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Anthropology at Cornell: The First Century (1870-1970)

The Cornell Anthropology Department, as a separate entity, was formed in 1962. However, anthropology has been practiced at Cornell nearly from the founding of the university. Frederick Gleach, the Curator of the Anthropology Collections, has produced the following account of the first century of anthropological practice at Cornell.

C.F. Hartt

The first anthropological work associated with Cornell University was done by geology professor Charles Frederick Hartt in 1870. Hartt was a student of Louis Agassiz, and when Agassiz declined to come to Ithaca for the new university, he recommended Hartt in his stead.

Hartt had already been to Brazil when he came to Cornell in 1868, but in 1870, he was one of the principals in the Morgan Expedition, taking along 11 Cornell students. He had a knack for languages and an eye for detail, and in addition to his geological sampling he conducted what were probably the first archaeological excavations in the Amazon; the artifacts he brought back to Cornell became some of the first accessions of what is now the Anthropology Collections, then part of the University Museum.

In 1874, Hartt was appointed head of the Geological Commission of the Empire of Brazil. He took leave from Cornell for this position, but was never to return. He contracted yellow fever on an inland expedition and died in Rio de Janeiro in 1878.

Before his death Hartt published some of the earliest works on the Indians and archaeology of the Amazon. He was a dramatic and beloved teacher at Cornell.

Few of the students now connected with the University will remember the genial, warm-hearted Professor, but the news of his death will cause a sharp pang in the hearts of many, very many alumni, not one of whom we venture to assert, will remember him with any but the warmest affection and profoundest respect. 

One of Hartt's most dedicated students was Orville Adelbert Derby, Class of 1873. He had accompanied Hartt on the 1870-71 Morgan Expedition, served as his assistant and taught for two years in the Department of Geology. He then returned with Hartt to Brazil in 1875 and succeeded him as director of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro in 1878. In 1951, Brazil issued a stamp commemorating his birth; this is thought to be the first such commemoration of a Cornellian.

Frank Hamilton Cushing at Cornell

Frank Cushing is best known for becoming, at a young age, the leader of a major expedition to Zuñi pueblo in New Mexico, in 1879. He famously adopted Zuñi customs and largely overcame their opposition by his sincerity and willingness to learn from them. Variously idolized and mocked, he has become one of the most romanticized figures in anthropology.

Little known is the fact that Cushing's sole experience in higher education was a few months spent working with C. F. Hartt and O. A. Derby in the Museum at Cornell. Born prematurely, he had been a sickly boy, but found fascination in first geology and fossils and then artifacts of the Indians of Central New York, where he lived. He taught himself stone tool making, discovering techniques then unknown to scholars. At the age of 16 he was in correspondence with such luminaries as Lewis Henry Morgan and the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Spencer Fullerton Baird; he made his first donation of artifacts to the Smithsonian at that age.

An older brother had been a student at Cornell for three years, and he recommended that Frank meet Hartt. He came to Cornell, and on that first day made a collection of some Iroquois artifacts not far from campus, impressing Hartt with his knowledge and his skills.

Cushing described the visit in his unpublished autobiography, writing of himself in the third person:
he had the good fortune to discover, immediately opposite the campus of the college, on the other side of the ravine called Buttermilk Cañon a wonderfully rich Indian camping ground. He returned to Prof Hartt's laboratory in the evening laden with rare Indian remains, and as one of that gentleman's chief interests was in archeology . . . he conceived an interest in Mr. Cushing, and offered to secure him free tuition in the Natural Sciences, if he would come to Ithica [sic] and study under him and his assistant Prof. Derby.

He then interned with Hartt in the Museum for a few months, before being called up to go to Washington to work on the exhibits for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. That work led to his appointment to go to Zuñi a few years later.

If, moreover, I am at times seemingly too personal in style of statement, let it be remembered that well-nigh all anthropology is personal history; that even the things of past man were personal, like as never they are to ourselves now. They must, therefore, be both treated and worked at, not solely according to ordinary methods of procedure or rules of logic, or to any given canons of learning, but in a profoundly personal mood and way. 

-- Frank Hamilton Cushing, 1895

Early Developments

Another original member of the Cornell faculty in 1868 was Burt Green Wilder, a comparative zoologist and physiologist. Like Hartt another student of Louis Agassiz, Wilder was an unconventional scholar and a captivating teacher, whose classes were always crowded. He used the (then unfinished) basement of McGraw Hall as an area for defleshing animal carcasses, to the occasional aggravation of other faculty members. One wing of the University Museum was dedicated to animal specimens, many of which he collected.

Wilder published for the benefit of students a series of pamphlets on health and hygiene. In 1875, his book What Young People Should Know, a manual on reproduction and health, prompted some of the trustees to call for his removal (its cover was emblazoned "Honi soit qui mal y pense", the motto of the Order of the Garter, which translates as "shame on him who thinks this evil"), but his support among students and others was strong.

