture

Tracing one man’s personal evolutionary history, Peter Ellison ’75 recalls his first encounter with Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. “It stopped me in my tracks. I had never encountered anything so powerful in my life,” he says. Ellison, founder and principal investigator of Harvard University’s Reproductive Ecology Laboratory, was then an undergraduate at tiny St. John’s College, an institution famous for its great books-centered curriculum.

The power of Darwin’s work awoke Ellison’s interest in scientific study, a shift in focus from the humanities that his fellow St. John’s student and future wife Pippi ’75 (who went on to become a clinical psychologist) was going through as well. Not long after, the Ellisons transferred to UVM for the broader options of a university. Married at age 21, highly focused on their scientific disciplines, and living in a downtown Burlington apartment above Sheila’s Uniform Shop, the undergraduate Ellisons inhabited a world more akin to grad students. They built collegial relationships with faculty, earned their departments’ top student awards, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

Ellison reflected on his undergraduate days when he returned to his alma mater last semester as part of the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, delivering a talk on “Evolutionary Ecology and Human Reproduction.” He drew a full house to Old Mill’s Dewey Lounge for a wide-ranging talk that centered on his research, much of which is based on his lab’s innovative use of a non-invasive, field-friendly way to monitor steroid hormones through saliva samples. Spitting into test tubes has become such familiar business to women of the Congo’s Ituri tribe that they have coined one of Swahili’s newer compound words — kazimate (spitwork).

The integration of perspectives across disciplines has been a key part of Ellison’s career, the work of his lab, and his 2001 book, On Fertile Ground: A Natural History of Human Reproduction. One reviewer wrote of the publication, “Peter Ellison has now turned a fearsome set of data-rich puzzles into a single elegant story.”

The same could be said for the professor’s talk at UVM, where his skill in front of a class was on display in a wide-ranging presentation examining the evolution of reproductive biology and human health issues across cultures from Nepal to Poland to Africa to Boston. His research has looked beyond the biology of reproduction to consider how such factors as diet, disease, and labor relate to fertility. And his laboratory’s studies of Western societies have explored everything from the issue of women who postpone childbirth into their late 30s to the testosterone levels of athletes and sports fans before and after competition. (In the midst of Super Bowl frenzy, Ellison once facetiously quipped in a National Public Radio interview that fans of a losing team “may have a hard time growing a beard the next morning.”)

Distilling his UVM lecture into a “take-home message,” Ellison referenced the epidemic of obesity in the Western world where sedentary lifestyles have skewed the balance of food intake and activity, “pushing human biology into an area that is really very extreme.” He closed with a thought that was equal parts reminder and warning. “The biology we’re endowed with is the product of evolutionary history. Procuring food, doing work, forging families — they have sculpted our physiology. Increasingly, we live in a world very far removed from the environments that have shaped us.”

—Thomas Weaver