Melville Jean Herskovits

Melville Jean Herskovits

American Anthropologist
Volume 66, Issue 1 (February 1964)
pages 83-109
DOI: 10.1525/aa.1964.66.1.02a00080

Alan P. Merriam

Melville Jean Herskovits (1895-1963)

Melville Jean Herskovits was born in Bellefontaine, Ohio, September 10, 1895, and spent his childhood there and in Texas. In 1920 he took his Ph.B. at the University of Chicago, and later came under the influence of Franz Boas, then at Columbia University, where he took an M.A. in 1921 and his doctorate in 1923. In 1924 he married Frances Shapiro, and their daughter, Jean, was born in 1935. He held the post of lecturer in anthropology at Columbia University from 1924 to 1927, and was at Howard University in 1925. In 1927 he moved to Northwestern University where he remained, as full professor since 1935, until his death February 25, 1963.

Facts of this nature tell us but little about a man who gave his intellectual life to anthropology, of his devotion to his field of study, or of the enormous integrity he brought to it. It is, rather, in looking at the fruits of his devotion that we see the scope and brilliance of his productivity and the constant theme of humanitarianism, based always on the facts of research, that marked his work.

From 1923-1927 Herskovits carried out his first major series of studies as Fellow of the Board of the Biological Sciences of the National Research Council; this was a detailed program of physical anthropology titled “Variability under Radical Crossing.” The project came to be centered about variability, homogeneity and heterogeneity, and the problem of Mendelian inheritance in race crossing; it began with early anthropometric studies of Negro boys in New York City and Riverdale, New York (#28, 37). In 1925, Herskovits pointed out the importance of the range of variability in studying a mixed racial grouping (#31: 70), and suggested that a significant means of understanding heredity in racial crossing could be achieved through the study of genealogies of individuals concerned (#121, 61). This led immediately to the question of homogeneity and heterogeneity (#39) in the American Negro population, and Herskovits concluded:

That the variability of family strains can be utilized as an indication of the homogeneity or heterogeneity of a population; that the Negro-White population of New York is of surprisingly great homogeneity of type; that in this instance, at least, the result may be taken as an indication of the heterogeneity of racial origin; and that there is not in this population great variation between families, but rather within them. (#43 : 12)

The concept of low variability in family lines and high variability within families of New York Negroes was so different from that generally prevailing that Herskovits sought a further explanation which he found in the element of social selection (#35, 63, 100)…

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