Anthropology Department History

The field of anthropology in higher education in the United States had its formal beginnings in the second half of the 19th century.

In 1859, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species introduced the world to the idea of evolution, a fundamental concept in anthropology. In the same year, the Anthropology Society of Paris was founded. At Oxford, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, the person considered by many as the founder of modern anthropology, authored the first anthropology textbook in 1871, complete with his definition of culture (another important concept in anthropology).

In 1877, Lewis Henry Morgan, a lawyer in New York, outlined the stages of cultural evolution. By the late 1870s, anthropology was beginning to emerge as a profession. The U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology employed a professional anthropologist as early as 1879 to conduct research. In the United States, the first course in general anthropology to carry credit at a college or university was offered at the University of Vermont in 1886.

Eight years later, beginning in 1894, Oberlin College offered its first course in anthropology. Since that time until 1987 when anthropology finally became its own department, the discipline of anthropology was tied to sociology. The first sociology courses at Oberlin were offered in 1891 in the Department of Political Science and Sociology by John R. Commons (1862-1945), an 1888 graduate who returned to Oberlin after three years of graduate study at Columbia. Although Commons stayed only a year before moving on to the University of Wisconsin, in that time he introduced Oberlin’s first sociology courses: Sociology, General Sociology, and Social Problems.

In 1894 William I. Thomas (1863-1947) was named Oberlin’s first professor of sociology. One of the courses Thomas taught was entitled Anthropology, the first time the subject had been offered at Oberlin. Thomas left Oberlin in 1895 to pursue a PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago.

With the arrival of Ernest L. Bogart (1870-1958) in 1900, Oberlin’s only anthropology course was dropped from the curriculum and the sociology courses were listed under the Department of Economics and Sociology. In 1914, Herbert A. Miller (1875-1951) was appointed as Oberlin’s first professor of sociology since Thomas. The sociology curriculum was expanded and updated, and sociology courses were once again listed under their own department. Miller left Oberlin in 1924 and his position was taken up by Newell L. Sims (1878-1965), who reintroduced anthropology to Oberlin in 1927 with his course entitled The Race Problem or Social Anthropology. This remained the only anthropology course offered at Oberlin until 1944.

The year 1944 marks perhaps the most important turning point in the history of teaching anthropology at Oberlin College. Professor Sims retired that year, presenting an opportunity to strengthen the anthropology component of the department. Additionally, by the end of World War II the basic methods that characterize anthropology were largely in place.

Culture contact was rapidly accelerated. Anthropologists could no longer ignore competition and conflict; and professionals were faced with working these concepts into their theoretical formulations. As a result, the field of anthropology, while already firmly established, grew rapidly after the war. This prompted the search for an anthropologist to head the department at Oberlin.

Loren C. Eiseley (1907-1977) came to Oberlin from the University of Kansas, and was named department chair. Eiseley, who was academically well known for his anthropological research and writing, was responsible for fully developing the discipline of anthropology at Oberlin. New courses were added to the curriculum, including General Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Neolithic Origins of Modern Culture, and a General Seminar in Anthropology. By 1946, this strengthening of the anthropology component of the department prompted an administrative name change to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

The year 1947 was another pivotal time for the department. Upon Professor Eiseley’s departure to the University of Pennsylvania as its new head of the Department of Anthropology, threw new faculty members were appointed to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Oberlin: Richard Myers (1912-1978), J. Milton Yinger (b. 1916), and George E. Simpson (b. 1904), who was trained in anthropology. With Simpson as chair, anthropology remained strong at Oberlin. The anthropology curriculum was further developed with the addition of a course in Anthropological Theory in 1951, and a course in African Cultures in 1955. Anthropologist Mark Papworth (1931-2003) came to Oberlin in 1965, prompting the addition of several more anthropology courses: Prehistoric Archaeology, American Indian Cultures, Physical Anthropology, and a Seminar in Physical Anthropology.

In 1971, George Simpson retired and two more anthropologists came to Oberlin: Jack Glazier (b. 1943) and M. William Wykoff (b. 1937). The anthropology component of the department was further enriched with the addition of two linguistics courses taught by Wykoff, allowing students to be exposed to all four subdivisions of anthropology: cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Mark Papworth left Oberlin for Evergreen State College in Washington in 1972, and was replaced by archaeologist Linda Taranik (b. 1943). Wykoff left in 1976 to complete his dissertation at Cornell. His linguistics courses were taken over by Ronald Casson (b. 1942). Richard Myers left in 1978, after more than 30 years at Oberlin.

As early as 1968, a visiting committee reviewing the department suggested the establishment of separate departments of anthropology and sociology, and noted the “urgent need” for additional appointments and course offerings in anthropology. During the following years, much attention was paid to the position of anthropology within the department, with much urging for the establishment of two separate majors. In 1973, a report was filed by the anthropologists to the Department of Sociology-Anthropology regarding a proposal for a major in anthropology.

The Student Majors’ Committee reported in 1974-75 that “the issue of a separate major was brought up within the department... but was eventually dismissed.” The majors further recommended that “the current situation within the department, with anthropology clearly occupying a sub-disciplinary or ‘junior’ status... applies to the establishment of a separate anthropology major.” In the same year, the Subcommittee on Program Review of Sociology-Anthropology cited that their “principal reason for undertaking a special study of anthropology is the fact that the Sociology-Anthropology Majors’ Committee devoted most of their report to their concern over the allegedly subordinate status of anthropology in the department...” In 1975, the Subcommittee filed a report to EPPC recommending the establishment of a major in anthropology and a major in sociology.

Despite all the attention anthropology was receiving from various groups, their urgings were not heeded until 1982, when the Department of Sociology-Anthropology finally responded to continued requests by students, anthropology faculty, and program review committees by allowing separate majors in anthropology and sociology. However, the joint department was retained. In 1987, Milton Yinger retired from Oberlin after 40 years. The following year (1987-1988 school year), the ties between sociology and anthropology were severed, and 93 years after its introduction to Oberlin, an independent Department of Anthropology was formed.

Immediately after the establishment of the Department of Anthropology, the number of anthropology majors more than doubled. Between 1987 and 1992, there was an average of 18 anthropology majors per year, compared to an average of 8 anthropology majors per year between 1983 and 1987 (after a separate anthropology major but before the independent anthropology department).

While the number of majors rose significantly, the number of anthropology professors remained the same. In order to devote more attention to the increased needs of undergraduate students, the anthropology department discontinued the graduate program in anthropology. While there were never many anthropology graduate students (the last MA degree in anthropology was earned in 1979), the department felt that the few graduate students they could expect would take too much of their time and attention away from undergraduate students. At the same time, an interdisciplinary major of Archaeological Studies was established for those students wishing to specialize in archaeology.

By the end of academic year 1992-1993, the Department of Anthropology consisted of three full-time faculty members who handled nearly 50 majors, and thus continued anthropology’s long-standing tradition of excellence at Oberlin College.

Processed by Heather L. Moore