In 1897, Wilder purchased for study the corpse of the first gorilla brought live to the United States, a young animal that sadly caught cold on the trip and died shortly after arriving. He kept the stuffed body on his desk for some years.

From the 1880s through his retirement in 1910, Wilder made a collection of human brains for comparative study, having local people donate their brains to him after their death; he also contributed his own. What remains of this collection is held in the Psychology Department.

There were other occasional appearances of anthropological content at Cornell, but most were tenuous. Professor of History Moses Coit Tyler briefly curated the ethnographic and archaeological components of the University Museum in the early 1880s, working with President A. D. White to add to these collections. In the 1890s, Professor Alfred Emerson taught courses in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology.

What was probably the first course taught in anthropology was in 1906-07, when new faculty member Edwin Walter Kemmerer taught a two-semester sequence on Anthropology and Ethnology. The notes of one of his students from this course are held in Special Collections in the Cornell University Library; the emphases were on evolution and race.

The Cornell Totem Pole

In 1899, wealthy railroad magnate Edward Harriman took his family and a group of scientists on a cruise through southeastern Alaska, in a trip known as the Harriman Alaska Expedition. He had a variety of reasons, including scouting the possibility of a railroad across to Siberia, hunting Kodiak bears, furthering scientific knowledge of the area and an educational family trip.

Two Cornellians were on the expedition: Louis Agassiz Fuertes, the ornithological artist, and Bernard Fernow, the forester. Others included George Bird Grinnell, Edward S. Curtis, John Muir and John Burroughs.

On their way back, the party heard of a supposedly abandoned Indian village and decided to stop and take a look. The Tlingit village was actually only temporarily abandoned, but not knowing this, the party took hundreds of objects that had been left behind, including boxes, masks, Chilkat blankets, grave goods and tools.

The totem poles being large and unwieldy, they had not taken them. But forester Fernow declared he could show them how and proceeded to take most of the poles and stow them on the ship's deck. On their return to Seattle the items were divvied up and distributed around the country (by train of course).

One of the poles was brought to Cornell, where it stood in at least two different locations on campus in the early 20th century before being moved out to the Arnot Forest. Over the years its attached parts fell off and it was repainted by a variety of hands including Boy Scouts, fraternities and the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the early 1990s, the pole was shattered in a storm, and the pieces were collected and stored in a warehouse in the Plantations.

Replacements for this pole had been carved back in the village twice, based on photographs probably taken by Edward Curtis on the Expedition, in the 1930s and in the 1980s. It still had meaning to the families involved in its erection, and the Cape Fox Corporation, today's descendants of the village looted in 1899, remained interested.

Although plans were being developed to work with the Cape Fox Corporation to build connections between that community and Cornell, a separate plan to recreate the Harriman Expedition was underway elsewhere, and the pole was returned to Alaska in 2001 with that recreation.

Institutionalizing Anthropology at Cornell

In 1921 Cornell appointed as its fourth president, the medical doctor Livingston Farrand. Farrand was interested in both public health issues and primitive psychology; he was an early professor of anthropology at Columbia University (1903-05), and had gone on field expeditions with Franz Boas.

In 1936, a year before Farrand retired, R. Lauriston Sharp was hired in the Department of Economics as an Instructor in Anthropology. Just a few years later (in 1939, under the next president, Edmund Ezra Day), the Department of Sociology and Anthropology was formed. With the entry of the United States into the Second World War, development of the new program was slowed; many social scientists served either in the military or related fields during this period. Lauri Sharp served in the Department of State, Division of Southeast Asian Affairs. The new department resumed after the war.

Lauriston Sharp came to Cornell in 1936 as the first appointment officially in Anthropology (although it was in the Department of Economics). His first field experience had been with Berbers in North Africa, and that decided him on social anthropology rather than archaeology. He spent two years working with the Yir Yoront of Australia and was writing his dissertation when he accepted the Cornell appointment.

Having worked to create the new Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 1939, Lauri then served during WWII in the State Department. After the war he was instrumental in expanding the department and in shaping its distinctive direction towards the applied anthropology of development, in different cultural settings. Much of Lauri's research from that time shifted to Thailand, but he did make return trips to Australia at later times in his career.

Around 1969-70, at the height of the war in Vietnam and concern over anthropologists' complicity in military efforts, Lauri was publicly accused of unethical practices in the form of clandestine counter-insurgency activities in Thailand. He was given little opportunity for public rebuttal, and his detractors took these charges as further reason to criticize him. He retired in 1973, under mandatory retirement at age 65, but remained active at Cornell and in the discipline until near his death in 1993.

