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Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

When Margaret Mead died in 1978, she was the most famous anthropologist in the world. Indeed, it was through her work that many people learned about anthropology and its holistic vision of the human species. Mead taught at a number of institutions, authored some twenty books and co-authored an equal number. She was much honored in her lifetime, serving as president of major scientific associations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she received 28 honorary doctorates. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom following her death in 1978.

Mead testified before Congress in favor of the legalization of marijuana on October 27, 1969, and she told Newsweek in 1970 that she had tried it once herself. Source: Library of Congress, Margaret Mead Collection.


Margaret Mead was a distinguished anthropologist, an intellectual and a scientist. She is the author of numerous books on primitive societies and she also wrote about many contemporary issues. Some of the areas in which she was prominent were education, ecology, the women’s movement, the bomb, and student uprisings.

Margaret Mead was a woman who blended knowledge and action. Time, in fact, named her “Mother of the World” in 1969. In the political realm she served as a diplomat, without a portfolio, to many presidents in the areas of ecology and nutrition. She also had a great deal of concern about the role of science and technology in world politics.

Her Work

Her first major work was “Coming of Age in Samoa.” This became a best seller and brought Mead prominence for the first time. Following her first work was the second from her South Seas voyage. This was titled “Growing Up in New Guinea.” “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies” completed the trilogy on these native cultures. These works were significant, but hardly represent all of what Mead has done.

She continued to write on topics which focused on women’s roles, childrearing, and other issues which clarify gender roles in primitive cultures and aspects of American society. These works include “Male and Female,” “Balinese Character: A Photo Analysis,” “Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples,” “Continuities in Cultural Evolution,” and “New Life for Old.” She remained an active writer all of her life and her bibliography from 1925-1975 runs more than 100 pages.

Photography was not as common in Mead’s lifetime as it is now. However, she did a tremendous job of integrating her photography with her writing skills. In doing this she was able to study CULTURE at a distance. This had never been done before in this manner and served to be an advantage during World War II in helping to understand the environment of Germany and Japan.

Education & Organizations

Mead earned her Bachelors of Arts degree in Sociology at Barnard College in new York. She then went on to Columbia University for her Masters and Ph.D. Following that she earned many honorary degrees and was a member of the American Academy on Arts and Letters. She also taught at Columbia University, New York University, Emory University, Yale University, The New School for Social Research, University of Cincinnati, and The Menninger Clinic. In 1965, she founded the urban anthropology department at N.Y.U. and in 1968 she founded the anthropology department at Fordham University.

At one time Mead was the President of each of the following prestigious organizations:

  • American Anthropological Association
  • Anthropological Film Institute
  • Scientists Institute for Public Information
  • Society for Applied Anthropology

Mead was the first ever elected president by membership in 1974 for the American Association for Advancement of Science.

Although Mead’s studies took her to the far reaches of the earth she did keep her base in the United States. This was at the American Museum on natural History in New York. Here she began in 1926 as an assistant curator. In 1942, she was advanced to associate curator and a full fledge curator in 1961. In 1969, she was awarded curator emeritus. Her time at the museum culminated with a display of her own work in 1971.

Her Life

Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia on December 18, 1901. She was the oldest of four children and both of her parents were educators. Both of her grandfathers were dead before her birth and she didn’t really like her maternal grandmother. She had great fondness for her paternal grandmother. Along with her mom, these were two women were the most supportive and influential people in her life.

In 1918, she graduated high school and was excepted into DePaw University. This was her fathers alma matre and he very much wanted her to attend university there. After one year at DePaw, despite her father’s wishes, she transferred to Barnard College (Columbia University’s sister school). At her new college she met Ruth Benedict, who became a close friend and soon persuaded Mead to become an anthropologist.

All this while she was engaged to a theology student, Luther Cressman and they married in 1923. She continued her masters work under a graduate fellowship and dreamed of having a big family. She was told by her doctor, however, that she would never be able to have children.

At the age of 23 in 1925, Luther and Margaret vacationed in New England together. At the end of this trip, he traveled on to Europe and she to Pago Pago (an American owned Polynesian island). In 1926, she returned to write her first book.

On her trip to Europe, she met a young psychologist from New Zealand, Reo Fortune. She immediately divorced Luther and married Reo. They settled in New Guinea and began an expedition that occurred from 1928 to 1929. During these first two expeditions Mead studied childhood development of the Manus culture and adolescent behaviors in the Samoan culture.

From 1931 to 1933, they continued to travel and Mead continued to study in New Guinea. In 1933, they assembled their third camp in Kenakatem. Here Mead made her great discovery that “human nature is malleable.” She had witnessed three specific cultures; Arapesh, Mundugumor and the Tchambuli. Each culture displayed different gender role qualities. In one culture both the women and men were cooperative, in the second they were both ruthless and aggressive, and in the Thambuli culture the women were dominant and the men more submissive.

Due to these findings, Mead was one of the first people to propose that masculine and feminine characteristics reflected cultural conditioning (or socialization) not fundamental biological differences.

In 1935, Mead returned to divorce Fortune. She then met and married Gregory Bateson. From 1936 to 1939 Mead and Bateson traveled together to cover more studies in Indonesia. Despite what the doctor told Mead she had one child with Bateson in 1939. She writes about this experience in her book “Blackberry Winter.”

Her Image

Mead’s most important role was as an interpreter of world events and trends to the American people. Not everyone, though, looked on with respect. At one time, she was on the board of directors of the YMCA. Some of her peers on the same board found her work scandalous. They even went so far as to call her first book, “Coming of Age in Samoa,” a “sexbook.” The governor of Florida called her a “dirty old lady” for her views on decriminalizing marijuana. And the wife on the Attorney General called her a “spook.” These views did little to effect her stride. In fact, she liked to shake people up a bit. At one time, she introduced some pretty radical proposals. One of which was to pay students to go to college, while an other was to have a “trial” of “student” type marriage.

No matter what people said about her, she shaped the American family. Being married and divorced three times, being a mother, and a grandmother added to her credibility. She also felt that she did well in her field because she was a woman and because she was “feminine.” For this reason, she preferred not to be associated with the term “feminist.” She was a liberated woman, though, who kept her maiden name after being married.

Jean Houston, Director of Mind Research in New York, once said of Mead, “She has one of the most ‘filled’ minds of any person I’ve come into contact with, and uses more of her intellectual capacity than any one I’ve known.”

She was not an aloof intellectual. Mead kept friends for life and was generous with her money (especially for anthropological grants). She donated lots of time and spent countless hours lecturing to worthy groups. Her life was not filled with material extravagance.


In 1975, Mead died of cancer. Two years after death, her name was added to the leading feminist of the century. John Wiley, her editor, said of her, “She wrote as she spoke, very fluently and very fast. Clarity and sanity were her goals.”

“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which diverse human gifts will all find a fitting place.”

—Margaret Mead “Sex and Temperament”

Posted by A. Shapiro
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