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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Margaret Mead, Cultural Anthropologist

December 16, 2009
by Jen O'Neill
Dr. Margaret Mead became one of the world’s most renowned American anthropologists through her extensive cross-cultural work on issues including gender roles, environmental justice, education, race relations, child rearing and nutrition. Known as the “observer’s observer,” she successfully bridged the gap between social anthropology and ethnology as we know them today.

Margaret Mead's Early Days

Margaret Mead was the eldest of four children, born in Philadelphia on December 16, 1901. Her father was a professor at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce and founder of the university’s evening school. But it was her mother, a sociologist, and her paternal grandmother, a child psychologist, who had the most profound influence on Mead’s young life.

After graduating from high school in 1918, she went on to her father’s alma mater, DePauw University, but after spending a year there she transferred to Barnard College in Manhattan to experience city life.

As a college student, Mead became engaged to theology student Luther Cressman and the couple married in 1923. Their short-lived marriage ended after she fell in love with Reo Fortune, a young psychologist from New Zealand.

During her time at Barnard, she focused her educational research on problems of child rearing, personality and culture; she also met two famous anthropologists, Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, both of whom became her teachers and lifelong mentors.

She went on to pursue her doctoral degree at Columbia University, and during this period enhanced her studies by taking a trip with Fortune to Samoa where she studied the similarities of Manu adolescent girls to American female adolescents. When she returned to the United States, she wrote her first book, “Coming of Age in Samoa,” which both challenged the Western way of life and confirmed Franz Boas’ hypothesis that genes are not the cause for cultural differences, rather, it’s the environment in which people grow up.

Mead's Notable Accomplishments

After leaving a prominent position as a curator at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, she made a second trip to study the societies of Samoa, New Guinea and Bali, where she stumbled upon a realization that had a profound influence on her academic career: she concluded that human nature is malleable. With her new insight, Mead challenged gender role assumptions and developed a more relaxed attitude about sexual morality in an effort to promote a better human society.

After divorcing Reo Fortune, she married Gregory Bateson, an English anthropologist, and the couple spent four years studying Indonesian cultures. Although she was told she could never give birth, in 1939 her daughter Mary Catherine Bateson was born. During her time in Bali, Mead took more than 25,000 photographs of the people, and in her comparative cultural studies, she noted, “American women are good mothers, but they make poor wives; Americans are very poor at being attentive to anybody else.”

Mead switched roles during World War II, becoming the secretary of the Committee on Food Habits for the National Research Council, and went on to publish “Letters from the Field,” a compilation of correspondence letters she wrote to friends, family and colleagues featuring her work in New Guinea, Bali and Samoa. Her fame grew through her many books and articles, including “Sex and Temperament,” and she garnered 28 honorary doctorates for her distinguished work and breakthrough studies.

The Rest of the Story

Margaret Mead died of cancer on November 16, 1978, hard at work until the day she died. According to Mead’s obituary, “She often gave the impression of being ubiquitous because she was rarely at rest in any one place for very long and because she could not permit a moment to pass unutilized,” and her unpredictability signified she was a “student of adaptation.”

Throughout her lifetime, Margaret Mead wrote more than 44 books, and more than 1,000 articles that have been translated into a multitude of languages. She gave several television interviews, and held many influential positions, including curator emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History, Earth Day activist, director of research in contemporary culture at Barnard College, and head of the social science department and professor at the liberal arts college at Fordham University. After her death, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter.

Considered “mother to the world,” by many, and “a St. Paul,” by a few, her legacy is epitomized in her own words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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