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A short history

The origins of IPR are intricately connected with the late patriarch of the Leakey family Louis Seymour Bazett Leakey (LSB Leakey). We have retrieved some interesting documents from our archives outlining the early formative years of the institute, and I bet there are many captivating nuggets of the story surrounding the genesis and early life of IPR that many of us have not heard of until now

In 1958 when Dr LSB Leakey was visiting Ghana he found that his friend, Dr. Alan Angus Booth, had died very suddenly after about nine years of primate research work in Ghana, which he had carried out jointly with his wife, Cynthia Booth. Both of them had been known to LSB for a long time, and both were very highly qualified Cambridge University graduates in Biology and Animal Behavior. LSB enquired of Cynthia what she planned to do now that her husband had died, and she said that she would finish off the publication of their latest joint report, and wind current research, and then she would wish to leave Ghana. After pondering the matter for 24 hours, LSB suggested the next day that she should come and continue research on monkeys with a base somewhere near Nairobi. Accordingly, at the end of 1958 she arrived in Kenya, and the Tigoni Primate Research Centre came into existence.

Cynthia bought a plot of land at Tigoni out of money paid by insurance on her husband’s death, and this money also provided her with a small income, which LSB was able to augment with £600 a year obtained from Chicago. So at first the center operated more or less on a “shoe-string” budget. Cynthia and LSB physically built all the earlier monkey cages, and the laboratory, doing most of the works at weekends to save money on labour charges.

After the Research Centre was established and some 40 monkeys and 5 species were in residence, LSB was able to persuade the National Institute of Health (NIH), Bethesda, USA to provide a 4 year grant and then a 5 year grant thereafter. Tigoni rapidly developed as a research centre, and both Cynthia and LSB attended International Primate Conferences almost every year, to report on their scientific work.  The main work over the first eight years was concerned with studies of estrus cycles, birth, sexual behaviour, growth of infants, milk and permanent tooth eruption sequence, and such factual information about many species of East African monkeys which had hitherto been unrecorded. The centre also focused its efforts on collection of East African primate species and on taxonomic studies of the captive animals. LSB pursued his interests in primate behavior as a source of clues to early man lifestyle. One of his greatest legacies stems from his role in fostering field research of primates in their natural habitats, which he understood as key to unraveling the mysteries of human evolution. It has been reported that he personally chose three female researchers, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas who were later dubbed ‘Leakeys Angels’ and each went on to become world-renowned scholars in the field of primatology.

At the end of 1966 it became apparent to LSB that it was not worth spending a great deal more capital money on developments at the Research Centre when the Research Centre itself was privately owned by Cynthia Booth, and yet all the new buildings and cages going up were vested in the National Institute of Health. LSB was considering the desirability of purchasing the Tigoni property from Cynthia Booth, when quite suddenly, he heard that an extremely desirable property of 20 acres, about half a mile away, was coming onto the market as the result of the death of  the owner. He immediately acquired the first option on this property and then set about raising funds to purchase it. The funds were granted by the Munitalp Foundation (Sir Malim Sorsbie) who covered the mortgage and security on the land; the purchase was affected forthwith under the name of the National Museums of Kenya. The Tigoni National Primate Research Centre physically moved with all the equipment, facilities and outdoor cages to the new property. By this time, there were some 120 monkeys in the collection, representing 12 species.

Sir Ferdinand Cavendish-Bentinck, then Chairman of the Museum Trustees of Kenya, offered the support of Museum Trustees name to facilitate the provisions of the funds to the Centre now that it had become independent of Cynthia Booth, and now that she was only a paid Director, and no longer owner of the land.  A few months later, however, the new Chairman of the Trustees, Mr. Travis, refused to accept any responsibility by the Museum‘s Trustees for Tigoni, but allowed the centre to continue using the Museum name for purposes of the funding obtained from the National Institute of Health.  Early in 1968, just after LSB had made an application for a new grant for five years from the National Institute of Health, a Committee of the United States Senate, discovered that $60,000 a year was being devoted to monkeys in Kenya, without even a single United States citizen on the staff of the Tigoni centre; as a result of this the National Institute of Health was instructed not to renew the grant after 1968. With no other sources of funding, the consequences of this action were inevitable and predictable – the director, assistant director, manager and administrative officer all resigned to find new employment, and LSB was left in great difficulties. The Munitalp Foundation again came to his aid temporarily, and provided funds for a nominal holding staff for the first six months of 1969, primarily to save the monkey collection from disbandment. As a result LSB and his remnant staff were able to maintain a somewhat “hand to mouth” existence, with finances from the Leakey Foundation and other bodies.

