The Many Legacies Left by Margaret Mead

WASHINGTON–The call came from President Carter at Camp David last month for Margaret Mead, then a seriously ill patient in New York Hospital. The famous anthropologist, in great agony from cancer, was under sedation and could not take the phone.

The following Monday she sent a message to the White House saying that she considered Mr. Carter’s call “made” and that he should not spend any more of his valuable time trying to get through to her.

That was Margaret Mead to the very end–clear, candid and considerate. Her passing at the age of 76 leaves a void in American culture which invites some observations about the many meanings of Margaret Mead.

MEANING ONE: Don’t expect or wait for recognition. She didn’t. Confronting sex discrimination throughout most of her career, she just went ahead and accomplished what she wanted to do. But that did not keep her from being a champion of women’s rights. She never felt that just because Mead broke through the barriers, so could any woman.

MEANING TWO: Scientists should be able to handle both specific data and general frameworks. How well she mastered that duality. From her position as curator of the American Museum of Natural History came books, articles and lectures ranging from the consumption of betel nuts in the Admiralty Islands to the disintegration of communities in America. She insisted on seeing “the whole situation” in a society of increasing specialization.

As a result, she became probably our country’s leading generalist, commenting on new events (like the energy crisis) and old struggles with a wisdom rarely found today. Breaching many areas of human knowledge, she conveyed perspective and understanding to millions through her popular writings, television, and lecture appearances.

MEANING THREE: Scientists can be involved citizens. Dr. Mead accomplished this in two ways. One was simply by being a citizen. The other was by encouraging groups and institutions to become clients for scientific work. During World War II, our government became what she called a client for applied anthropology, particularly in the South Pacific and Japan.

In recent years, she bewailed the lack of such clients. She thought, for example, that she and other anthropologists had much to offer in such diverse fields as how to induce people to want to conserve energy or wear seat belts.

Once in a friendly exchange before the Anthropological Society of Washington, she chided me, saying: “You never ask me any of those questions; I could have answered many of them.” Lamentably, she was right. But I did try on occasion to get government officials to ask her advice, which she would have given promptly and without compensation. They preferred instead to give expensive contracts to gobbledygook-prone consulting firms that knew nothing about solving human problems.

MEANING FOUR: One can be critical and helpful at the same time. This was one of her greatest strengths. It was nursed by biting wit, excoriating insight and an all-enveloping compassion for humanity. “She wanted to be a mother to the world,” was the way a friend put it.

MEANING FIVE: The great survival issues must never be neglected. Five years ago she said: “Our chances of survival are far less, but I do not see many anthropologists working on population, on the environment, on the legislation, agreements, and negotiations that are necessary if we are going to have a world that does not blow itself up or choke itself to death.”

Margaret Mead took stances–against atomic energy, against the industrial forces that weakened the family unit or jeopardized the public’s health and against all forms of tyranny. She took them at forums, rallies and marches as well as with her prolific pen.

One of her last messages was to an international symposium on children in Athens. “The Year of the Child stands like a beacon of hope (in a darkened world),” she wrote. “We must see that its light guides us and gives us direction for comparing a livable, sustainable, beautiful world for our children…. By keeping our eye on the pressing needs of children we can determine what needs to be done…. For babies cannot wait.”

That was Margaret Mead again–always looking ahead with unshakeable duty and spirit.

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