John W. Bennett, Ph.D., founder and first chair of the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences, died Feb. 1 at Alexian Brothers Landsdowne Village in St. Louis. He was 89.
Bennett earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1946. After teaching sociology and anthropology at Ohio State University, Bennett started as professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at WUSTL in 1959. He was one of the original members of a group that formed the separate Department of Anthropology in 1967 and was appointed chair that same year. He served in that capacity for 20 years. In 1987, he became Distinguished Anthropologist in Residence.
“John Bennett was a major figure in 20th century anthropology and he played a very large role in the development of anthropology as we know it today,” said Richard J. Smith, Ph.D., the Ralph E. Morrow Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences. “Certainly, he was the guiding force behind the formation of the Department of Anthropology at Washington University and the model of subdisciplinary respect and interaction that he envisioned is responsible for much of our success.”
Bennett’s long career spanned a variety of fields ranging from archeology, sociology, East Asian Studies, government and academic services and ecological and agrarian development.
His personal research over the latter part of his career focused on a decades-long study of economic and social development in the northern Great Plains. He directed studies of American Indian groups, Hutterites and Euro-Canadian-American settlements in the region looking at different ways of using physical resources to establish a viable economy and the social history of frontier settlement.
During his career, Bennett served as chairman of the Anthropological Study Group for Agrarian Systems, president of the American Ethnological Society, president of the Society for Applied Anthropology and chairman of the anthropology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
He was associated with The UNESCO “Man and the Biosphere Program,” participated in a three-year study of problems of agricultural research in the U.S. and was a member of the Southeastern Asian conference on Human Ecology.
In 1989, Bennett received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Anthropological Association for his contributions to theory and praxis. In 2004, he was awarded the Bronislaw Malinowski Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology for his lifelong commitment to the application of the social sciences to contemporary issues. Also in 2004, he received the David Plath Media Award from the Society for East Asian Anthropology, a section of the American Anthropological Association, for his book of photographs and memories of the Japanese reconstruction following WWII, titled Japan 1948-1951: A Personal and Professional Memoir.
“John had an extraordinarily active and creative intellect and into his 80s he was involved in major projects as modern and complex as any taking place in the department,” Smith said. “In my early years as chair his wise counsel and advice were of immense help to me.”