April 28, 2013

Remembering Francis Bossuyt

The evening before his 31st birthday, biologist Francis Bossuyt went for his daily swim in the lake at Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu Park, Peru, and was never seen again. After weeks of fruitless searching by scientist colleagues, park guards, the Peruvian authorities and his Belgian family, he was presumed to be the victim of some mishap on the lake. This loss represented a double tragedy for his family, since his own father had died four years earlier in the mysterious explosion of a TWA flight off Long Island in July of 1996, which had interrupted Francis's very first month of fieldwork at Cocha Cashu. 

Francis with a titi monkey
(Photo source: Myriam Bossuyt)

Just a few days before Francis disappeared on April 27, 2000, I received a letter from him that was written from Cocha Cashu before Christmas and postmarked from Miami on April 13. 

In the letter, Francis describes his preliminary observations about the use of apparent medicinal plants by a group of dusky titi monkeys he was studying for a doctoral thesis at U.C. Davis. He was interested in comparing this information with my own work on plants used by the nearby Matsigenka indigenous people. We had begun to correspond about beginning a comparative study.

Today, on what would have been Francis's 44th birthday and the 13th anniversary of his disappearance, I reproduce this letter with its novel observations about the use of aromatic plant species by dusky titi monkeys:

In the days and weeks following his disappearance, I was reminded of Matsigenka stories about special individuals -- shamans, herbalists, orphaned children -- who use their knowledge of esoteric plants to join the immortal beings residing in the Milky Way: they vanish without leaving a physical trace in the world below.

As his mother Myriam wrote in a memorial posting last January, celebrating renovations at Cocha Cashu being carried out by the San Diego Zoo, "For us, [Cocha Cashu] will always be a special place where Francis’s spirit roams, and we hope it will remain a sanctuary for the many creatures who live and work there, who love and die there." 



  1. Glenn
    I remember the day Francis came with the leaves and rub them on us. It has very strong odor that to mint or citrus. I don´t know if some of them is one of the ones listed above. He speculated that can be to keep the fur clean or parasites or just to smell well. If you notice, all the plants listed are Annonacea, whose leaves are full of terperns. Some properties are attributed to leaves and flowers of Annonacea because of the terpenes .
    Monica R

    1. Dear Monica, Nice to hear from you and thank you for your knowledgeable comment. It was such an interesting observation he made in the letter, and so shocking and sad to learn the tragic news within days of receiving it.

  2. Dear Glenn,

    Thanks for sharing this letter with us. I never met Francis but I got really sad when I knew about his disappearance back in 2000.

    Best regards,

    Pepe Tello

  3. Thanks for writing, Pepé, Francis is missed by those who knew him well, and others like me who had only just made his acquaintance.

  4. Hi Glenn,

    Thanks for posting this. I had spoken to Francis about this soon after he first discovered it. He was so excited about the discovery. I certainly miss being able to share "discoveries" with him when I return to the CC clearing after finding some exciting new fruit. He was a wonderful person.

    Mercedes F.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mercedes, and good to hear from you. Yes, both of us were excited about doing some comparisons of uses and plant families between the monkeys and the local indigenous peoples. A very sad loss indeed, Glenn

  5. Hello Glenn, Thank you for posting this letter and picture of Francis. So nice to see posts from Mercedes and Monica!

    Francis was truly an amazing, inspiring scientist and an energetic, wonderful person. I shared an office with him one field season when we overlapped at Cashu. He often played jazz while working in the office. Every time I listen to "Someday my prince will come" (Miles Davis), I remember Francis, who introduced that album to me.

    With fond memories,
    Sabrina R.

  6. Sabrina, thank you for your comments and fond memories. Francis made an impression on so many people. It has been inspiring to share thoughts and reflections from many friends in his honor.

  7. Hello Glenn,

    Thank you for sharing this post and for sending your blessings to Francis. We have not met but I was Francis’s field assistant and one of the two people at Cashu the night he disappeared. I think of Francis all of the time, especially as I travel my own path as a PhD student, continuing to work with titi monkeys. There are so many moments in the forest when I am reminded of Francis and can actually feel his presence there with me. There are so many moments while chasing the titis when I stop and think “what in the world am I doing?!” as I wade through nasty swamp water up to my waste, climb through a seemingly impenetrable tangle while getting stung by hundreds of ants and/or wasps, all to catch a glimpse, a moment, with these crazy little furballs. Francis helped instill a work ethic, passion, perseverance, and dedication for what often felt like the impossible and for that, I will always be grateful. Francis played a huge role in shaping my skills as a field primatologist and has always been and continues to be a role model for me. Thank you Francis for all of the amazing memories and gifts you shared with me. ~Amy Porter

  8. Dear Amy, Nice to meet you virtually at least and thanks for writing. I'm glad to hear you have continued your studies and thus kept Francis and his work alive in a very real sense in your ongoing research with "his" monkeys, in "his" forest. I have been heartened by the outpouring of fond memories about Francis that has come to me over the past week, whether in private emails or directly in blog comments. Thank you again for your comment and for sharing your memories, Glenn

  9. Hi

    Francis stayed with us in Kenya while at Earlham College in the 80s (I think). It is sad that this happened to him. Please pass our condolences to his family (late as they may be).

    1. Belated thanks to your comment, I have been less active on the blog in recent months. Yes, it was a terrible tragedy and he his missed sorely by family, friends and many colleagues like yourself and others. Thank you for sending this remembrance, Glenn