Franz Boas (BOH-as), often called with much justice the dean of American anthropology, was born in Westphalia in 1858 and studied at the University of Heidelberg from 1877 to 1881. He earned a Ph.D. in geography, writing his dissertation on the “Contributions to the Understanding of Water.” Boas was himself later responsible for many contributions to the understanding of anthropology and ethnography. He spent the year following his graduation living with and studying Eskimos in Baffin Land. This was the first expedition in what was to be the hallmark of Boas’s approach to anthropology: the study of native or primitive cultures in their natural habitations. Boas stressed the importance of noncomparative study. He was appointed assistant to the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin and docent in geography as well, but he left Germany in 1886 for British Columbia to study American Indians for the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The rest of Boas’s life was to be spent in North America, largely in the study of Indians there, most specifically the Kwakiutl tribe of Vancouver Island, whose language and customs he chronicled and analyzed in scores of publications. He served as docent in anthropology at Clark University (1888-1892) and as chief assistant in the Department of Anthropology at the Chicago Exposition (1892-1895). In 1896, Boas went to Columbia University, where he remained with growing distinction until his death in 1942, becoming Columbia’s first professor of anthropology in 1899 and professor emeritus in 1936. Columbia University was also the first American university to establish a department of anthropology, founded by Boas.
Boas’s influence on American anthropology was immense. A. L. Kroeber, Ruth Underhill, Ruth Benedict,...
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