Margaret Mead As a Cultural Commentator
with Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead applied
the knowledge she gained from her field expeditions to an understanding
of American life. She observed and commented on American society--often
insightfully, sometimes controversially--and explained cultural
patterns that affected the ways people behaved and communicated.
By the early 1960s, Mead had become widely regarded as a vocal
commentator on contemporary American life. In her remaining years,
she spoke and wrote to popular audiences on a wide range of subjects,
including the generation gap, aging, the nuclear family, education,
the environment, race, poverty, women's rights, and sexual behavior.
Over time, she devoted increasing amounts of time to traveling
around the United States and other countries to lecture and appear
on radio and television programs. She sought questions from her
audiences at public appearances and incorporated them in her research
on American culture, writing and lecturing, as she once said,
"into a state of mind."
Mead addressed the public from
several platforms. The most enduring was the American Museum of
Natural History in New York City, where she had been hired in
1926 to make anthropology accessible to the public. She also taught
at a number of institutions of higher learning, and wrote and
lectured for many specialized and professional audiences. With
her concern for building a better future, in the 1960s and 1970s
Mead became increasingly interested in ecological issues and in
the field of ekistics, the study of human settlements. She testified
before numerous Congressional committees and worked for the United
Nations through various non-governmental organizations.
Mead died of cancer on November
15, 1978, working until her final days. One of her last concerns
was Congressional passage of child nutrition legislation.
Dr. Spock, Mead's Pediatrician
As Mead planned the birth of her baby in 1939, she sought
doctors who would permit her to implement her own ideas
about childbirth and child-rearing. These ideas had been
influenced by her experiences with practices in different
cultures. For her daughter's pediatrician she chose a New
York doctor named Benjamin Spock. Spock agreed that Mead
could breast feed her baby on demand, a practice not widely-accepted
in the American medical community at that time. In 1946,
Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and
Child Care, a revolutionary and popular book which
urged parents to trust their judgment rather than follow
strict rules when dealing with their children. Spock became
a popular expert on par with Mead. In later years, they
both wrote for Redbook magazine. Below, left,
is a prescription Dr. Spock wrote for corrective shoes for
Mary Catherine Bateson. Below, right, is a photograph of
Spock examining her as an infant.
Dr. Benjamin Spock.
Prescription for corrective shoes,
probably ca. November 1940.
Dr. Benjamin Spock examining
Mary Catherine Bateson,
ca. early 1940.
a tele-lecture in 1960,
probably at Omaha University,
November 11, 1960.
The Tele-Lecture, 1960
Mead was always interested in exploring new forms of communication.
In this photograph she is delivering a tele-lecture. This
is a telephone lecture with her voice piped over a loudspeaker
to a lecture hall so the audience can hear her and she can
hear their questions. Her image is projected on a screen
over the stage. In the early 1960s, Mead described the medium
as a "genuinely new 'invention'" and called for its use
in "improving the public understanding of science."
Mead used her lectures as an opportunity to learn from
her audiences. In her later years, as her hearing began
to fail, instead of taking questions from her audiences
verbally, Mead sometimes took written questions instead.
She could review them for common threads, select which ones
to answer, and retain the cards for her research on people's
concerns. These index cards contain questions asked at a
lecture on parenthood Mead delivered at the American Museum
of Natural History in New York on May 14, 1978.
Audience questions for
May 14, 1978.
Athens Technological Organization
The 1970 Athens
Ekistics Month Daily Program, July 13, 1970.
Mead and Ekistics
Mead's interests in human issues were wide-ranging. One
of her specialty fields was ekistics, devoted
to the scientific study of human settlements. The ekistics
movement was the brainchild of Mead's friend Constantinos
A. Doxiadis (1913-1975), a Greek architect and city planner.
Beginning in 1963, he held annual week-long boat cruises
where participants would socialize and discuss issues related
to human settlements past and present, and plan for the
future. Mead was a regular participant in these Delos conferences.
Baby's Behavior on Trip
Influenced by her experiences in other cultures, Mead raised
her daughter Catherine with an extended family, and during
the wartime period, the Batesons lived in a communal household
with Larry Frank's family. As her own mother had done, Mead
kept detailed records of Catherine's early life. When Catherine
was about five months old, her mother took her along to
Albany, New York, for a conference of nursery school educators.
Mead spoke on "Expression of Power in Young Children." In
this diary entry Mead records her impressions of Catherine's
behavior on that trip. After Mead's speech, "groups of people
came to see her. . . . At the first 2 or 3 she smiled, altho
she'd just waked, but when about 10 people stood around
and looked at her, she began to pucker her lips."
Margaret Mead's diary entry
April 20, 1940,
Catherine's behavior on train trip.
Ken Heyman, photographer.
with a secretary in
a storage room adjacent to her tower office
at the American Museum of Natural History,
New York City, 1960.
Gelatin silver print.
Courtesy of Ken Heyman (300e)
Mead's Office at the Museum
Mead returned from Samoa in 1926 to a job as assistant
curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History
in New York. She worked there until her death, becoming
curator emeritus in 1969. When she first arrived, she was
given an office in the Museum's tower, which she later said
reminded her of the attic rooms she would select in houses
she lived in as a child. She gradually took over more rooms
in the attic, and the museum office became her permanent
base. The office was staffed by a series of student assistants.