According to LSB own admission, the financial position remained tenuous for a number of years thereafter, not sure from one six months to the next whether he will have sufficient funds to sustain operations. However, after some time other funding organizations including the British Medical Research Council in London, and the Ford Foundation in New York both became genuinely interested in the research, and the prospects of better funding were improving.

In the meantime, it was suggested that the land on which the center stood, which was being held on mortgage charged to the Munitalp Foundation ( this arrangement had only grudging support of the Museum Trustees of Kenya) should be vested in a special new Board of Trustees (or Directors). LSB suggested a small Board of Directors be appointed, and was involved in drawing up the necessary Board rules and regulations and hence began the close administrative association between NMK and IPR. The Tigoni Primate Research Centre enjoyed tax exempt status, and the land was also granted special status from a farm land to become research land.  According to LSB early letters, at this time the land, buildings and property were probably worth some sterling pounds 20,000- 25,000, much more than the original figure paid, but of course, there had been a good many capital additions that made the facility a fully fledged research Lab.

Dr LSB Leakey passed away on October 1st, 1972.  In 1973, Dr Richard Leakey as Director of the National Museums assumed responsibility for running IPR. He appointed Dr. Sandy Richards as Director and liaison was established with the University of Nairobi.  Funding originating first from the Louis Leakey Foundation and then from the Kenya Government, supported studies in primate morphology, behaviour, anatomy, physiology and nutrition. Around this time Dr Richard Leakey also managed to persuade Sir Malim Sorsbie of Mulnitap Foundation to clear the mortgage on the Tigoni property and have the National Museums of Kenya have clean title for the land. 

In 1975 Dr. Jim Else took over as Director and in the remaining years of the 70’s the Institute of Primate Research or IPR, as it was now called, began to flourish. It was during Jim’s tenure that interest was generated in the development of a primate research centre for biomedical research in a country in which animals were indigenous. Funding was acquired from NIH through the regional primate research centers in the USA (first through Oregon and later Yerkes) and from the World Health Organizations Special Programme in Human Reproduction. From 1978-1983 development money from these sources enabled expansion of the animal colony and staff.  The staff in particular gained from training programs and from a number of consultants who were based at IPR.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Dr Richard Leakey obtained the land at Oloolua in the name of the National Museums of Kenya. Dr Leakey states that this accomplishment was made possible by a great deal of assistance from the then permanent secretary in the Ministry of Forests and Natural Resources, the late Job Omino. By 1983 the construction of new offices, Labs and animal facilities was completed through funding from the Government of the Netherlands and IPR moved to its present site of Oloolua just outside Karen, a suburb of Nairobi. This site was in part selected so that IPR could play a role in conserving the indigenous forest by preventing subdivision of the property for private use. Over the subsequent years growth of the institution has been tremendous. Animal numbers increased, facilities were enlarged to include more laboratories, an administration complex and staff housing were added and the staff numbers trebled. All this was made possible through support from a variety of donors, including development support from the Kenya Government, World Health Organization’s Special Programmes in Human Reproduction and Tropical Diseases, and the European Community. This support provided a sound base upon which we continue to build to this day.

In recent years this form of institutional development support has been largely withdrawn, but the IPR has successfully competed to secure specific research funding to the value in excess of $500 000 per year. In consequence research areas have expanded from the conservation/ecology/primatology of the 1960’s to include reproductive biology in the 1970’s and Tropical infectious diseases (parasitology, virology) in the 1980’s. The present plans aim to expand these programs but also establish new areas of work such as non-communicable diseases and drug development programs. The facilities put up in the 1980s are also now in need of major renovations and expansion to accommodate the increasing demand by biomedical projects.

On the occasion of the  Dr LSB Leakey dream and desire for a primate research centre, the entire IPR and NMK fraternity recognize and honor his vision and drive that has established a lasting legacy on the African research landscape – the Institute of Primate Research, of the National Museums of Kenya.

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