Hazel Weidman and the origins of medical anthropology in the United States (summary)

© 2012 D.V. Mikhel

2012 – № 2 (4)

Key words: medical anthropology history, ААА, SfAA, GMA, Medical Anthropology Newsletter

Abstract: The article is devoted to Hazel Weidman, a representative of the first generation of medical anthropologists in the United States. Her scientific biography is closely associated with the formation of the first professional community of medical anthropologists in the world. The article describes the events of the second half of 1960s, which led to the establishment of the Society for Medical Anthropology. The paper  discusses Weidman’s personal contribution to the process of the formation of the American medical anthropology.

The history of the origin of medical anthropology in the United States is a promising subject for a study. Many people with different views and ambitions were involved in it. The name of one of its protagonists deserves a special attention. It is Hazel Marie Hitson Weidman, who was destined to lead the Group of Medical Anthropology on its long way to formation, when even the name of the new discipline was not recognized by all.

She was born on August 3, 1923 in Taft, California. Her youth coincided with the World War II. After the war, she was admitted to the Northwestern University to study social anthropology and graduated in 1951. During these years as anthropologist she developed her  interest in the problems of medicine and health. She attended the workshop by Benjamin Paul (1911-2005), who published his famous book in 1955 (Paul, 1955). Since 1956 to 1959 she studied at the graduate school of the Department of Social Relations at Harvard University Radcliffe College, where William Caudill (1920-1972), another of the pioneers of the American medical anthropology, was her research supervisor. There she attended his course on “Health and illness in a cross-cultural perspective.” In 1959, upon completion of the field work in Burma (Weidman, 1986a) she defended her doctoral thesis on “Family model and the structure of paranoid personality in Boston and Burma.” That same year, James Roney published an article, in which he used the term “medical anthropology» for the first time ever (Roney, 1959).

Since 1959 to 1964 Weidman worked in various federal and state health agencies. She and her husband Dr. William Weidman together have researched the system of TB control in Massachusetts, and the results of research were used in the development of state legislation on tuberculosis. In 1964 she returned to the academic career and began to teach at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. There she began to teach the course “Anthropology and Medicine.” In 1968 she took a place in the departments of anthropology and of psychiatry in Miami University School of Medicine, where she remained until 1990. During these years Weidman worked to develop community-based programs for mental health of the local population.

Weidman was one of the founders of the professional association of medical anthropologists in the United States and of the first specialized journal on medical anthropology «Medical Anthropology Newsletter». She published an article that sheds the light on some of the details, which are traditionally left out of focus of other publications on the history of medical anthropology (Weidman, 1986b).

According to Weidman, she wanted to develop scientific communication between colleagues, who simply did not know about each other. Already in 1964, when she was involved in teaching, Weidman wanted to prepare a bibliography list for her course “Anthropology and Medicine” and to get a better understanding of the scientific field. Other pioneers in the field of medical anthropology felt the same difficulties.

In 1965 and 1966 Weidman appealed to the leadership of the American Anthropological Association with a proposal to organize a meeting of the Section of Medical Anthropology at the annual conference of the AAA, but the suggestion was not implemented. In a letter to Ben Paul in 1966, Weidman has once again raised the question of whether it would be nice to have a list of names of all anthropologists dealing with medicine and health, to establish professional communication (Weidman, 1986, pp. 116, 123).

According to Weidman, at the annual conference of the AAA in Philadelphia in 1966 and in the period since August 1966 to October 1967, a group of American anthropologists have been conducted a lively correspondence about the organization of a medical society and the arrangement of its own conference. Among the most active participants of the preparatory work were Paul Benjamin (Stanford University), Norman Scotch (Johns Hopkins University), and others.

On December 2, 1967 for the lunch in the Hilton Hotel’s War Room, the Steering Committee (i.e. initiative group) organized a meeting of colleagues from the participants (more than 80 people) who identified themselves as supporters of “medical anthropology.” Speakers at the conference’s dinner proclaimed themselves as a “group.” Some of them have suggested considering the creation of an independent section within the next conference of the AAA (Weidman, 1986, pp. 117-118).

