George Foster as a pioneer of medical anthropology: for the 100th anniversary (1913–2006)

© 2013 D.V. Mikhel

2013 – № 1 (5)

Key words: medical anthropology, George Foster, Melville Herskovits, Alfred Kroeber, technical and sanitary-medical care, Latin America

Abstract: The article is devoted to George Foster, one of the pioneers of medical anthropology in the West. His brief biography is presented which shows the intricate way the researcher has made from traditional ethnography to applied anthropology and medical anthropology. Special attention is drawn to Foster’s role in evaluation of American aid programs for developing countries, convergence of interests of anthropology and health sciences.

George McClelland Foster Jr. was born on October 9, 1913 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the son of an engineer and entrepreneur George M. Foster. Over time, the family moved to Iowa. He was the eldest child in the family and was good at school. Like many of his peers, he joined the scouts after falling in love with walking and traveling. At the age of 13 he made his first independent trip to New York, followed by his other trips to Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, and Colorado. Throughout his life he passionately loved traveling, visited more than 100 countries and collected tickets and schedules from his trips which were later donated to various American museums (Foster, 2000; Weaver, 2002a; Kemper, 2007).

Willing to follow the steps of his father, he went to study engineering at Harvard, but experienced real cultural shock and depression caused by the move from a small town to a big university. A year later, he moved from Harvard to Northwestern University, Illinois, where he quitted his engineering studies and got engaged in history. However, history didn’t become his main passion as well, and he switched to anthropology.

His mentor, famous Melville J. Herskovits, instilled in him lifelong love for anthropology. During his anthropology classes he met his future wife Mary “Mickey” Le Crone. In the summer of 1933 Foster took a long trip to China and Japan, and on his return he started, as Le Crone, to prepare his thesis in anthropology following advice of Herskovits. Foster and Mickey visited often Herskovits’ home where they saw many well-known anthropologists, including Bronislaw Malinowski.

In the spring of 1935, Foster wrote a letter to a leading American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber requesting to study at Berkeley. Thanks to Foster’s persistence he moved to Berkeley in August. In 1936 not knowing Spanish he traveled to Mexico, and on his return he said to Kroeber that he was going to study Mexican culture. In the summer of 1937 at the request of Kroeber, Foster began to study the life of Yuki Indians in Northern California. As a result of this work, in 1944 he published a manuscript on the Yuki culture (Foster, 1944).

In 1938 George Foster married Mary Le Crone, and they made a wedding trip to Europe. They met Malinowski at the London School of Economics, visited the Congress of Anthropologists in Copenhagen, went to Vienna right at the time when Nazi Germany annexed Austria. A year after his return to the United States, G. Foster completed his education at Berkeley, and in 1940 he went as a researcher in Mexico. There he established relationships with a group of American and Mexican archaeologists and anthropologists that allowed him to go deep into the studies of Mexican culture. Foster learnt Spanish and started to write his PhD dissertation. It was published in 1942 as a monograph (Foster, 1942).

In September 1941, Foster got a job at Syracuse University, New York, where he began to teach sociology and anthropology. In the summer of 1942 he moved to University of California where continued his teaching career. The US entry into the war prompted Foster to go into military service, but instead in 1943 he was recruited as an expert at the Rockefeller office at the Institute of Inter-American Affairs in Washington, DC, which dealt with coordination of the programs of technical and sanitary-medical care in Latin America. From that moment his entry into applied anthropology started.

The war changed the normal activities of many American anthropologists pushing them to find new applications for their knowledge. In 1942 the Society for Applied Anthropology was established in the US, and Foster joined it in 1950. For ten years Foster’s views had evolved. He started off as an ethnographer working in the style of Kroeber, and then became anthropologist capable of applying his knowledge to the analysis of cultures and human behavior in different societies.

After a short work in Washington, Foster was invited to work at the Institute of Social Anthropology, which was established in 1942 as part of the Smithsonian Institution. This again led him to Mexico where he became a teacher at the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. Together with a group of Mexican students, he began to conduct field research in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan, the former capital of the Tarasco country, which was conquered by the Spanish in the first third of the XVI century. Having worked in Tzintzuntzan till 1946, Foster received extensive data on the impact of external factors on the culture of the local community. In 1948 he published his first book about the people of Tzintzuntzan (Foster and Ospina, 1948); he did not return to this place until 1958.

In the summer of 1946, Foster returned to Washington and became the head of the Institute of Social Anthropology. As a government official, he recognized the need to closely examine US programs in Latin America. In 1947 he made his first trip to South America, and another one in 1948. He traveled to Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Brazil.

In 1949-1950 Foster and his family made two trips to Spain spending there more than a year altogether. His goal was to explore Spanish heritage in Latin America, that’s why he traveled throughout the country focusing on the areas from where the majority of the conquistadors came from (Andalusia, Extremadura). Using Herskovits’ concept of “acculturation”, Foster tried to explain the process of transfer of individual elements of the conquerors’ culture to the culture of Indians. In 1960, these issues were reflected in the book “Culture and Conquest” (Foster, 1960).

