Margaret Mead life and biography

Margaret Mead picture, image, poster

Margaret Mead biography

Date of birth : 1901-12-18
Date of death : 1978-11-15
Birthplace : Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Nationality : American
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2010-08-26
Credited as : Anthropologist and scientist, writer,

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Margaret Mead, also known as Margaret Beteson born December 18, 1901 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States - died November 15, 1978 in New York, New York, United States was an American anthropologist, scientist, writer and educator.

“Life in the twentieth century is like a parachute jump—you have to get it right the first time.”

In 1928, the publication of Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa revolutionized anthropology, the scientific study of human beings. The result of her early fieldwork on the Polynesian island of Samoa, the book became a bestseller as its American readers wanted to learn about adolescent behavior and sexual patterns in an exotic society. With Coming of Age Mead moved to the forefront of American anthropology and American society, and she remained there for more than half a century by publishing penetrating, insightful works and speaking out on a variety of issues important to the American people.

Influenced by "advanced" upbringing

Margaret Mead was born the oldest of four children on December 18, 1901, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents were educators, and the family moved frequently during her youth. Experiencing somewhat advanced ideas for the time, Mead learned that women could have their own profession from her grandmother and her mother, who was a suffragette (a woman who advocated the right of women to vote). Her parents encouraged her to play with children of all racial and economic backgrounds, and she was taught early to closely observe others. She also learned to paint and dance. Mead recalls that she "took pride in being unlike other children and in living in a household that was in itself unique."

Becomes anthropologist

While attending Barnard College in New York City, Mead developed an interest in anthropology, a new science at the time and one based on statistical analysis. In a class with the famous anthropologist Franz Boas she realized the importance of studying cultures that were rapidly disappearing around the world. "That settled it for me. Anthropology had to be done now. Other things could wait," she said later. After graduating in 1923 Mead married Luther Cressman and entered Columbia University graduate school in New York City.

Two years later Mead 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 behavior. She introduced a number of new observation techniques--including those used in disciplines such as psychology and economics--thereby broadening the base of information on which social anthropology now rests. She rejected some of the rigid techniques of the day, claiming also that is was necessary to "suspend ... one's beliefs and disbeliefs" in order to understand "another reality," Samoa.

Mead lived with the villagers day and night, giving her an advantage in observing and understanding behavior 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. Coming of Age in Samoa, which was published in 1928 and drew numerous parallels between Samoan and American culture, became a bestseller in the United States and placed Mead squarely in the forefront of American anthropology.

Publishes important study on New Guinea

Mead made her second field trip in the late 1920s with her second husband, Reo Fortune. Studying the culture of Manus, the largest of the Admiralty Islands off the coast of New Guinea, she observed the fantasy worlds of young children and the development of social behavior. The culmination of her research among the Manus was published in her 1930 volume Growing Up in New Guinea. Five years later she published Sex and Temperament about her studies of the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli peoples of New Guinea. As a result of her observations she concluded that human values depend on time and environment, not inherited traits.

Takes 38,000 photographs in Bali

In 1936, Mead went to Bali, an Indonesian island, with Gregory Bateson, her third husband, with the plan to study the presence or absence of schizophrenia, a mental disease, in the Balinese people. But Boas had told Mead, "If I were going to Bali I would study gesture," so she and Bateson decided to follow Boas's advice. In fact, they took 38,000 photographs in their study of the Balinese people, which resulted in their innovative 1941 book Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. Mead was one of the first anthropologists to use still and motion pictures to record the customs and habits of primitive societies.

Raises first "Spock baby"

Although doctors repeatedly told Mead she could never have children, after several miscarriages she gave birth to a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, in 1939. Bateson became the first "Spock baby." At the time of her birth Mead was a friend of Benjamin Spock, a young pediatrician who had innovative ideas about child rearing. Since his theories were directly opposed to the more rigid practices that were being followed at the time, Mead agreed to let him test his ideas with her and newborn Catherine. Seven years later, in 1946, Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, a book that influenced the way American parents brought up their children.

During World War II (1939-45), 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 published And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America, in which she compares American culture with the cultures of seven other countries.