At the annual conference of the Society for Applied Anthropology in Berkeley, California, in April 1968, another meeting of activists was held. The participants of this meeting discussed the establishment of the professional association, and Weidman proposed to issue the independent journal “Medical Anthropology Newsletter” (MAN).

In September 1968 in Aberdeen, Scotland, the first International Conference on Social Science and Medicine was conducted. Weidman made a presentation “Trained Manpower and Medical Anthropology: Conceptual, Organizational, and Educational Priorities” in that she tried to describe the various theoretical perspectives from which medical anthropology originates.

In October 1968, the first issue of the MAN was issued at the expense of the Vera Rubin’s Research Institute for the Study of Man. Since then the movement to create an association of medical anthropology has become irreversible.

On November 22, 1968 in Seattle, Washington, at the conference of the AAA, a meeting of medical anthropologists was held. The meeting place was the Colonial Hotel’s Olympic Hall. There were more than 100 people together. At the organizational meeting in Seattle Weidman proposed to give the necessary structure of the future society through a system of committees. It proposed the establishment of 14 such committees, which would be able to coordinate the follow-up medical anthropologists.

A meeting of medical anthropologists in Seattle raised the question on the relationships with two major U.S. Anthropological Associations, the SfAA and the AAA. Hazel Weidman, Steven Polgar and Donald Kennedy prepared the letters for leadership of both associations about the recognition of the Group of medical anthropology as an independent member of the association. Two positive responses followed soon.

The establishment of the Society for Medical Anthropology (SMA) has been postponed until the next conference of the AAA, which was to be held in New Orleans in November 1969. Some members of the initiative group (Steven Polgar and Clifford Barnett) were against the formation of an independent Society.

In 1969 proponents of the Society decided to choose the Organizing Committee. They used the MAN to vote for nine members of the Committee. Voting was arranged  by mail. In November 1969, at the conference of the AAA in New Orleans, these candidates were identified. Her name was the first in a list.

At the conference in New Orleans, the participants discussed  the  name of the future society  along with other issues. They discussed different names, such as “ethnomedicine”, “medical anthropology”, and then “anthropology of medicine” as well. Thus, the term “medical anthropology” for the future of the Society was not immediately confirmed (Sobo, 2011, p. 12).

In September 1970 Weidman announced her intention to resign from her post of the chair of the Organizing Committee and of the editor of the MAN. After the resignation of Weidman, Dorothea Leighton (1908-1989) was elected as  the chair (Giffen, 1988); however, Weidman was an informal leader of American medical anthropologists in the years to come.

In 1972 the Society for Medical Anthropology received the official status as a formal division of the AAA (Sobo, 2011, p. 11). The colleague of Weidman, Dr. Dorothea Leighton was elected as its first president. This event symbolized the final recognition of the occurrence of medical anthropology within the professional community of American anthropologists. Ahead there were a lot of important, sometimes dramatic, events, and yet it had begun. Half a century later, we return to the history and see among its protagonists Hazel Weidman, a woman, an activist, and a pioneer in the new field of anthropological knowledge.


Giffen, J. (1988), “Dorothea Cross Leighton”, in Gacs, U., Khan, A., McIntyre, J. and Weinberg, R. (Ed.), Women Anthropologists: A Biographical Dictionary, Greenwood Press, New York, pp. 231–237.

Marshall, J. (1978), “Obituary: Steven Polgar (1931–1978)”, Medical Anthropology Newsletter, Vol.10 (1), pp. 7–11.

Paul, B. (1955), Health, Culture and Community: Case Studies of Public Reactions to Health Programs, Russell Sage Foundation.

Roney, J. (1959), “Medical anthropology: a synthetic discipline”, The New Physician, Vol.8 (1), pp. 32–33.

Sobo, E.J. (2011), “Medical anthropology in disciplinary context: definitional struggles and key debates (or answering the cri du coeur)”, in Singer, M. and Erickson, P.I. (Ed.), A Companion to Medical Anthropology, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 9–28.

Weidman, H.H. (1986a), “On ambivalence and the field“, in Golde, P. (Ed.), Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 239–263.

Weidman, H.H. (1986b), “On the origins of the SMA”, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol.17 (5), pp. 115–124.

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