Wednesday, May 21, 2014

George Armelagos: a sad passing

One of the finest biological anthropologists of a generation has died. George Armelagos was well-loved for the man he was, and for his contributions to the field, and he will be greatly missed by both students and professional Anthropologists alike. His impact was far and wide.

From Anne: I had several classes with George when I was an anthropology undergrad at UMass years ago, and I remember him with great respect and fondness. I took his honors Medical Anthropology class one semester, and wrote a term paper that, as it turned out, he always remembered. Every time I saw him in years to come, including just last year, he would mention that paper. Fortunately he had liked it, or, clearly, I would never have lived it down! This kind of personal touch is just one small indication of what a thoughtful, kind man George was. But he was also very funny. He was born in Michigan, but he said he moved away because he had heard that most people die within 20 miles of home.

From Ken: Big George (and he was big in size as well as reputation) had a dry sense of humor and an impish smile as he pulled your leg, until you finally realized you'd been had. One day, at some anthropology meetings, I came into the hotel breakfast room and saw George sitting at the counter. In his usual friendly way he beckoned me to join him, which I was glad to do. However, I wasn’t really very hungry, because I had to give my meetings paper in a couple of hours and at that stage in my career I was very nervous before any such on-stage event. One might say as an understatement that breakfast was the last thing on my mind; coffee, yes, food, no! George probably knew I was in a tense state. But I tried to live normally even under those conditions. So I sidled up to the counter and ordered some java and perhaps toast. We chatted briefly and then I asked George what he was up to that day. With his usual deadpan, he said “Oh, I have to give a paper in about half an hour.” I asked him what his paper was about, since I hadn’t looked at the book of abstracts. “Oh,” he said, “it’s some important research that I’ve just done and will be presenting.”

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve discovered some important demographic phenomena….” and he went on in great detail to explain, point by point, exactly what I was going to present a few time-slots after his! My stomach jumped a few horrible times…until his account was so specific to my own upcoming one that even I realized that George had read my abstract and was having me on. All in very good sprits, of course.

That was George!

George and his colleagues at UMass made for one of the country's leading bioanthropology programs, a status they maintained for many years until George defected for some strange reason to Emory University in Georgia. George's work covered many areas, largely involving human osteology and what could be inferred from it about the style of life of the people represented, and he studied many areas of the world.

George was a terrific spokesperson for the profession, at national meetings and of course in his published work. He represented a high standard of scientific curiosity as well as of productivity. He was good with his graduate students, who have occupied prominent places in universities after they left his tutelage.

These are our personal reminiscences, but a long-time friend of George's, and of ours, Alan Swedlund, has co-written, along with Alan Goodman and Peter Brown, a press release about George's life, and has kindly let us repost it here:

Appropriately, George with a student (Emory press release, 2010)

George J. Armelagos

A wide network of friends and family mourn the death of Professor George J. Armelagos. He was one of his generation’s most celebrated anthropologists. Armelagos made many significant and pioneering contributions to anthropology and the intersection of human biology, archaeology, and culture.

George Armelagos was born in Detroit on May 22, 1936. He died peacefully at home in Atlanta on May 15, 2014, only one week after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He is survived by brothers, Nick and James Armelagos of Detroit, as well as numerous family, friends, former students, and colleagues throughout the world.

Armelagos received a B.A. with honors from the University of Michigan in 1958 and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado in 1968. He was a professor at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) from 1968-1989, and was instrumental in shaping the newly developed Ph.D. program after he arrived. He taught at the University of Florida for three years, then went to Emory University in 1993 as the Goodrich C. White distinguished professor of Anthropology. He served as chair of that Department from 2003 to 2009, and continued to teach, mentor and publish until his death.

His contributions to the field of Anthropology were immense, particularly in the bio-cultural approach to the discipline. He pioneered the field of paleopathology, the analysis of skeletal remains to reconstruct how cultural changes lead to changing patterns of disease and nutrition in ancient populations. His contributions included a new understanding of the biological consequences of early agriculture and the evolutionary history of infectious diseases like syphilis. From early in his career he wrote courageously about the myth of “race” as a biological concept, and the reality of racism as a social fact that affects health. He had a lifetime interest in food and nutrition. In addition to writing about food, he was a master chef who relished sharing food and conversation with his numerous students and friends. Armelagos was a prolific researcher and author, often collaborating with his students and colleagues. He published thirteen books and monographs and well over 250 journal articles.

He was awarded the highest honors for his scholarship and service to Anthropology, including the Viking Medal from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Charles Darwin Award for Lifetime Achievement to Biological Anthropology from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology from the American Anthropological Association. He received many awards from UMass and Emory. At UMass he was recognized with the Distinguished Teacher Award and was a Chancellor’s Medalist. Most importantly, George was a much beloved teacher and friend to thousands of undergraduates and hundreds of graduate students. He was cherished for his intellect, generosity, encouragement, humility, and humor.

A private internment service will be held near St Catherine’s Island, Georgia. In lieu of flowers, donations are suggested to the Armelagos Lecture Fund, or the Armelagos-Swedlund Scholarship Fund c/o James Mallet, , 40 Campus Center Way, University of Massachusetts, Amherst 01003.  Also, George very generously provided in his will for Armelagos Lecture Funds at the University of Colorado, and Emory University.

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