In 1950 Foster received a message from the State Department that the U.S. policy in Latin America was going to change and the scientific and educational activities of the Institute of Social Anthropology in this area would no longer be funded. After a trip to Spain, Foster pondered the fate of the institution he headed. In the spring of 1951 he made another trip to Latin America, and then finally came to a conclusion that it was necessary to transform the institution to keep jobs for anthropologists associated with it. The idea was to transform the Institute from the research and training center for anthropologists to the center for evaluation of U.S. technical assistance programs in Latin America. At that point in time three programs were implemented within the Institute – on agriculture, education and health. In Foster’s opinion, only the third one had a chance to stay advantageous in the future.

In order to implement his plans Foster went to the health department of the Institute for Inter-American Affairs where he discussed possibilities of involving anthropologists into the programs implemented by the Institute of Health, as well as analysis of cultural problems which were aroused in the course. The consensus was reached, and Foster joined the work. He sent a letter to his colleagues in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia and Brazil, with a request to evaluate the current situation of the U.S. aid in the area. After receiving their replies, he summarized the data obtained and presented his report “Cross-cultural anthropological analysis of the programs of technical aid” (1951).

Foster’s report was so unexpected for Henry Van Zyl Hyde (1906-1982), then director of the health department of the Institute, that he decided to bring a whole group of anthropologists to discuss the problems encountered in the implementation of programs. In June 1952, a conference took place in Washington during which Foster and colleagues presented to the heads of the health department an anthropological perspective on the situation with U.S. aid in the developing countries. As he recalled, “this was the greatest of all the days of my life … and also for public health” (Kemper, 2007, p. 18). Foster’s career underwent transformations. Now he had to combine two major businesses, i.e. science and bureaucratic responsibilities in health care.

In 1952 the Institute of Social Anthropology was closed down, and Foster decided to actively engage in academic affairs. In 1953 he and his family moved to California, where he was able to get the position of director of the Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley. In 1955 he got an appointment at the Department of Anthropology; in 1958-1961 and 1973-1974 he headed the department. During his work at Berkeley Foster gave various courses on anthropology, including the course “Anthropology and Modern Life” which was later renamed as “Applied Anthropology.” The success of the lectures among medical students, social workers, architects and teachers encouraged him to publish lectures as a monograph which was reprinted later again and sold in great quantities in the United States and elsewhere (Foster, 1962).

At Berkeley Foster began to involve his students to the fieldwork. Tzintzuntzan became his base in Mexico where he brought his young assistants, who had studied methods of anthropological work beforehand. In this regard he significantly outdid Kroeber who once had sent him to study Indian Yuki without any prior training.

From 1951 to 1983 Foster had been closely collaborating with various American and international organizations in the health sector, including the WHO. He moved a lot across Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa counseling health care professionals. Often these projects were part of the broader projects called “community development”. Foster consistently emphasized the importance of studying not only cultures of “target groups”, but cultures of “organizations”, knowing that success and failure in the implementation of health programs depend on the “environment of interaction” (Foster, 1969, p. 1).

In 1958 Foster returned to Tzintzuntzan where he began an intensive study of the impact of global political economic processes on the local peasant culture, economy, health and privacy. In the result, a number of his important works was published that reflected evolution of his own views (Foster, 1961; Foster, 1963; Foster, 1965; Foster, 1967; Foster, 1994).

Foster’s work in Tzintzuntzan was possible because he had established excellent relationships with the local population. More than half a century he had been living in the house of Micaela Gonzalez who became second family for him and his friends. This communication turned to a real friendship, and daughters of Donna Micaela visited the United States several times attending the most important events in the life of Foster’s family. He was active in the public life of Tzintzuntzan, much engaged in philanthropy, he did a lot to make this Mexican town known worldwide as one of the centers of long-term anthropological research.

Foster’s turn to medical anthropology was gradual. After getting back to academic activities in 1953 he started to actively use experience and knowledge gained during government work at the Institute for Social Anthropology and the Institute for Inter-American Affairs. His areas of research expanded and included issues of health and illness. At Berkeley he started to prepare undergraduate and graduate students capable of carrying out humanitarian studies in medicine. The first of his graduate students was Margaret Clark (1925-2003) who soon became one of the pioneers in medical anthropology (Clark, 1959; Clark, 1993; Browner, 1994; Weaver, 2002b).

To provide financial support for anthropological research in the field of medicine and public health, Foster began to regularly seek help from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Thanks to this financial support around 100 graduate projects in anthropology became possible at Berkeley. In 1972, Foster in Berkeley and Clark in San Francisco organized a joint program of teaching in medical anthropology, which Foster headed until his retirement from the university in 1979. In 1978 together with another of his student, Barbara Anderson, Foster published the first textbook in the world on medical anthropology (Foster, 1978).

Throughout his life Foster showed good leadership skills that helped him to hold various administrative positions. During the crisis of the American Anthropological Association, caused by Vietnam war, he was elected as its president (1970). In 1976 he was elected as a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, in 1980 – as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1982 Foster was awarded an honorary Malinowski prize from the Society of Applied Anthropology, and in 2005 – the prize from the Society of Medical Anthropology for his life achievements. In 1979 Foster retired, but continued to work at Berkeley as an honorary professor for several years. Right up until his last days, he led an active life, published academic works and traveled with his family across the globe. He died at his home in California on May 18, 2006.


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