Margaret Mead was born the oldest of four children on December 16,
1901, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the first baby to be delivered in the newly
built West Park Hospital. Her parents were educators in the social
sciences with family roots in the mid-west. At the time of her birth her father was
a Professor of Finance at the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mead grew up in a somewhat socially unconventional atmosphere where she was led to believe that women could
have their own careers and was encouraged
to play with children of all racial and economic backgrounds. She also learned to paint and
dance. The family moved frequently during her youth. Mead later recalled that she "took pride in being unlike
other children and in living in a household that was in itself unique."
Her upbringing brought with it a measure of unconventionality which led her to
being somewhat excluded from the society of her peers at the first college she attended (DePauw University) such
that she transferred to Barnard College in New York City. Here, she was associated with a group of girls who called
themselves the "Ash Can Cats." At Barnard her interest migrated away from economics,
sociology and psychology and towards anthropology. In a class with the famous anthropologist Franz
Boas, she learned of the importance of studying cultures that were rapidly
disappearing around the world.
After graduating in the September of 1923 Mead married Luther Cressman, in a little Episcopal church where she
had been baptized of her own accord, and entered Columbia University graduate school in New York City.
Two years later Mead took up a course-related opportunity to do some field work and left for
a nine-month stay in Samoa, an island in the southwest central Pacific Ocean, to study adolescence and biological
and cultural influences on behaviour. Mead lived with the villagers
during the day and at night, giving her an advantage in observing and
understanding behaviour and customs that otherwise would have remained
unknowable to a person from the United States. For instance, she
discovered that monogamy (marriage to one person) and jealousy were not
valued or understood by the Samoans, and that divorce occurred simply by
the husband or wife "going home." However, her most important work in
Samoa was on courtship patterns in adolescents.
Her book Coming of Age in Samoa published in 1928 based on her studies of
adolescent behavior in a Polynesian society became a best-seller and brought its author to the forefront of
American anthropology, where she would remain for half a century.
In 1926 she had been appointed assistant curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural
History in New York City. A second field trip in the late 1920s led to the publication of
Growing Up in New Guinea (1930) and Sex and Temperament (1935).
In 1936 Mead went to the Indonesian island of Bali with her third husband Gregory Bateson,
also an anthropologist, which resulted in their innovative 1941
book Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis.
Although her doctors repeatedly advised she could never expect to have children, she
persisted despite the upset of several miscarriages such that she gave birth to a daughter, Mary Catherine
Bateson, in 1939. Mary Catherine was to be the first Spock Baby as
at the time of her birth Margaret Mead was a friend of Dr. Benjamin Spock, a then largely unknown young pediatrician who
had innovative ideas about child rearing.
Dr. Spock advocated "demand feeding" of infants - giving babies their bottles whenever they
seemed hungry - and picking them up whenever they cried. His
theories were directly opposed to the more rigid practices that were generally being recommended
at that time, Mead agreed that her newborn daughter should be raised in line with Spock's ideas.
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, by Dr. Benjamin Spock published in 1946 began a revolution in the way
American parents brought up their children.
Over several years of US involvement in the Second World War Mead served on the U.S. Committee
on Food Habits and worked on a national character study that examined
British and American relations. In 1942 she was promoted to become curator of ethnology at the
American Museum of Natural History in
New York City. Also in that year her book And Keep Your
Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America, was published. In this work she compared
American culture with the cultures of seven other countries.
She was director of research in contemporary cultures at Columbia University from
1948 to 1950 and adjunct professor of anthropology there after 1954.
Perhaps the most profound and far-reaching impact that Margaret Mead had was as a counselor to American
society - usually on family related issues. Such advice often appeared in a popular monthly column that
she and Rhoda Metraux contributed to Redbook over 17 years (1961-1978). Amongst her concerns were
the decline of the extended family, the isolation often felt by people living in cities, and the generation gap.
She was one of the earlier feminists, Mead wrote in 1946 about the need for a transformation gender roles without
any anti-male prejudice. She was
also an early proponent of birth control, an advocate of the repeal of
anti-abortion laws, and a supporter of the right to die.
Though married and
divorced three times, Mead firmly stated, "I don't consider my marriages
as failures. Its idiotic to assume that because a marriage ends, its
Time named her Mother of the Year. In September 1969 she was appointed full professor
and head of the social science department in the Liberal Arts College of Fordham University at Lincoln Center
in New York. She also served on various government and international commissions and was a controversial speaker
on modern social issues.
Mead's association with the American
Museum of Natural History continued with her being appointed curator
emeritus, an honorary title, in 1969. She has also served as president of major scientific associations,
including the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science,
and she was awarded 28 honorary doctorates.
Mead died of cancer on November 15, 1978, in New York City. She was then probably the most famous anthropologist
in the world. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom following her death in 1978.
Her voluminous archives are now housed in the Library of Congress.