A Brief History of the Department - written by Dr. Kevin Birth
In the beginning was Hortense
Powdermaker. On June 16th,
1937, Powdermaker, then a research assistant for Edward Sapir at Yale
University, wrote Clark Wissler, a curator at the American Museum of
History: “Just to let you know what happened
about the Hunter position. They were
supposed to let me know what the budget committee decided and I had
decided to accept the post if they offered me what I am getting here,
to go below that, which was their original offer. I’ve heard absolutely
nothing from Hunter,
but have heard indirectly that they are trying to get someone still
cheaper.” It is a good thing for Queens that Hunter was
August 21, 1937 Powdermaker wrote Wissler again pointing out an advertisement
in the New York Times about a new college opening in Queens. She noted that
there were no anthropology or sociology positions advertised, and asked Wissler
if he knew anybody who could pull some strings to get the college to create
such department. Wissler
must have been successful, because in 1938 Powdermaker joined the faculty and
founded the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. It is a good thing that Queens College was willing
to invest in anthropology . . . and that Hunter was so cheap.
would quickly gain notoriety. In 1939, she
published her book After Freedom, an
ethnography on race relations in a town in Mississippi, was published. This book is a very raw and detailed discussion
of a place and time in which people born as slaves lived in the same community
as people born as slave owners. This
marked Powdermaker’s turning anthropology to be engaged with contemporary
issues, rather than just documenting cultural others. Her passion for addressing issues of race relations
and cultural diversity influenced many generations of students. One of these, Dr. Erika Bourguignon, who
herself would become a distinguished anthropologist, reflected later on the impact
of one of Powdermaker’s assignments given in the 1940s. In this assignment, Powdermaker told her
students to study “’any minority but your own” (Bourguignon 1991, 420). This topic was both subtle and significant,
not only for getting students to look beyond their own cultural backgrounds,
but also to recognize that we are all from minority groups.
to Powdermaker’s concern that anthropology address contemporary issues,
particularly issues of prejudice, in 1964, one of our anthropology majors,
Andrew Goodman, volunteered to go to Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer
initiative to register African Americans to vote. In a crime that attracted international
attention, Goodman and his two co-workers were murdered. We remember Goodman’s sacrifice as an
embodiment of the college’s motto. It is
indeed a high bar he set for us.
the same period, Robert Glasse, was working on a New Guinea Public Health
Department team to study a disease called Kuru. This debilitating and fatal neurological disorder had puzzled
epidemiologists and physicians because of its tendency to strike on certain
members of the population in a way that made its transmission a mystery. While
Glasse was still writing up the results of this study, Queens College hired
him. Then, working with Shirley
Lindenbaum, who would later join the CUNY graduate faculty, Glasse and
Lindenbaum developed a hypothesis that the disease was spread as a result of
ritualized cannibalism that required certain kin to consume infected tissue of
the deceased (Matthews, Glasse and Lindenbaum 1968; Glasse 1962, 1967;
Lindenbaum 1979). Even though the delay
between consumption of the infected tissue and the onset of the disease was
considerable, Glasse and Lindnbaum’s ethnographic work provided the only
plausible explanation of transmission, leading the medical team to look for a
virus that would take years from infection to onset of disease. When the virus was discovered, the link
between cannibalism and the illness was confirmed. Not only did this lead to practices to
eliminate Kuru, it was also the first scientific demonstration of the existence
of a retrovirus. This resulted in a
Nobel Prize for Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek the physician who
led the research team. To this day, we
strongly feel that since Glasse and Lindenbaum did the kinship work that made
Dr. Gajdusek’s discovery possible, they should have shared in this prize. Still, more important than the prize is that Glasse
and Lindenbaum’s laid the foundation for the use of social science to identify transmission
vectors of retroviruses—this would be crucial to our later understanding of HIV.
the 1960s and 1970s, the anthropology program at Queens was distinctive for its
time. At its core was a group of women
scholars who addressed contemporary issues and societies rather than the
collection of cultural oddities. They
formed a group that we remember as “the matriarchy.”
With Powdermaker, they were among the most prominent anthropologists of their
time, with Sydel Silverman eventually leaving Queens to head the Wenner Gren
Foundation for Anthropological Research—one of the major private foundations
1968, the matriarchy led the Anthropology Department to its independence from
Sociology. Soon after, the department
began to expand into all four of our subfields—hiring archaeologists,
biological anthropologists, and a linguistic anthropologist. The biological anthropologist Paul Mahler
worked to develop the teaching collections some of which you see around you—in
fact this is one of the largest anthropological teaching collections
any undergraduate institution in the country. As the
matriarchy retired or relocated, and the department weathered the
crisis of the mid-1970s, there emerged a a new generation of
anthropologists. Recognizing that
enrollments would be key to our survival, it was during this period
decision was made to considerably expand our enrollments by offering
sections of our introductory courses thereby making anthropology an
contributor to general education at the college. It
was also during this time that the faculty’s work on political economy
gain broad attention, with Professor Amal Rassam, a specialist on the
economy of the Middle East, becoming an advisor to President Carter.
expansion of our offerings and faculty led to challenges for the department, however. Social Sciences normally do not have
laboratories, yet the needs of the expanding biological anthropology and
archaeology staff required lab facilities.
