Frederick Starr: Anthropologist Lost from the History Books

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You probably haven’t heard of Frederick Starr. Like his contemporary Franz Boas, Starr was an anthropologist coming to fame while the discipline of anthropology was still being formed. Throughout his career, Starr studied people and cultures on three different continents, and still found time to make a name for himself as a lecturer at the University of Chicago. But unlike Boas—who is considered the father of American Anthropology—you won’t find Starr’s name in many textbooks. The tale of how Frederick Starr was nearly forgotten is one full of controversy and ideology.

Starr’s Early Life and Career

Frederick Starr was born in 1858 in Auburn, New York, to the Reverend Frederick Starr Jr. and Helen Mills Starr. As a child, Starr was a strong student and an avid collector of fossils and minerals. He explored that interest further at the University of Rochester, where he studied geology; two years later, he transferred to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and graduated in 1882. He received a doctorate in geology from Lafayette College in 1885.

In the late 1800s, anthropology was still a new and growing discipline, so Starr didn't study it formally. It wasn’t until after his schooling, while teaching at Coe College, that Starr discovered his interest in the subject. He conducted both ethnographic and archaeological fieldwork among the local Sauk and Fox Indian tribes and reputedly taught the first anthropology course in Iowa while at Coe. It's not clear who or what specifically spurred Starr’s interest in anthropology, but he pursued it avidly, leaving his studies of geology behind. Following his work at Coe College, Starr held several short-term positions, including working with the ethnological collection at the American Museum of Natural History, before finally accepting a long-term faculty position at the University of Chicago in 1892.

During his time at the University of Chicago, Starr became a very influential public speaker, frequently giving lectures on anthropological subjects that were open to the public through the University’s extension program. After attending an extension course about prehistoric and primitive art, W.R. French, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago at the time, wrote that Starr’s lectures were “both authoritative and agreeable,” and that “Professor Starr has eminently the art of making scientific truth interesting to intelligent but unprofessional academics.”

An Anthropologist is Born

According to Donald McVicker, author of Frederick Starr: Popularizer of Anthropology, Public Intellectual, and Genuine Eccentric, Starr engaged in an incredibly varied anthropological career at the turn of the 20th century. He conducted notable research in Mexico, among many Native American tribes in the United States, with the Ainu people of Japan, and in several regions of Africa.

The World’s Fairs that took place in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries seemed to provide Starr with the perfect opportunities to put his work on display. Much to his dismay, however, Starr was not allowed an influential position at the famous World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. He was excluded by better known anthropologists like Boas and Frederic Ward Putnam, director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Starr was commissioned to collect data about and artifacts from the Eastern Cherokee people in North Carolina for Putnam and Boas, but contributed little else to this fair.

At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, however, Starr’s work made a much bigger splash. The anthropologist brought nine Ainu people and a translator back with him from Japan to be part of an exhibit at the fair. These Ainu, members of a Japanese indigenous group from Hokkaido in the northern part of the country, were to be displayed as part of a literal representation of the evolutionary stages of humanity towards civilization; along with several other indigenous groups assembled by other anthropologists, they were on display as “barbarous and semi-barbarous peoples.” While this is unquestionably offensive to today's sensibilities, the visitor response to the exhibit at the time was overwhelmingly positive, as most people had never before heard of the Ainu and were intrigued by their appearance and practices. In a 1993 article about the Ainu exhibit, anthropologist James W. Vanstone reports the reactions from writers and visitors to the exhibit:

One enthusiastic writer referred to the Ainu as "mysterious little Japanese primitives" and noted that visitors were impressed by their cleanliness and polite manners, but somewhat disappointed that they were no "man-eaters, dog-eaters or wild men."

In addition to contributing to these World’s Fairs, Starr produced several publications in conjunction with his fieldwork. These publications included many scholarly and other articles, as well as books like The Truth about the Congo, about his studies in that region; Indians of Southern Mexico: An Ethnographic Album; and In Indian Mexico: A Narrative of Travel and Labor, about the performance and findings of his extensive work with Indian tribes in Mexico.

Starr’s Methods and Misconduct in Mexico

His appearance in St. Louis with the Ainu may have been Starr’s most publicly recognized work, but if he is remembered at all today, it's for his fieldwork in Mexico. Starr recalls his purpose there in In Indian Mexico:

The work I planned to do among these indian towns was threefold: 1. The measurement of one hundred men and twenty-five women in each population, fourteen measurements being taken upon each subject; 2. The making of pictures,—portraits, dress, occupations, customs, buildings, and landscapes; 3. The making of plaster busts of five individuals in each tribe.

The primary goals in making such recordings were to observe the differences between various Mexican tribes and to establish the placement of such people, and their race and culture, on the same scale that he had placed the Ainu, from barbarous to civilized. It was assumed at the time that there were physical characteristics, such as cranial shape and size, that could mark such distinctions between races (a theory that has long since been disproved).

In his book, Starr refers to the Mexican people he is studying as “ignorant, timid, and suspicious.” He also makes regular references to them being too drunk to allow their measurements to be taken. All of these characteristics assigned to these Mexican Indians by Starr explained, in his point of view, the difficulty he often had in securing subjects for measurement, and justified the forceful methods he felt compelled to use. Starr took advantage of the fact that prisoners could not refuse his requests to measure them, and regularly photographed and measured imprisoned subjects for his work. What’s more, if there were individuals he wished to measure who did not acquiesce, he would threaten them with arrest and jail time so that they could no longer refuse. The authorities did not object to these methods, instead providing support for Starr by collecting subjects and keeping order. Starr even recounts a specific incident where policemen stopped a bullfight in progress in order to obtain a young man taking part in the fight for Starr’s research.

Starr Fading from View

Over time, Starr’s brutish, unethical methods and offensive ideas became questionable in the eyes of the anthropological community. The theories of his contemporary Boas, however, began to amass a great deal of support from other anthropologists and academics.

Boas, born and educated in Germany, moved to the United States in 1887 and proceeded to make substantial contributions to the methodology of American anthropology. By incorporating the methods of natural science into the discipline of anthropology, Boas emphasized the importance of conducting research before developing theories, as well as approaching studies in the most ethical and unbiased ways possible. What’s more, he developed the modern interpretation of culture, viewing it as learned behavior and a product of a people's history, rather than a hierarchical measurement of civilization that would place the western world on top.

While most anthropologists, inspired by Boas, began to recognize the people they studied as part of the larger, equal human race, Starr continued to regard them as primitive and inferior, demonstrated by his attitude towards his subjects in Mexico. Soon, Starr’s methods of fieldwork were widely considered unethical and his ideas about culture outdated.

Starr’s charisma and ability as a speaker managed to keep him relevant in public education spheres toward the end of his career. In this capacity, Starr overshadowed Boas, who preferred not to address the general themes of anthropology necessary in public lecturing and was nervous about his skill in speaking English, which was not his first language. The academic discipline of anthropology, though, became dominated by Boas’ methods and, over the years, Frederick Starr and his methods were phased out. Today, his work is rarely read, or even mentioned, in discussions or classes on anthropological history.

After 31 years at the University of Chicago, Starr retired from his post in 1923. True to form, he continued to travel the globe and engage in public speaking events until his death; he died unexpectedly of pneumonia while in Japan in 1933.

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February 6, 2013 - 9:00pm
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