Montagu, Ashley, 1905-1999

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1905-06-28
Death 1999-11-16
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

Chairman, anthropology department, Rutgers University.

From the description of Correspondence to Maxwell Struthers Burt, 1943. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 122526480

Ashley Montagu (1905-1999) was a British anthropologist and social biologist, perhaps best known for his critical analysis of the question of race.

Montague Francis Ashley Montagu was born Israel Ehrenberg in London, England on June 28, 1905. He studied at the University of London (1922-1925) and the University of Florence (1928-1929). He came to the United States in 1930, received his Ph.D. in 1937 from Columbia, and was naturalized in 1940.

Montagu's first professional position was as a Research Associate at the British Museum of Natural History (1926-1927). Over his career he was Assistant Professor of Anatomy at New York University (1931-1938), Associate Professor of Anatomy at the Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital (1939-1949), Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University (1949-1955), Regents Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1962); and lecturer at Princeton University (1978-1983). Montagu and his wife, Marjorie Helen Peakes, had three children.

Montagu was deeply interested in applying the findings of the social and biological sciences to the improvement of the human condition; Marcus Goldstein of Tel Aviv University remembered him for his "fearless and blunt attack on works and issues that he felt were scientifically wrong, and perhaps more important, were or could be socially harmful." (quoted in Steven Harnad's article "Ashley Montagu: Anthropologist And Social Biologist"). He wrote more than 50 books and many more articles related to the field of anthropology and social biology. Among his best-known books are Coming Into Being Among the Australian Aborigines (1937), Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1942), The Natural Superiority of Women (1953), The Elephant Man (1971), Race and IQ (1975), The Nature of Human Aggression (1976), and The Dehumanization of Man (1983). He was the producer, author and director of the film "One World or None" (1946).

The deepest defeat suffered by human beings is constituted by the difference between what one was capable of becoming and what one has in fact become. -- Ashley Montagu

From the guide to the Ashley Montagu Papers, 1929-1987, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

Ashley Montagu, born Israel Ehrenberg on June 28, 1905, was a British-American anthropologist, specializing in the areas of race and gender issues, as well as a prolific speaker and author, publishing over 50 books in his lifetime. The son of Jewish tailor Charles Ehrenberg and his wife, Mary Plot Ehrenberg, Montagu was born and raised in London's working class East End neighborhood. Although the reasoning behind his name change was never revealed, it may have been due to anti-Semitic prejudice faced by many East End Jews during his childhood, and Montagu might have felt the need to distance himself from his parents’ Russian and Polish backgrounds.

Montagu earned his undergraduate degree from University College London in psychology and anthropology. After studying anthropology at the London School of Economics under Bronislaw Malinowski, Montagu left England for the United States. He arrived at New York City in 1927 and began taking graduate classes at Columbia University. Montagu then traveled to Italy in 1928, where he took classes in ethnography and anthropology at the University of Florence. Upon his return to the United States in 1931, while working as an assistant professor of anthropology at New York University, Montagu married Marjorie Peakes. The couple would have two daughters, Audrey and Barbara, as well as a son, Geoffrey. In 1934 Montagu returned to Columbia University, culminating his postgraduate work at Columbia in 1936 with his dissertation, Coming into being among the Australian Aborigines: A study of the procreative beliefs of the native tribes of Australia, produced under the direction of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Based largely on his dissertation, Montagu’s first book, Coming into Being among the Australian Aborigines, was published in 1937. After he completed his education, Montagu taught anatomy at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia in 1938 and became an American citizen in 1940. It was during his time at Hahnemann that he began to produce work relating to race, resulting in his seminal work, Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, published in 1942. The work controversially advanced the argument that race was a social construct imposed upon a complex biological substratum and demolished the arguments for inherent inequality between human populations. The influential nature of Man’s Most Dangerous Myth led to Montagu’s service on the 4th United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) task force, in 1949. The ten member UNESCO committee, composed of such world-renowned social scientists as Claude Levi-Strauss and E. Franklin Frazier, was created to collect information about the problem of race and to establish educational programs to disseminate its findings. The resultant document, authored by Montagu, the group’s rapporteur, was published as the “Statement on Race” in 1951. The Committee’s final statement on race asserted: 1)All mankind belong to the same species and that the differences between groups are few compared to all of the genetic similarities. 2)That Race designates a group with high frequency of physical characteristics or particular genetic trait and that these traits fluctuate or even disappear over time. 3)The way in which people are grouped does not reflect the capacity or character traits of a particular group. The differences between races are physical and have no correlation with other traits like intelligence.

Upon leaving Hahnemann Medical College in 1949, Montagu moved to Rutgers University, where he was a professor of anthropology and head of the department from 1949 to 1955. While at Rutgers, Montagu wrote perhaps his most famous work, The Natural Superiority of Women, published in 1953. Examining the differences between the sexes anthropologically, Montagu concluded that women were the superior sex because they possessed a better capability to survive both as individuals and in groups- talents necessary for an advancing society. Based on these conclusions, he suggested that women receive equal pay for equal work, a controversial stance at the time.

With his prolific writing skills to rely on financially, and facing strong backlash for his openly liberal views and anti-McCarthy public statements, Montagu accepted a forced retirement from Rutgers in 1955 at the age of 50. Though retired from academic life, he continued to lecture at such institutions as Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Santa Barbara, and New York University. Settling in Princeton, New Jersey, Montagu’s work took up a more humanist element with Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, his effort to encourage parents to take a more physical role in raising their children and especially to encourage mothers to breastfeed their babies. Published during that same year, Montagu’s book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, a history of the life of disfigured Briton Joseph Merrick, inspired a Tony winning play and later a motion picture. He continued publishing through the 1980s, including The Nature of Human Aggression (1976) and Growing Young (1981), while making numerous and notable television appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show as well as the Phil Donahue Show.

In his lifetime, Montagu received many major awards, among them the American Association of Humanists’ 1995 Man of the Year award, the Darwin Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologist in 1994, and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the American Anthropological Association in 1987. Montagu maintained an active schedule of lecturing and gardening around his Princeton, New Jersey, home until he was hospitalized in March 1999; he died on November 26, 1999 from heart disease, at the age of ninety-four. He was survived by his wife of sixty-eight years, Marjorie, as well as his son and two daughters.

From the guide to the Ashley Montagu papers, 1927-1999, 1927-1999, (American Philosophical Society)

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Subjects:

  • Biology, genetics, eugenics
  • Anthropology
  • Social conditions, social advocacy, social reform
  • Gender
  • Science and medicine
  • British Americans
  • Physical anthropology
  • Social inequality
  • Anthropologists--United States
  • Émigré
  • Race
  • Race, race relations, racism
  • Anthropology, ethnography, fieldwork

Occupations:

  • Anthropologists

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