The department adapted some row houses owned by the college to suit its
needs, but the row houses were torn down in an ill-conceived plan to build a
multistory parking garage. Only after
the demolition of the buildings and the relocation of the department to less
than ideal facilities was it discovered that the parking structure could not be
built at that location—which is now the parking lot near Colden Hall. For a considerable time, the department
suffered with teaching labs that did not have sufficient ventilation for
research, with one exception of a lab in B-Building, what is now Frese Hall,
after the majority of B-Building’s occupants moved to the New Science Building,
and the college had deemed B building as unfit for occupation.
the 1990s and 2000s the department went through a significant demographic
transition. Within a few years we went
through a wave or retirements, and we also had trouble retaining new faculty.Two
of our biological anthropologists had tragically died of cancer,
Frank Spencer who played a pioneering role in writing the history of
anthropology (see Spencer 1996) and researching the Piltdown Hoax
1990a, 1990b). It was during this period that Roger Sanjek’s
published his book The Future of Us All (1998),
an ethnography of diversity in Elmhurst/Corona. This book would
win the Staley Prize—one of the most prominent book prizes in the
anthropology. It also continued the
departmental tradition of applying anthropology to contemporary
case cultural diversity and local politics in Queens.
recent years we have benefitted from hiring a new generation of anthropologists
and we have continued to uphold Powdermaker’s vision of scholarship and
teaching that engage with contemporary issues.
Our lab situation has improved considerably—first with the efforts of
Dean Don Scott and then with the efforts of then dean, but now Provost Betsy
Hendrey. We look forward to continue to
work with the administration to expand our facilities to provide students with
hands on learning and research experiences, and to involve them in our own
terms of the number of students we serve and the number of majors we have, we
have long been among the largest anthropology departments in the country—a fact
that is not always appreciated by administrators who are not familiar with our
field. We benefit from anthropology
being a topic that K-12 schooling does not ruin, although we face the challenge
of recruiting majors from a population of students who come to Queens College
with little or no knowledge of what we do. But that is the way it has always been, and we know the best way to win
over majors is to provide students with great classes. We also realize that most of our majors only
declare in their sophomore or even junior years, so over the last 20 years we
have placed an emphasis on departmental advising so that students can graduate
in a timely fashion. Over the years, we’ve
had graduates go on to distinguished careers in anthropology, as well as many
graduates who have become successful lawyers, public servants, medical doctors,
and business innovators.
we have published like we are a research institution, taught like we were a
small liberals arts college, and worked together as a collegial team to deliver
the best scholarship and educational experiences we can. When we have hired, we have conducted
international searches to recruit the best scholar-teachers available, because
our students deserve this.
Our current department is a collegial, vibrant department that
continues the QC tradition of learning in order to serve. We are
committed to undergraduate training in anthropology, whether it is part
of a liberal arts education or as preparation for advanced study in
Dr. Gajdusek didn’t even mention or cite Glasse and Lindenbaum’s work in his
acceptance speech! See Gajdusek 1976
“The matriarchy” consisted of Powdermaker, Ernestine Friedl, Miriam Slater, and
Mahler actually taught a course on how to make plaster casts of skeletal
material. Unfortunately, the high summer
humidity levels in Powdermaker Hall have destroyed (dissolved might be a better
term) most of the casts students produced in this course.
Between 1990 and 1997 we hired eight new faculty members and retained one.
Bourguignon, Erika. 1991. Hortense Powdermaker, the Teacher.
Journal of Anthropological Research 47(4): 417-248. [A special issue devoted entirely to Powdermaker]
Gajdusek, D. Carleton. 1976. Unconventional Viruses and the Origin and Disappearance of Kuru. [https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1976/gajdusek-lecture.pdf]
Glasse, Robert. 1962. The
Spread of Kuru among the Fore.
Department of Public Health,
Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
1967. Cannibalism in the Kuru Region of New Guinea. Transactions
of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series 2. 29:748-754.
Lindenbaum, Shirley. 1979. Kuru
Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands.Palo Alto: Mayfield.
Mathews, John D.; Glasse, Robert;
and Lindenbaum, Shirley. 1968. Kuru and Cannibalism. The
Lancet 292 (7565): 449-452.
Powdermaker, Hortense. 1937. Letter to Clark Wissler about Hunter
----. 1937. Letter to Clark Wissler about Queens
College. http://libx.bsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/WsslrClrk/id/10782 ----. 1939. After
Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South. New York: Viking.
Spencer, Frank. 1990a.
Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
-----. 1990b. The Piltdown Papers 1908-1955: The
Correspondence and Other Documents
Relating to the Piltdown Forgery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
History of Physical Anthropology:
An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge.
Sanjek, Roger. 1998. The Future of Us All. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
More Information about undergraduate studies at Queens College: