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Margaret Mead (1901-1978) taught generations of Americans about the value of looking carefully and openly at other cultures to better understand the complexities of being human. Scientist, explorer, writer, and teacher, Mead, who worked in the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History from 1926 until her death, brought the serious work of anthropology into the public consciousness.

Mead studied at Barnard College, where she met the great anthropologist Franz Boas, who became her mentor and her advisor when she attended graduate school at Columbia University. She was twenty-three years old when she first traveled to the South Pacific, to conduct research for her doctoral dissertation. The resulting book, Coming of Age in Samoa, was — and remains — a best-seller. She continued her research throughout her life in such locations as New Guinea, Samoa, Bali, and many other places, including contemporary North America. Mead’s work is largely responsible for the treasures on view in the Museum’s Hall of Pacific Peoples.

In addition to her work at the Museum, Margaret Mead taught, wrote more best-selling books, contributed a regular column to Redbook magazine, lectured, and was frequently interviewed on radio and television. A deeply committed activist, Mead often testified on social issues before the United States Congress and other government agencies. She hoped that through all of these efforts others would learn about themselves and work toward a more humane and socially responsible society. As she once said, “I have spent most of my life studying the lives of other peoples — faraway peoples — so that Americans might better understand themselves.”

Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

“But no.” Mead said, “The first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed.” Mead explained, “In the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.” Mead said.


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

“Prayer does not use up artificial energy, doesn’t burn up any fossil fuel, doesn’t pollute. Neither does song, neither does love, neither does the dance.

“We are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knew yesterday and prepare our schools for what no one knows yet.”

“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

“Having two bathrooms ruined the capacity to co-operate.”

“I learned the value of hard work by working hard.”

“I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.”

“I was wise enough to never grow up while fooling most people into believing I had.”

“Instead of being presented with stereotypes by age, sex, color, class, or religion, children must have the opportunity to learn that within each range, some people are loathsome and some are delightful.”

“It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age, and all the regrets into old age.”

“It may be necessary temporarily to accept a lesser evil, but one must never label a necessary evil as good.”

“Life in the twentieth century is like a parachute jump: you have to get it right the first time.”

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”

“Sooner or later I’m going to die, but I’m not going to retire.”

“We have nowhere else to go… this is all we have.”

“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”

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