Promotes changes in gender relations

Always Mead seemed to return to studying the family. Every few years she commented on the problems facing American families amid changing social conditions. She was concerned about the loss of extended families and the isolation felt by people living in cities. An early feminist, Mead wrote in 1946 about the need for changing gender roles. Perhaps her most profound impact was as a counselor to American society. With Rhoda Metraux, she wrote a monthly column in Redbook from 1961 to 1978, offering advice to American women. Though married and divorced three times, Mead firmly stated, "I don't consider my marriages as failures. It's idiotic to assume that because a marriage ends, it's failed." Mead was critical of the women's movement when it was anti-male, calling for a truly revolutionary vision of gender relations.

During the 1960s, Mead wrote on a number of issues with the hope of influencing the thinking of the American public, particularly on topics such as the generation gap, the environmental crisis, and overpopulation. Rather than increasing the world's population, Mead advocated a philosophy of educating and nurturing all the world's children as our own. 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. While Mead endorsed civil disobedience, she was also a strong believer in people being morally responsible for their lives.

Receives honors and awards

Margaret Mead lived life fully and tirelessly. "I am glad that I am alive," she said. "I am glad that I am living at this particular very difficult, very dangerous, and very crucial period in human history." Her list of published works is long and her honors numerous. In 1969, Time magazine named her Mother of the Year. She was president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and remained active in education for most of her life, teaching at Columbia University and New York University among other schools. Mead's association with the American Museum of Natural History began in 1926, when she became assistant curator. In 1964, she was appointed curator of the museum and named curator emeritus (retired), an honorary title, in 1969. Mead died of cancer on November 15, 1978, in New York City.

During the early 1990s, critics began to question Mead's findings in her studies of Samoan society, contending that she had slanted her data to produce preconceived results. This criticism came at a time when the entire field of anthropology was being scrutinized. Nonetheless, Mead is still regarded as an important figure in twentieth-century cultural studies.


Family: Born December 16, 1901, in Philadelphia, PA; died after a year-long battle with cancer, November 15, 1978, in New York, NY; buried in Buckingham, PA; daughter of Edward S. and Emily (Fogg) Mead; married Luther Cressman (a minister), September, 1923 (divorced); married Reo Fortune (an anthropologist), October, 1928 (divorced); married Gregory Bateson (an anthropologist and biologist), March, 1936 (divorced, 1950); children: Mary Catherine Bateson Kassarjian. Education: Attended DePauw University, 1919-20; Barnard College, B.A., 1923; Columbia University, M.A., 1924, Ph.D., 1929. Religion: Episcopalian. Memberships: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Anthropological Association (fellow; past president), American Association for the Advancement of Science (past president; past chair of board), Institute for Intercultural Studies (secretary), American Association of University Women, Society of Applied Anthropology (past president), American Ethnological Society, Society of Woman Geographers (fellow), American Orthopsychiatric Association (fellow), World Society of Ekistics (past president), Scientists Institute for Public Information (past president), Society for General Systems Research (past president), Institute for Intercultural Studies, World Federation of Mental Health (past president), American Council of Learned Societies (past vice-president), New York Academy of Science (fellow), Phi Beta Kappa, Delta Kappa Gamma, Sigma Xi.


Honorary degrees from Wilson College, 1940, Rutgers University, 1941, Elmira College, 1947, Western College for Women, 1955, University of Leeds, 1957, Kalamazoo College, 1957, Skidmore College, 1958, Goucher College, 1960, Temple University, 1962, Lincoln University, 1963, Columbia University, 1964, and University of Cincinnati, 1965. National achievement award, Chi Omega, 1940; gold medal award, Society of Women Geographers, 1942; one of outstanding women of the year in science, Associated Press, 1949; Viking Medal in anthropology, 1958; medal of honor, Rice University, 1962; Women's Hall of Fame, Nationwide Women Editors, 1965; William Proctor Prize for Scientific Achievement, Scientific Research Society of America, 1969; Arches of Science Award, Pacific Science Center, 1971; Kalinga Prize, UNESCO and government of India, 1971; Wilder Penfield Award, Vanier Institute of the Family, 1972; Lehmann Award, New York Academy of Sciences, 1973; Omega Achievers Award for Education, 1977; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1979.


Anthropologist. American Museum of Natural History, New York City, assistant curator, 1926-42, associate curator, 1942-64, curator of ethnology, 1964-69, curator emeritus, 1969-78; Columbia University, New York City, adjunct professor of anthropology, 1954-78; Fordham University, Lincoln Center campus, New York City, professor of anthropology and chair of Division of Social Sciences, 1968-70. Did field work in Samoa, 1925-26, New Guinea, 1928-29, 1931-33, 1938, 1953, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971, 1973, 1975, Nebraska, 1930, and Bali, 1936-38, 1957-58. Jacob Gimbel Lecturer for Stanford University and University of California, 1946; Mason Lecturer, University of Birmingham, 1949; Inglis Lecturer, Harvard University, 1950; Jubilee Lecturer for New Education Fellowship, Australia, 1951; Philips Visitor, Haverford College, 1955; Terry Lecturer, Yale University, 1957; Sloan Professor, Menninger School of Psychiatry, 1959; Reynolds Lecturer, University of Colorado, 1960; Alumni Distinguished Lecturer, University of Rhode Island, 1970-71; Fogarty Scholar-in-Residence, National Institutes of Health, 1973. Visiting lecturer, Vassar College, 1939-41; visiting professor, University of Cincinnati, beginning 1957, Emory University, 1964, New York University, 1965-67, Yale University, 1966. Directed Wellesley School of Community Affairs, 1943; taught Harvard seminars on American civilization, Salzburg, Austria, 1947, and at the UNESCO Workshop on International Understanding, Sevres, France, 1947; conducted courses in connection with the American Museum's audio-visual program on culture and communication in collaboration with Columbia University's Teacher's College, 1947-51; directed Columbia University project, "Research in Contemporary Cultures," for the Office of Naval Research, 1948-50. Secretary of committee on food habits, National Research Council, 1942-45; former member of World Health Organization study group on the psychological development of the child, Hampton Institute board of trustees, Josiah H. Macy Conference on Group Processes, and Macy Conference on Problems of Consciousness; member and co-editor of Macy Conference on Cybernetics.