Mead's Remarks on Student Revolt at Columbia University,
In April of 1968, in protest of university policies, especially
related to building a gym in Harlem, Columbia University
students took over buildings on the Morningside Heights
campus and occupied administration offices. Early on the
morning of April 30, police were brought in to remove protesters,
leading to bloodshed, arrests, and further turmoil. Mead,
who had 48 years association with Columbia University, was
out of town when the revolt began, but returned in its midst.
These are remarks she made on campus on the afternoon of
April 30 and repeated again "by request" the next day. In
her remarks, she called for solutions involving the larger
community and nation, not just Columbia.
"Remarks made in McMillan
to the group assembled there
at 3.20 PM, April 30, 1968."
Page 2 - Page
before the Subcommittee on Monopoly
of the Select Committee on
Small Business of The
October 27, 1969.
Mead's Congressional Testimony
Mead was called to testify before Congress on various issues,
especially in her later years. She was asked to address
topics related to such areas as nutrition, the environment,
medicine, and science. In these hearings on the drug industry
in October of 1969, Mead addressed a variety of concerns,
including developing therapeutic drugs to deal with the
stress of modern life and using technology to prevent the
occurrence of adverse drug interactions. Her testimony is
most remembered, however, for her comments in favor of legalizing
Reaction to Mead's Testimony
Mead's Congressional testimony on marijuana provoked controversy.
The governor of Florida, Claude Kirk (b.1926), called Mead
a "dirty old lady." Some members of the public included
newspaper clippings on her testimony along with letters
offering their opinions. This woman wrote her comments directly
on the newspaper article, concluding Mead "must be crazy
[and] a dope fiend." People reacted not just to Mead's testimony
but also to some comments she made to the media afterwards,
particularly her comment that marijuana should be legal
at age sixteen. She subsequently issued a statement clarifying
United Press International.
"Margaret Mead's for Legal
October 27, 1969.
Newspaper clipping with
L'il Abner comic strip,
World News Syndicate,
March 5, 1970.
© Capp Enterprises, Inc.
Mead in L'il Abner Comic Strip
Media response to Mead's comments on marijuana extended
to editorial cartoons and comics.
In this strip Al Capp (1909-1979) mocks both Mead's position
on the legalization of marijuana and the frivolity of television
talk shows. Mead appeared on a variety of television talk
shows in this period, including The Tonight Show
with Johnny Carson. The talk show host here caricatures
her views, saying "Now that the lady anthropologist has
explained how harmless heroin is for children . . ." A figure
appearing to represent Mead is seated next to the starlet.
Mike Peters Cartoon
This Mike Peters (b.1943) cartoon, dating from the beginning
of his career as an editorial cartoonist, depicts a woman
and her car being searched at the U.S.-Mexican border, presumably
for drugs--because the border guards suspect that she is
Margaret Mead. A friend had sent the cartoon along to Mead
with a note saying that he thought she would find it amusing
and he did not think the cartoonist was syndicated. Peters'
editorial cartoons were not syndicated nationally until
Mike Peters cartoon on Margaret
The Dayton Daily News,
November 6, 1969.
© Courtesy of Tribune Media Services.
Letter to Robert Lowie,
April 8, 1956.
"Accustomed to being
treated as anthropologically
Robert Lowie (1883-1957), one of the elders of American
anthropology and an early student of Franz Boas, had written
to Mead in March of 1956, asking her to "express in print
your own sentiments concerning Boas, his personality and
intellectual position." Mead agreed but noted: "I confess
to having been somewhat surprised by your suggestion. I
have got accustomed to being treated as anthropologically
non-existent." This letter reflects Mead's sense of herself
as an outsider in the ranks of anthropology and the extent
to which she felt misunderstood by her peers. Despite this,
Mead would go on to become president of the American Anthropological
Association in 1960.
Mead's Last Days
When Margaret Mead was admitted to the hospital on October
3, 1978, her office assistants continued writing information
in the notebook she carried with her everywhere. Mead also
made a few notes herself. The notebook is open to her final
entries. On the page to the left, probably dated October
31, are Mead's notes regarding a phone conversation with
her friend Father Austin Ford of Emmaus house in Atlanta,
concerning Congressional child nutrition legislation. The
page to the right, possibly dated November 2, appears to
refer to a phone conversation with Gregory Bateson, from
whom she had been divorced nearly 30 years.
Margaret Mead, personal notebook,
begun August 1, 1978.
Shari Segal, photographer.
May 26, 1975.
Gelatin silver print.
Reflections: A Film on Mead
"It's a little hard, you know,
to judge what impact you've had on a field. Initially, I
think the most important thing I did was to introduce anthropology
to the general, literate public."
--Margaret Mead, Reflections:
Margaret Mead, 1975
Here, wearing her trademark cape and holding her walking
stick, Mead relaxes during the filming of the United States
Information Agency film Reflections, in which
Mead looks back on her life and career.
Mead's Memorial Service
Though her parents were not religious, Margaret Mead had
chosen to be baptized into the Episcopal Church at the age
of eleven, and religion played an important role in her
life. In later years, she was active in such organizations
as the World Council of Churches and the Protestant Episcopal
Church in the U.S.A. Mead was buried at Trinity Church in
Buckingham, Pennsylvania, the same church where she was
baptized and had been married to Luther Cressman. This is
the program from a memorial service held for Mead at the
"A Washington Memorial Service:
Margaret Mead, 1901-1978,"
December 7, 1978.