Historical Markers
Margaret Mead Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Margaret Mead

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
225 W. Court St., Doylestown

Dedication Date:
June 22, 1996

Behind the Marker

Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926. Gelatin silver print
Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, circa 1926.
Through groundbreaking writings and outsized personality, Margaret Mead popularized the study of anthropology, and came to define, for the American public, what it meant to be an anthropologist. The American Museum of Natural History, her working home for half a century, once compiled a list of the areas in which she was an accepted specialist: its subjects ranged from education, nutrition, and ecology to mental health, national character, and family life. The New York Times described her as "a national oracle." Time magazine anointed her "Mother of the World."  

Head and shoulders, color
Margaret Mead, self portrait at age 13, circa 1915.
Mead's first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), revolutionized her field. The narrative strength of her writing helped make what was then still a relatively young academic discipline accessible and intriguing to the general public. So did her focus: what it means to be young, sexual, and female in another culture and how that related to Americans' own lives. It brought her instant recognition, and she never relinquished the spotlight.

Throughout her fascinating career, Mead travelled the world, hurdled obstacles, crossed old boundaries of acceptability and set new ones. Constantly refusing to let her work, or herself, be stereotyped, she stood as a prominent champion of women's rights, her iconic life the embodiment of the liberated woman at the dawn of a new era of feminism that flowered in the 1960s.

With her close-cropped hair and forked walking stick, she left an immediate impression wherever she went. Fearless in the face of controversy, Mead refused to temper the passions of her positions on the social issues of the time: equal opportunity, a co-ed military draft, birth control, the repeal of anti-abortion laws, and the right to die, among many others that she strongly advocated. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world," she insisted. "Indeed, it's the only thing that ever does."   
Margaret Mead and Luther Sheeleigh Cressman, ca. 1917-18.
Margaret Mead and Luther Sheeleigh Cressman, circa 1918.
Mead's own world-changing odyssey began in Philadelphia, in 1901, as the eldest of five children (one died in infancy) born to a pair of forward-thinking Quaker educators who finally settled in Doylestown. Her father, Edward Sherwood Mead, was a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and her mother, Emily (Fogg) Mead, a sociologist. Though Mead graduated from Doylestown High School, most of her education occurred at home. She was a voracious reader, and rebellion was in her genes: Mead's mother, a sociologist attracted to immigrant cultures, was a vocal suffragist, as was her mother, a pioneering child psychologist. Mead's father, a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, saw so much promise in his oldest child that he wished the conventions of the day were different. "It's a pity you aren't a boy," he once told her. "You'd have gone far." A gender-bender from the get-go, Mead certainly went far, indeed. Her footprints covered the planet.  

This July 1933 photo shows [left to right] anthropologist Gregory Bateson with Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune, all of whom had just arrived in Sydney, Australia, from their New Guinea fieldwork
Margaret Mead with anthropologist Gregory Bateson (on the left) and Reo Fortune,...
After briefly attending DePauw University in Indiana, Mead transferred to Barnard College in New York, where she majored in psychology before falling under the transfixing aura of Franz Boas, one of anthropology's early stars. Boas guided Mead to her Ph.D. at Columbia University, suggesting she do field work on Native Americans. When Mead opted, instead, for Polynesia, where indigenous cultures were still relatively untouched by the West, Boas encouraged her to focus on adolescents. It was momentous advice.
Newly married, Mead left alone for Samoa in 1923, where she lived with her subjects night and day. To better observe them, she built a house for herself without walls. To better know them, she ate wild boar, wild pigeon, and dried fish with them, and helped them care for their children. All the while, she constantly filtered what she saw through a sensibility that seamlessly blended psychology with anthropology in pursuit of the big question which drove her research: Were "the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or the civilization"?

In the nature versus nurture debate, her answers came down heavily on the side of the latter. In Samoa's relaxed social structure, so different from the multi-layered complexities of the world Mead came from, she found adolescents were less neurotic, less riddled by guilt, and completely unbound by the primly moralistic attitudes toward sex and sexuality that pervade Western culture. "Samoa," she wrote, "is a place where no one plays for very high stakes, suffers for his convictions or fights to the death. Caring is slight." Masterfully, in her prose, Mead balanced that strange world against her own.  

Despite its weighty title, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth, (1926), became an instant best seller.  Deemed by the New York Public Library as one of the important books of the twentieth century, it has never gone out of print. Future expeditions-fifteen major field trips in all- would take her to New Guinea and Bali, and result in such well-received chronicles as Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education (1930), Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), and Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World (1949).

Mead was also among the first anthropologists to use both photographs and motion pictures to document the customs and habits of the people she studied. In collaboration with her third husband, anthropologist Gregory Bateson, she published Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis (1939), an inventive volume culled from the nearly 40,000 pictures the couple had taken.

Margaret Mead in Hancock, New Hampshire, May 26, 1975.
Margaret Mead in Hancock, New Hampshire, May 26, 1975.
Although Mead made her name examining technologically simple cultures, her reputation was burnished with what she took from them and how she projected what she found in the field onto the contemporary world she lived in, especially the fresh look she took at the notion of family. The family became her enduring study, and she continued to prod American culture to push the envelope of accepted gender roles. She was worried about what the culture lost as extended families gave way to nuclear families and individuals grew distant from their roots.

A tireless public lecturer, Mead relished her soapbox, whatever the medium. She wrote a popular column on women's and family issues through the 1960s and 1970s for Redbook magazine, led seminars as an adjunct professor of anthropology at Columbia, and remained attached to the American Museum of Natural History from 1926, rising from assistant curator to curator of ethnology to curator emeritus, until she died of cancer in November 1978.

Like Mead's first book, her 1972 memoir, Blackberry Winter: My Earlier Years, was an enormous best seller. In all, she wrote or collaborated on thirty-nine books and almost 1,400 other publications, as well as forty-three films. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, she was awarded twenty-eight honorary degrees, and, in 1979, posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Since Mead's death, some of her research and methodology have been called into question, yet she still casts an enormous shadow over her field, largely because she made anthropology so relevant to the world she lived in, a world for which she never lost her fascination. "Life in the twentieth century is like a parachute jump," she liked to say. "You have to get it right the first time."
Back to Top