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Margaret Mead (16 December 1901- 15 November 1978) is often referred to as the most influential and famous anthropologist of the 20th century. Her work contributed to the development of anthropology as a research discipline and provided insights about the influence of culture on behavior. During her accomplished career, Mead published 44 books and countless articles on such far ranging topics as race relations, women’s rights, education, and sexual morality (Topper 1976).

The oldest of five children, Mead was born to Emily Fogg Mead and Edward Sherwood Mead in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As devout Quakers, Mead’s parents both showed interest in the social sciences, her father teaching economics at the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and her mother compiling notebooks of data on Mead’s growth and development as a baby. Mead had one brother, Richard, and three sisters, Elizabeth, Priscilla, and Katharine (the latter of whom passed away at nine months of age). She attended high school in Pennsylvania where she met the first of her three husbands, a theology and anthropology student, Luther Cressman, with their marriage lasting five years (1923-28).      

In 1919, Mead began to study at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, her father’s alma mater, where she stayed for one year. She then went on to Barnard College in New York City where she received an A.B. in anthropology in 1923. During her stay at Barnard, she had the opportunity to meet Franz Boas, her future advisor, and Ruth Benedict, a future colleague and close personal friend, through an undergraduate anthropology course. Boas convinced Mead to pursue her Masters at Columbia University under his guidance as the head of the Anthropology Department. She received an M.A. in Psychology from Columbia University in 1924 and went on to complete her doctoral thesis in 1925 but did not receive her Ph.D. from Columbia until 1929. 

Mead made her first anthropological endeavor in 1925 when she headed to Ta’u, s Samoan island village of 600 residents, to conduct research for her doctoral dissertation. Mead was interested in the social development of women in America as compared to woman in Samoa (Mead 1925), and her research formed the basis of her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). The findings from this research indicated that woman in Samoa pass through adolescence without the anxiety or confusion that women in the United States typically undergo. From this research, Mead concluded that there could be a lot to learn about the childrearing practices in Samoa, in particular, how culture affects personality. The book became a best seller and allowed Mead to become a prominent voice in anthropological research. While there have been subsequent arguments raised on the soundness of Mead’s research, in particular by Derek Freeman who published, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983), no one can argue the impact that Mead’s work had on society and sexual theory (Whitman 1978). Mead continued to conduct anthropological research in such areas as New Guinea, the Admiral Islands, and Bali where she developed the use of photography as data. 

Upon returning from Samoa in 1926, Mead became an assistant curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. During the next few years, she continued her anthropological research, but retained her relationship with the museum, eventually becoming an associate curator in 1942 and later retiring as curator emeritus of ethnology in 1969. She also contributed to the field of education by taking a visiting lecture position at Vassar College and later, a position at Columbia University where she was known for her sharpness and directness in delivery of information (Grinager 1980). For two years, 1969-1971, Mead became chairman of the Division of Social Sciences and was a professor of anthropology at Fordham University. She voiced the need for teachers to embrace the techniques of other cultures by allowing students to learn through experiences rather than being taught general principles (Mead 1927, Mead 1943, Mead 1955).

Mead was a member of countless organizations including the National Research Council Committee on Food Habits serving as secretary, the Society of Applied Anthropology, the American Anthropological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Society for Women Geographers, which awarded her a gold medal in 1942. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1976. In 1979, after her death, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the highest honor the United State’s could bestow on a civilian.     

Mead died in 1978 of pancreatic cancer, leaving behind a daughter, Mary      Catherine Bateson, the product of her third marriage to Gregory Bateson (which lasted from 1936-1950). While Mead never openly identified herself as lesbian or bisexual, subsequent to her death personal letters and writings were released that indicated she engaged a long-term intimate relationship with fellow anthropologist and collaborator, Rhoda Metraux. Mead and Mautraux lived together from 1955 until Mead’s death, and letters published with the persmission of Mary Catherine Bateson, confirmed the two women’s long-term relationship (Bateson 1984).

Mead’s daughter Bateson, is an accomplished anthropologist following in her mother’s footsteps. Mead’s body of work, including notes and other field materials is now housed at the Library of Congress. The collected body of work is one of the largest collections for a single individual to be housed in the library.    

Submitted by Sandra Linder

Bateson, M. C. 1984. With a Daughter's Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. New York: William Morrow.

Freeman, D. 1983.  Margaret Mead and Samoa: The making and unmaking of an anthropological myth.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Grinager, P. 1980.  Margaret Mead: Teaching at Columbia. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 11(1): 55–59.

Mead, M. 1925. The adolescent girl in Samoa. Library of Congress: Reproduced from the collections of the manuscript Division.

Mead, M. 1927.  The need for teaching anthropology in normal schools and teachers’ colleges. School and Society 26(July-December): 466–68.

Mead, M. 1943. Our educational emphases in primitive perspective. The American Journal of Sociology 48(6): 633–39.

Mead, M. 1955. Cultural patterns and technical change. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). New York: The New American Library.

Topper, M. D. 1976.  Anthropology and mass media: Or “Why is there a Margaret Mead, daddy?” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 7(1): 25–29.

Whitman, A. November 16, 1978.  Margaret Mead is dead of cancer at 76. The New York Times. Accessed February 10, 2007.

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