Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture

“Learning to Live in One World” Technology & Social Change

Margaret Mead conducting  a tele-lectureBeginning 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.

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  • Dr. Benjamin Spock. Prescription for corrective shoes, probably ca. November 1940. Manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (23)

  • Dr. Benjamin Spock examining Mary Catherine Bateson, ca. early 1940. Copyprint. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (28)

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.”

Margaret Mead conducting a tele-lecture in 1960, probably at Omaha University, Omaha, Nebraska, November 11, 1960. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (282a)

Audience Questions

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 Margaret Mead, May 14, 1978. Index cards. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (283)

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.

Athens Technological Organization. The 1970 Athens Ekistics Month Daily Program, July 13, 1970. Typescript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (253b)

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 for April 20, 1940, regarding Catherine's behavior on train trip. Page 2. Diary. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (294a)

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.

Ken Heyman, photographer. Margaret Mead 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 Remarks on Student Revolt at Columbia University, Spring 1968

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.

Margaret Mead, “Remarks made in McMillan Auditorium to the group assembled there at 3.20 PM, April 30, 1968.” Page 2. Page 3. Typescript photocopy. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (310a)

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 marijuana.

Margaret Mead's testimony before the Subcommittee on Monopoly of the Select Committee on Small Business of The U.S. Senate, October 27, 1969. Reprint. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (306a)

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 her views.

United Press International. “Margaret Mead's for Legal Pot,” Washington, D.C., October 27, 1969. Newspaper clipping with handwritten comments. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (306b)

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.

Al Capp. L'il Abner comic strip, World News Syndicate, March 5, 1970. Newspaper clipping. © Capp Enterprises, Inc. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (319b)

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 1972.

Mike Peters cartoon on Margaret Mead. The Dayton Daily News, November 6, 1969. Newspaper clipping. © Courtesy of Tribune Media Services. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (319f)

“Accustomed to being treated as anthropologically non-existent”

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.

Margaret Mead. Letter to Robert Lowie, April 8, 1956. Typescript carbon. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (291a)

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. Bound notebook. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (322)

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.

Shari Segal, photographer. Margaret Mead in Hancock, New Hampshire, May 26, 1975. Gelatin silver print. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (333)

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 Washington Cathedral.

Program from “A Washington Memorial Service: Margaret Mead, 1901–1978,” Washington Cathedral, December 7, 1978. Leaflet. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (325)

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