Obituary: Kenneth E. Read, Anthropologist

By Herdt, Gilbert | Oceania, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Obituary: Kenneth E. Read, Anthropologist


Herdt, Gilbert, Oceania


Kenneth E. Read succumbed to cancer on Monday, November 13, 1995, at his long time home in Seattle, Washington, USA. Read was Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, where he retired in the mid 1980s.

Kenneth or `Mick' (as he was known to his friends) Read was born into the privileges of an upper class Australian country family in the outback of the state of New South Wales. Born in Sydney, December 29, 1917, the second of two children by Samuel Kenneth and Doris Read, Read grew up in the outback, which colored his values and gave him a love of nature, but forever made him over-sensitive to light and prone to cancer. His father (whose family immigrated from Ireland in prior generations) was a wealthy sheep rancher near Boggabri. Educated as a boy in the King's School of the Sydney area, Kenneth was interested in European literature. He was fond of citing the classics and said on more than one occasion that he wished he had been a writer.

Read's undergraduate degree was taken at the University of Sydney, with Second Class Honors, in 1939. When World War Two came along Read served in the Royal Australian Army; for some months in the Northern Territory, in and out of Alice Springs, and later in New Guinea, then of course a mandated territory of the old League of Nations administered by Australia. Read spent two years in the Markham Valley (1944-45), largely isolated from his comrades, and it was here that he first became acquainted with village New Guinea, reporting that in the last few months he was dependent upon villagers for daily handouts of food to sustain him. He returned to the University of Sydney after the War to work on his M.A. in Anthropology (First Class Honors). He completed his PhD in Anthropology at the University of London (LSE) in 1948, having studied with Firth and Nadel. In The High Valley, published in 1965 -- his first and best known book -- Read describes his anthropological training by thanking S.F. Nadel, his PhD supervisor, `the intellectual mentor of my years as a graduate student,' and lan Hogbin as `my first teacher in anthropology' who `introduced me to the people of Melanesia and New Guinea.

Read returned to Australia and was hired as Research Fellow by S.F. Nadel, Founding Chair of the Department of Anthropology, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University. It was the time of `Ape' Elkin, `Billy' Stanner, and many other significant names in Australian anthropology, and Nadel presided over it all for a short time. It must be remembered that Nadel, in the early fifties, fashioned the idea of a wide-ranging anthropology in New Guinea, and he gave Kenneth Read license in this spirit to return to the Highlands for two years' (1950-52) field work to understand basic elements of social structure, religion, and social change following the War. Read thus began new research among the Gahuku-Gama people at a precipitous moment -- not only in the history of the Highlands, but in the anthropology of New Guinea at large. I think it should be granted that Read was the first anthropologist to conduct long-term fieldwork here, although the likes of Reo Fortune briefly, and later, Ronald and Catherine Berndt, James B. Watson, Marie Reay, and Paula Brown were to work in the Eastern Highlands near or soon after this time, and many missionaries and government patrol officers made their own contributions before 1960.

Yet it is still claimed by many that Mick Read `opened' Highlands anthropology as a culture area to the anthropological imagination, through the combination of his intensive theoretical and ethnographic studies, his patrols that led to widely acclaimed culture-area pieces in Oceania in 1945, 1948, 1950, respectively. These were capped by his articles, `Nama Cult of the Central Highlands,' 1952, and two years later, the landmark areal piece, `Cultures of the Central Highlands, New Guinea,' 1954, both of which constituted the initial reading for all serious students of New Guinea study for a generation to come. …

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