biography, anthropologist, Benjamin Spock
[Margaret Mead]
anthropology, ethnology, courtship patterns

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Margaret Mead - Anthropology
Coming of Age in Samoa

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 failed."

In 1969 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.


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Margaret Mead
Coming of Age in Samoa