Applying Anthropology: The Cornell Cross-Cultural Methodology Project

Following the Second World War, a grant from the Carnegie Foundation allowed the expansion of anthropology within the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Cornell, with an explicit focus on the effects of development, especially in technology and communication, in underdeveloped areas of the world. This focus became a signature of the Cornell Department well into the 1960s. The Cornell Cross-Cultural Methodology Project, as it was known, eventually grew to involve hundreds of students, local community members and faculty working in Peru, Thailand, the American Southwest and Nova Scotia. The program is still remembered in the subfields of applied and development anthropology for its innovative approaches.

Alexander Leighton was added to the faculty in 1946, and in 1948 John Adair, Allan Holmberg and Morris Opler all joined the department to help develop this project. Leighton and Opler had worked during the war in some of the California internment camps for Japanese Americans, and Adair was an established scholar of the American Southwest. Holmberg was recruited while still in the field in Peru, on the basis of recommendations as a promising young scholar.

Each component of the Cross-Cultural Methodology Project took somewhat different approaches and focuses. In Nova Scotia (Alec Leighton), the focus was on mental health issues. In Thailand (Lauri Sharp) and India (Morrie Opler), the focus was on changes being introduced in rice-farming communities. In New Mexico (Leighton and John Adair), research also focused on agricultural technology.

The Vicos Project, led by Allan Holmberg in Peru, was perhaps the most visionary and progressive of these projects. The local community of Vicosinos was allowed considerable input into the research priorities and structures and, among other contributions, significant educational and health facilities were developed under the project. Although criticized by some academics for its activist positioning, the community today is generally appreciative of the work that was done and the opportunities that were promoted.

In all of these projects, efforts were made to integrate teaching with the research, and to foster collaboration between the visiting scholars and the local communities.

Culture & History

Charles F. Hockett came to Cornell in 1946 as a linguist, in the Division of Modern Languages. Chas, as he was known, was invited to join the Anthropology Department in 1957, where he remained until his retirement in 1982; his post-Bloomfieldian linguistics ran counter to the Chomskian generative (or transformational) grammar that came to dominate the field of linguistics, but fit much better with anthropologists' works. He was also a composer of note.

In 1962, the Department of Anthropology separated from Sociology, and a new series of hires expanded both the department and its fields of research; the Anthropology Department moved from Morrill into McGraw Hall in 1964. One of the areas of expansion can be broadly defined as culture and history. Historical approaches and interests had always characterized some of the Department's work, but were explicitly expanded during this period. 

Bob Ascher was hired in 1960 as the Department's first archaeologist. After initial research on the Seri Indians of Mexico, in 1969 he and Charles Fairbanks conducted what is considered to be the first excavation of an American slave site, on Cumberland Island, South Carolina.

Thomas Lynch, another archaeologist, joined the Department in 1964, followed by Judith Treistman in 1966. Lynch was an Andeanist, and Treistman a China specialist.

In 1968, following the untimely death of Allan Holmberg, John Murra was hired to continue the Department's work in the Andes. Murra had a strong historical interest, and made significant contributions to the field of ethnohistory, relatively new at the time. He had served in the Lincoln Brigades in the Spanish Civil War from 1937-39, and did fieldwork in Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Martinique before settling down with work in Peru. John retired in 1981, but remained an active presence on campus for over a decade after, until his death in 2006.

Diverse Streams

Asian Studies in the Anthropology Department at Cornell date at least to 1947, when the Cornell Thailand Project was begun as part of the Cross-Cultural Methodology Project, with a particular focus on technological change and development. Lauri Sharp led the work in Thailand, and shortly thereafter Morrie Opler began studying disease transmission in India. Because of the long-term nature of these projects, several students began work with one of the research centers, continued with it through their graduate studies and in some cases then joined the faculty as already seasoned colleagues.

In the 1950s and 60s, interest in Asia continued to grow, and new faculty were added. Robert J. Smith joined the faculty in 1953, having worked in agricultural communities in Japan, and remained active in the Department until his retirement in 1997, expanding his work to a great variety of aspects of Japanese life. In 1955, Bob married Kazuko Sasaki, who taught Japanese language at Cornell for years, and also contributed to Bob's research. In 1993, Bob was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government in recognition of his contributions to Japan scholarship.

G. William Skinner joined the faculty in 1960, but like Bob Smith he was a returnee, having done his graduate work here. In the mid-1950s Bill was the Field Director in Thailand for the Southeast Asia Program; he had begun his studies in China, but in 1949 all of his materials were confiscated and his movements restricted under the Revolution, and he shifted to study overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. In the 1960s, he was able to return to mainland China, where he did work focused largely on the Chinese urban environment. He left Cornell for Stanford in 1966.

Arthur Wolf was another Cornell graduate student who stayed on briefly as a faculty member. He began his association as an undergraduate in 1954 and completed his PhD in 1964. He taught in the Department from 1961-64 and 1965-68 (with a year at the London School of Economics intervening), before leaving for Stanford in 1969. He has done extensive research on family and household structure and the relationships between personality and behavior.

