Du Bois, Cora Alice, 1903-1991

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Cora Alice Du Bois, an anthropologist, was one of the first female tenured professors at Harvard. She was a prominent figure in the culture and personality movement within American anthropology, and her fieldwork was among the Wintu in California, the community of Atimelang on the island of Alor in Indonesia, and Bhubaneswar, India.

Du Bois was born October 26, 1903 in Brooklyn, New York. Her family lived in St. Quentin, France and Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Her father died when she was eighteen. Du Bois enrolled at Barnard College in the fall of 1923 and graduated in 1927 with a degree in history. In her senior year at Barnard, Du Bois took an anthropology course taught by Franz Boaz and Ruth Benedict. Inheritance from her father allowed her to pursue graduate studies, beginning with a master’s degree in medieval history at Columbia. At Columbia she took a course titled Primitive Religion taught by Ruth Benedict. In 1929 Du Bois began a Ph.D. program in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and studied with Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowrie. Her first fieldwork experience was with the Wintu in northern California. An interest in psychology and anthropology led to a dissertation entitled “Girls’ Adolescence Observations in North America.”

After graduating, Du Bois worked for Kroeber as a research assistant investigating the 1870 Ghost Dance religion among the Paiute and other groups in California, Nevada and Oregon. In 1935 she was awarded a one-year fellowship from the National Research Council to research “Personality Types in Shamanism,” mentored by Edward Sapir. She spent six months at the Harvard Psychological Clinic working with Henry A. Murray as well as observing at the Boston Psychopathic Hospital. The following year she moved to New York City to collaborate with Abram Kardiner in a seminar on the relationship of culture to personality at the New York Psychoanalytic Society. From 1937 to 1939 Du Bois conducted fieldwork in the mountainous community of Atimelang, on the island of Alor in Indonesia (then the Netherlands East Indies). After returning to the United States she taught at Sarah Lawrence College and analyzed her data from Alor. In 1944 she published The People of Alor: A Social-Psychological Study of an East Indian Island.

In 1942, Du Bois was hired to work for the Coordinator of Information Office, later renamed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). She helped analyze intelligence gathered during World War II, specifically as an “area expert” for Southeast Asia and was promoted to chief of the Indonesia section. She requested a transfer to India and was assigned to an office in Kandy in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). She worked with Julia McWilliams, a fellow OSS staff member who later became Julia Child. She also met Jeanne Taylor, who later became her long-term partner. In 1944 Du Bois was made acting chief of Research and Analysis for the Southeast Asia Command. In 1945 she returned to the United States and was employed by the State Department as chief of the South East Asian Branch. In 1946 she was awarded the Exceptional Civilian Award for her service during the war. She was one of many State Department staff members, however, whose loyalty to the country was investigated during the Cold War.

After the State Department, Du Bois returned to academia. She was the first woman to be offered a position in the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Berkeley in 1951. She declined the offer, however, because she did not want to sign a “loyalty oath,” reminiscent of the cold war suspicions and investigation she had received from the State Department. From 1951 to 1954 she worked for the Institute of International Education. She received several academic offers, including one from Columbia, but accepted the Zemurray professorship of Anthropology at Harvard and Radcliffe. In 1954 Du Bois became the one of the first female tenured professors in the School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. She began to study post-colonial sociocultural change in India and received a National Science Foundation research grant in 1961 to study “Change and Stability in India.” Her project in the town of Bhubaneswar, a small Hindu temple town that had become the new capital of the state of Odisha, continued until 1973. She trained graduate students and hired research assistants from the Department of Anthropology at Utkal University to assist her. Her students published The Transformation of a Sacred Town: Bhubaneswar, India in 1980 and dedicated it to her.

Although Du Bois retired from Harvard in 1969, she continued to direct the Harvard-Bhubaneswar Project until 1973 and continued to teach part-time at Harvard. She served as president of the American Anthropological Association in 1969. Her academic activity, however, diminished as her health began declining in the 1970s, and she died April 7, 1991.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Du Bois, Cora Alice, 1903-1991. Aristocrat and artisan in Athens 454-338 B.C. Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
referencedIn Ethnological documents of the Department and Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1875-1958 Bancroft Library
referencedIn Records of the President of Radcliffe College, 1960-1972 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Erik H. and Joan M. Erikson papers, 1925-1985 (inclusive) 1960-1980 (bulk). Houghton Library
creatorOf Du Bois, Cora Alice, 1903-1991. Papers, 1869-1988 (inclusive), 1912-1985 (bulk). HCL Technical Services, Harvard College Library
referencedIn Harvard University Archives Photograph Collection: Portraits, ca. 1852-ca. 2004 Harvard University Archives.
referencedIn E. Adamson Hoebel Papers, 1925-1993 American Philosophical Society
creatorOf Du Bois, Cora Alice, 1903-1991. Cora DuBois papers, 1961-1972 (inclusive) University of Chicago Library
referencedIn Radcliffe College Archives biography files, 1855-2007 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
contributorOf Papers of Earnest A. Hooton, 1926-1954. Peabody Museum Archives, Harvard University
creatorOf Du Bois, Cora Alice, 1903-1991. Papers of Cora Du Bois, 1951-1964 (inclusive). Harvard University Archives.
referencedIn May Sarton Papers, 1846-1995, 1920-1995 The New York Public Library. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
referencedIn Hoebel, E. Adamson (Edward Adamson), 1906-. Papers, 1925-1993. American Philosophical Society Library
referencedIn Weidman, Hazel Marie Hitson, (1923--) Papers, 1955-1991, n.d. Peabody Museum Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith American Anthropological Association corporateBody
alumnusOrAlumnaOf Barnard College corporateBody
associatedWith Benedict, Ruth, 1887-1948 person
associatedWith Boas, Franz. person
acquaintanceOf Child, Julia, 1912-2004 person
alumnusOrAlumnaOf Columbia University corporateBody
correspondedWith Geertz, Clifford person
employeeOf Harvard University. Department of Anthropology corporateBody
associatedWith Harvard University. Dept. of Social Relations. corporateBody
employeeOf Institute of International Education (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Kardiner, Abram, 1891-1981 person
associatedWith Kroeber, A. L. (Alfred Louis), 1876-1960 person
correspondedWith Lowie, Robert person
correspondedWith Mead, Margaret, 1901-1978. person
correspondedWith Seymour, Susan person
associatedWith Taylor, Jeanne, 1912- person
employeeOf United States. Department of State corporateBody
employeeOf United States. Office of Strategic Services. Research and Analysis Branch corporateBody
alumnusOrAlumnaOf University of California, Berkeley. Anthropology Department. corporateBody
associatedWith Utkal University (active 1870-1970) corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Republic of Indonesia 00 ID
Brooklyn NY US
Republic of India 00 IN
Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka 00 LK
Cambridge MA US
Women anthropologists
Primitive societies
Intelligence analysts


Birth 1903-10-26

Death 1991-04-07




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