Hortense Powdermaker
Hortense Powdermaker

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 Natural 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 about decided to accept the post if they offered me what I am getting here, but not 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 so cheap.

    On 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.

    Powdermaker 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.

    Related 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.

    Around 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.[1]  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.

    In 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.”[2] 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 supporting anthropology.

    In 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[3]—in fact this is one of the largest anthropological teaching collections found at any undergraduate institution in the country.  As the matriarchy retired or relocated,  and the department weathered the fiscal 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 that a decision was made to considerably expand our enrollments by offering many sections of our introductory courses thereby making anthropology an important contributor to general education at the college. It was also during this time that the faculty’s work on political economy would gain broad attention, with Professor Amal Rassam, a specialist on the political economy of the Middle East, becoming an advisor to President Carter.

    The 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.

    In 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.[4]Two of our biological anthropologists had tragically died of cancer, including Frank Spencer who played a pioneering role in writing the history of biological anthropology (see Spencer 1996) and researching the Piltdown Hoax (Spencer 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 field of anthropology.  It also continued the departmental tradition of applying anthropology to contemporary issues—in this case cultural diversity and local politics in Queens.

    In 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, and our former 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 scholarly projects.

    In 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.

    Historically, 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 anthropology.

[1] Dr. Gajdusek didn’t even mention or cite Glasse and Lindenbaum’s work in his acceptance speech!  See Gajdusek 1976

[2] “The matriarchy” consisted of Powdermaker, Ernestine Friedl, Miriam Slater, and Sydel Silverman.

[3] 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.

[4] 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 Position. http://libx.bsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/WsslrClrk/id/2470.
—-.  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.
—–.  1996.   History of Physical Anthropology: An Encyclopedia. New York:   Routledge.
Sanjek, Roger.  1998.  The Future of Us All.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.