* An Inquiry into the Question of Cultural Stability in Polynesia (Ph.D. thesis), Columbia University Press, 1928, reprinted, AMS Press, 1969.
* Coming of Age in Samoa (also see below), Morrow, 1928, reprinted, 1971.
* Social Organization of Manua, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1930, 2nd edition, 1969.
* Growing Up in New Guinea (also see below), Morrow, 1930, reprinted, 1976.
* The Changing Culture of an Indian Tribe, Columbia University Press, 1932, reprinted, AMS Press, 1969.
* Kinship in the Admiralty Islands, American Museum of Natural History, reprinted, H. Fertig, 1992.
* Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (also see below), Morrow, 1935, reprinted, Dell, 1968.
* (Co-author and editor) Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Societies, McGraw, 1937, reprinted, Beacon Press, 1966.
* From the South Seas (collection; contains Coming of Age in Samoa,Growing Up in New Guinea, and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies), Morrow, 1939.
* And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America, Morrow, 1942, expanded edition, Books for Libraries, 1971.
* (With Gregory Bateson) Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis, New York Academy of Sciences, 1942, reprinted, 1962.
* Male and Female, Morrow, 1949, reprinted, Greenwood, 1977, reprinted as Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, W. Morrow, 1996.
* Soviet Attitudes toward Authority, McGraw, 1951, reprinted, Greenwood Press, 1979.
* The School in American Culture, Harvard University Press, 1951.
* (With Frances Cooke MacGregor) Growth and Culture: A Photographic Study of Balinese Childhood (based on photographs by Gregory Bateson), Putnam, 1951.
* (Co-author and editor) Cultural Patterns and Technical Changes, UNESCO, 1953, reprinted, Greenwood Press, 1985.
* (Editor with Rhoda Metraux) The Study of Culture at a Distance, University of Chicago Press, 1953, reprinted, 1966.
* (Editor with Nicolas Calas) Primitive Heritage: An Anthropological Anthology, Random House, 1953.
* (With Metraux) Themes in French Culture, Stanford University Press, 1954.
* (Editor with Martha Wolfenstein) Childhood in Contemporary Cultures, University of Chicago Press, 1955, reprinted, 1970.
* New Lives for Old, Morrow, 1956, reprinted, Greenwood Press, 1980.
* (Editor) An Anthropologist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict, Houghton, 1959, reprinted, Greenwood Press, 1977.
* People and Places (for young people), World Publishing, 1959.
* (Editor with Ruth L. Bunzel) The Golden Age of American Anthropology, Braziller, 1960.
* A Creative Life for Your Children (booklet), U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1962.
* (With Junius B. Bird and Hans Himmelheber) Technique and Personality, Museum of Primitive Art (New York, NY), 1963.
* Food Habits Research: Problems of the 1960's (booklet), National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council, 1964.
* Anthropology, A Human Science: Selected Papers, 1939-1960, Van Nostrand, 1964.
* Continuities in Cultural Evolution, Yale University Press, 1964.
* (With Ken Heyman) Family, Macmillan, 1965.
* Anthropologists and What They Do, F. Watts, 1965.
* (With Muriel Brown) The Wagon and the Star: A Study of American Community Initiative, Curriculum Resources, 1966.
* (With Paul Byers) The Small Conference: An Innovation in Communication, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, 1966.
* The Changing Cultural Patterns of Work and Leisure (booklet), U.S. Department of Labor, 1967.
* (Editor with others) Science and the Concept of Race, Columbia University Press, 1968.
* The Mountain Arapesh, three volumes, Natural History Press, 1968-71.
* Kinship in the Admiralty Islands, American Museum of Natural History, reprinted, H. Fertig, 1992.
* Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap, Natural History Press, 1970, published as Culture and Commitment: The New Relationships between the Generations in the 1970s, Doubleday, 1978.
* (Compiler) Hunger(booklet), Scientists' Institute for Public Information, 1970.
* (With Metraux) A Way of Seeing, McCall, 1970.
* (With James Baldwin) A Rap on Race, Lippincott, 1971.
* Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years (memoirs), Morrow, 1972.
* Ruth Benedict (biography), Columbia University Press, 1974.
* (With Heyman) World Enough: Rethinking the Future, Little, Brown, 1975.
* Letters from the Field, 1925-1975, Harper, 1977.
* (With Metraux) An Interview with Santa Claus, Walker & Co., 1978.
* (With Metraux) Aspects of the Present, Morrow, 1980.
* (Editor) Australia's Trade Competitiveness: The Role of Taxation and Industry Policies: Proceedings of a Series of CEDA Seminars, 1994, Committee for Economic Development of Australia (Melbourne, Australia), 1994.
* (Editor) Economic Growth and Social Change: Proceedings of a CEDA Seminar, 1994, Committee for Economic Development of Australia (Melbourne, Australia), 1994.
* (With Fred Argy) The Australian Economy: Recent Performance and Future Challenges, Committee for Economic Development of Australia (Melbourne, Australia), 1995.
* (With Argy) Short-Termism in Australia: Is It a Problem?: Background Issues Paper for CEDA Conference "Planning Australia's Future: Looking Beyond the Short Term," Commmittee for Economic Development of Australia (Melbourne, Australia), 1995.
* Male and Female: The Classic Study of the Sexes, W. Morrow (New York, NY), 1996.
* Continuities in Cultural Evolution, Transaction Publishers (New Brunswick, NJ), 1999.
* New Lives for Old: Cultural Transformation--Manus, 1928-1953, Perennial (New York, NY), 2001.
* (Editor with John Nieuwenhuysen and Peter Lloyd) Reshaping America's Economy: Growth with Equity and Sustainability, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 2001.
* (With Geoffrey Gorer and John Rickman) Russian Culture, Berghahn Books (New York, NY), 2001.

Also author of a documentary, "Margaret Mead's New Guinea Journal," National Educational Television, 1968. Editor of a manual on cultural patterns and technical change for UNESCO, World Federation for Mental Health, 1950. Prepared case materials for the International Seminar on Mental Health and Infant Development, Chichester, England, 1950. Author and narrator of soundtracks for series, "Films in Character Formation in Different Cultures," produced with Gregory Bateson for New York University Film Library, 1952. Contributor of numerous articles to scholarly and popular periodicals. Contributing editor, Redbook,1961-78.

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