UC Berkeley News


George M. Foster

31 May 2006

Anthropologist George McClelland Foster Jr. died May 18 at the age of 92.


During a career spanning more than six decades, Foster established himself as one of the most distinguished anthropologists of his generation. Key areas of his work included historical reconstruction, social roles and structure, material and visual cultures, international public health, ethnography and field methods, and pottery technology.

Foster authored nearly 300 publications, including more than a dozen books on theory, method, and ethnography. His major works include anthropological classics such as Empire's Children (1948); Culture and Conquest (1960), about the Spanish influence on contemporary Spanish-American peasant cultures; Traditional Cultures and the Impact of Technological Change (1962), long considered the bible of applied anthropology; and Tzintzuntzan: Mexican Peasants in a Changing World (1967), about a rural community in central Mexico that he studied for more than half a century.

Foster was largely responsible, directly and indirectly, for building the Hearst Museum of Anthropology's important Mexican collections, which were partly reflected in the museum's recent "Tesoros Escondidos" ("Hidden Treasures") exhibit. An online exhibit of Foster's vast collection of more than 4,000 photos (along with field notes and other materials) documenting life in Tzintzuntzan is at hearstmuseum.berkeley.edu/exhibitions/tzin/44.html.

While studying at Iowa's Northwestern University, the Sioux Falls, S.D., native became captivated by the relatively new field of anthropology under pioneering anthropologist Melville Herskovits. Foster earned his B.S. in anthropology at Northwestern in 1935 and began doctoral studies at Berkeley under Robert Lowie and Alfred Kroeber. He conducted field research among the Yuki Indians of Mendocino County and the Sierra Populuca Indians of Veracruz, Mexico.

After earning his Ph.D. in anthropology at Berkeley in 1941, Foster taught at Syracuse University and UCLA. He next worked as an analyst in the office of Inter-American Affairs in Washington, D.C., and as director at the Smithsonian Institution's Institute of Social Anthropology. He returned to Berkeley in 1953 as a professor of anthropology and also lectured in public health.

Foster served as acting director of the campus's Robert Lowie Museum of Anthropology, which today is the Hearst museum, from 1955 to 1957. He also chaired the anthropology department for two terms. Upon his retirement in 1979, Foster received the Berkeley Citation, the campus's highest honor.

In 1997, the department's library was named in honor of Foster and his wife, Mary, a linguistic anthropologist who was his research collaborator. She died in 2001.

Elected president of the American Anthropological Association in 1970, Foster was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Foster slowed down somewhat in recent years due to Parkinson's disease but still kept an active schedule. The week before his death, he kept a long-honored Wednesday luncheon date at the Faculty Club with a few of his fellow emeriti anthropologists.

Foster is survived by his son, Jeremy Foster of Basalt, Colo.; a daughter, Melissa Bowerman from the Netherlands; daughter-in-law Angela Foster; son-in-law Wijbrandt van Schurr; five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

The anthropology department plans to establish a George M. Foster Memorial Fund. A campus memorial service is anticipated in late summer or early fall.

- Kathleen Maclay

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