Franz Boas Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Boas made anthropology a vital discipline in the history of twentieth century social science, and his scholarship, in time, had a significant impact on public policy in the United States.

Early Life

Franz Boas was born July 9, 1858, in Minden, Westphalia (in modern West Germany). He was the only son of six children (three of whom survived childhood) of Meier and Sophie Meyer Boas, who were Jews. His father was a successful businessman, while his mother was extremely active in political and civic affairs. A spirit of liberalism and freethinking prevailed in the Boas household. It was a family legacy of the ideals of the German Revolution of 1848.

Although a sickly child, Boas had a lively interest in the natural world around him—an interest much encouraged by his mother. His enjoyment of nature, music, and school shaped his early life. After attending primary school and the gymnasium in Minden, Boas began his university studies. For the next four years, he studied at Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel. In 1881, at the age of twenty-three, he took his doctorate in physics at Kiel; his dissertation was entitled Contributions to the Understanding of the Color of Water. Later, his academic interests moved from physics and mathematics to physical, and later, cultural, geography.

In 1883, after a year in a reserve officer-training program and another year in further study, Boas made his anthropological trip to Baffinland, a territory inhabited by Eskimos. The experience changed his life, for he determined that he would study human phenomena in nature. Following a year in New York City, he became an assistant at the Museum for Volkerbunde in Berlin. As docent in geography at the University of Berlin, he made a field trip to British Columbia to study the Bella Coola Indians.

Life’s Work

The year of 1887 was a critical one in Boas’ career. He decided to become an American citizen; he married Marie Krackowizer, who, over the years, was an active supporter of his varied projects; he became assistant editor at the magazine Science. In the summer of 1888, he returned to British Columbia to continue his studies of the Northwestern Native American tribes. Eventually, during his lifetime, he published more than ten thousand pages of material from this area of research.

From 1888 to 1892, he taught at Clark University. He then served as chief assistant in the Department of Anthropology at the World Columbian Exposition. He was also the curator of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago and worked for the American Museum of Natural History as curator of ethnology and somatology. From 1899 to 1937, he served as professor of anthropology at Columbia University, where he shaped the disciplinary future of the “science of man” by teaching the leading members of the next generation of anthropologists.

His varied activities continued. Boas took part in the Jesup North Pacific Expedition. As honorary philologist at the Bureau of American Ethnology, he published a three-volume work, Handbook of American Indian Languages (1911). Boas founded the International School of American Archaeology and Ethnology in Mexico (1910) and the International Journal of American Linguistics (1917). He served from 1908 to 1925 as editor of the Journal of American Folk-Lore, which was matched by chairmanship of a committee on Native American languages for the American Council of Learned Societies.

During all these institutional and educational activities, Boas constantly wrote scholarly and popular books and articles. In 1911, he published The Mind of Primitive Man (revised edition in 1938), “the Magna Carta of race equality.” His book destroyed a claim current among intellectuals that physical type bore an inherent relationship to cultural traits. Other books followed: Primitive Art (1927), Anthropology and Modern...

(The entire section is 1634 words.)