Jerene Jones
February 18, 1980 12:00 PM

For two years Richard Leakey, 35—best-selling author (Origins) and the world’s most distinguished living anthropologist—had been languishing, his work increasingly left undone. A case of strep throat in 1968 had left him with a progressive kidney disease and a host of debilitating symptoms: high blood pressure, fluid retention, chronic lethargy. Even to Leakey, who raises traditional Anglo-Saxon reserve and scientific detachment to epic heights, the situation had by last year become worrisome. “One’s body is not being cleansed, so one is slowly being poisoned by one’s own waste products,” he explains. “My output of work was quite distinctly limited. I was feeling far below par.”

Last summer Richard’s blood pressure soared too high to be ignored, and he flew from his home in Kenya to London, where he was given six-hour sessions on a dialysis machine three times a week and advised by specialists that if he wanted to return to his work he had only one practical choice: a kidney transplant. The only problem was who the donor would be. Because the body rejects foreign tissue, kidney transplants are best taken from siblings to minimize immunological response. Richard’s brother Jonathan, 40, had the wrong blood type, and brother Philip, 30, whose blood matched, was campaigning furiously just then to become the first white member of Kenya’s parliament since its independence 16 years ago. “I’ve never been so tired in my life,” Philip recalls. “For three weeks I had spent all day campaigning and meeting people and then speaking at rallies at night.”

Nevertheless, two weeks after his historic victory, Philip flew to London. Last November 29 their operations were performed without complications. Since Richard is director of Kenya’s National Museums, most of the $25,000 medical costs were paid by the Kenyan government. Philip had considerable discomfort in its aftermath but, in the family manner, he dismisses the ordeal with a matter-of-fact wave of the hand. “It was a new experience,” says Philip, who had never undergone surgery before. “There are two aspects to every event—negative and positive. Most people only see the negative. I’ve trained myself to always look for the positive aspect. That way you are 10 strides ahead of everybody else.”

The Leakey brothers had a head start as their birthright. Their parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, became world famous through their anthropological digs in east Africa; Louis died in 1972, but at 67, Mary is still putting in eight-hour days exploring Olduvai Gorge in Kenya. Their sons all grew up in the African bush (Richard was 6 months old when he went on his first field trip) and have stayed close to it all their lives. When he was only 19, Jonathan unearthed parts of a 1.8 million-year-old Homo habilis skull, a discovery that greatly pushed back the accepted date of the emergence of man. Since then he has retired from anthropology to operate a farm in Kenya, run a tourist business and raise snakes for their venom.

But Richard has carried on his parents’ tradition, striking anthropological pay dirt repeatedly at Lake Turkana in Kenya—particularly with the excavation in 1972 of a 2 million-year-old humanoid skull (dubbed the “1470” after its catalogue number in the National Museums of Kenya). His wife of 10 years, Meave, 37, is a zoologist. Employing abilities she traces to a childhood flair for jigsaw puzzles, it was she who assembled the fragments of the “1470” skull.

After seven months away from home, Richard is looking forward to taking Meave and their two daughters—Louise, 7, and Samira, 5—back to Nairobi, perhaps as early as next week. “London can be so gloomy,” says Meave. “We’re used to being outdoors in the sun.” Philip, after his 10-day hospital stay, went back to his small farm and political career a month ago with scarcely a backward glance. “I didn’t think twice about offering my kidney,” he says. “Richard is a contributor, an active person who can only do what he’s been doing if he’s healthy. He couldn’t do it on dialysis. It would have been a great waste.” Richard shares Philip’s emotional distance from it all. “There is a strong family bond,” he says, “but we’re all independent of each other.”

Happily, the transplant seems to have restored Richard’s physical independence completely. After an initial rejection reaction to the foreign tissue (suppressed successfully by drugs) and a subsequent bout with pneumonia, Richard left the hospital late last month and looks forward to a perfectly normal life. “My prospects are very good,” he says cheerfully. “You have to be an optimist. You could hardly take on an organ transplant if you weren’t.”

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