In 1970, Thomas Kirsch joined the Cornell faculty. Tom had done fieldwork in northeast Thailand, with a main focus on Therevada Buddhism and how it structured Thai life. In addition to his more ethnographic work, Tom published several important works in more general anthropological theory. An extremely supportive teacher and mentor, Tom returned to the classroom in the mid-90s after cancer forced the removal of his larynx and he taught for several more years before his death in 1999.

In the 1960s, the Cornell Anthropology Department continued to diversify beyond the anthropology of development that had so long been its signature focus. In addition to those already noted, Victor Turner brought his British training and developing models of symbolic anthropology into the Department for four years. Jack Roberts, who had initially been brought in to join the faculty working in the American Southwest, began to concentrate more on game theory and information systems. Frank Young was a social anthropologist who worked in several areas, first in Nova Scotia and then in Latin America and Tunisia, and William Stini and Brooke Thomas joined the Department in the late '60s as bio-nutritional anthropologists.

Also joining the faculty during this period were Ken Kennedy (physical anthropology), Bernd Lambert and Terry Turner (for a short period, before returning in the '90s). Davydd Greenwood came in 1970, along with Tom Kirsch, at the end of the period covered.

Victor Turner and Jack Roberts

Victor Turner began fieldwork with the Ndembu in western Zambia in 1950, and his wife Edith joined him with their children in 1951. They always collaborated closely; much of Edie's training came through their discussions of readings and ideas from classes Vic was taking while Edie raised their children. Vic readily acknowledged Edie's contributions, but from the mid-1950s through much of the 1970s that acknowledgement took less public forms as he developed his position as an individual scholar, becoming recognized as one of the leading and most creatively innovative anthropologists for his/their 'anthropology of experience' and contributions to symbolic anthropology.

They came to Cornell in 1964, when he was appointed a full professor, then moved to the University of Chicago in 1968. The Ndembu pieces held in the Anthropology Collections were collected by the Turners, and donated during their tenure here in the 1960s. Although not the precise pieces shown in Victor Turner's publications, these pieces are very similar and were probably collected on their follow-up fieldwork trip in 1953-54.

The Mukanda ceremony of the Ndembu is a male initiation rite, still practiced today. Analysis of this ritual formed a significant part of Victor Turner's formulation of symbolic anthropology and of his/their turn to 'experience' as a central trope of culture.

John M. Roberts left law school after one quarter, in 1937, to study anthropology, first at the University of Chicago and then at Yale. He served in the infantry in France in World War II and then returned to fieldwork with first the Navajo, then Zuni. He came to Cornell in 1958, joining the extant faculty who worked in the American Southwest. He left Cornell in 1969 but continued doing research and occasionally teaching in other institutions.

Beyond his significant ethnographic work with Navajo and Zuni peoples, Roberts is remembered for his contributions in the specialized areas of game theory and information studies. He had a life-long interest in unconventional and difficult research, including individual personality and variability in small groups, and information processing.

John McReery, a graduate student in the 1960s, remembers, "I still remember the shock and delight of my first semester in graduate school. I had gone to ask Prof. Jack Roberts, whom I’d met at a summer program in quantitative anthropology, what I should take this first semester. Roberts replied, 'The whole point of being a graduate student is to stop being a student.' He pointed to the library sitting across the quad and added, 'Why don’t you go over there and find out what you’re interested in?'"

Where Were the Women?

At least four of the faculty members here in the 1940s-60s had wives who also have done significant anthropological work at a professional level, and a fifth also made key contributions to the field. For a variety of reasons, only one had any official appointment to the Department; all are remembered by senior faculty members as being treated respectfully as experienced colleagues, although their own memories sometimes differ in that regard.

Margery Wolf and Edith Turner both began their anthropological training on an informal basis, as the wives of graduate students in the field but went on to make their own marks, particularly after the divorce or death of their husbands.  Dorothea Leighton did briefly have a research appointment in the department; she worked with both her husband and John Adair in Nova Scotia and Arizona, but her primary bases were in Home Economics here and in Psychiatry at the Cornell Medical College.  Marcia Ascher was a Professor of Mathematics at Ithaca College, but she worked with her husband on Andean quipus and other projects.  Ruth Sharp made her most distinctive contribution through her collecting, especially in Southeast Asia.

All of these women demonstrably made important contributions to the scholarly works and lives of their husbands and to other faculty and students in the Department. This pattern was common at most institutions in the U.S. and the contributions of women scholars during that period are today underrepresented in disciplinary histories.

The first woman hired in the department in a regular faculty position was archaeologist Judith Treistman, in 1966.  Women now form nearly half of the faculty.