Richard J. Smith’s path to becoming chair of the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences wasn’t a conventional one.
But that suits Smith just fine. His job isn’t necessarily conventional, either.
“My work is unusual for a physical anthropologist,” says Smith, Ph.D., the Ralph E. Morrow Distinguished University Professor. “I basically do not go into the field. I wait for others to bring things back from the field and I’m involved in the interpretation of specimens.
“For example, most people are familiar with Lucy (the famous Hominid skeleton found in Ethiopia in 1974). Why do we think Lucy was a female? How do we make that kind of inference? We don’t know what the pelvis from this species even looked like — we only have one pelvis. We don’t know what males looked like and what females looked like. What we have is a bunch of bones. Those are the kinds of problems I examine.”
Finding his way
The bulk of Smith’s research involves examining field research to determine the validity of claims involving fossil evidence.
Smith has long been interested in learning and research. Very early in his life, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, he knew he wanted to work in academics.
“By seventh grade I found writing term papers to be the most fun I could have,” Smith says.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College in 1969.
“I was very much a part of that Vietnam-era generation,” Smith says. “By the time I was in the middle years of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I knew I did not want to be drafted. That’s obviously a very controversial statement, but at that time in order to not get drafted and go to Vietnam there were only certain things you could do.
“One of those was to go to dental school.”
That had not been Smith’s original thought. He loved psychology and probably would have gone on to earn a doctorate degree in what today is called cognitive neurobiology.
“But I couldn’t do that,” he says. “Doctorate programs were not draft-exempt. So I went to dental school.”
He attended Tufts University, where he earned a dental degree and a master’s degree in anatomy in 1973.
He then went to the University of Connecticut as an orthodontics resident for three years.
When he arrived at Connecticut, he found a faculty member, Howard Bailit, who had a dental degree but who had also earned a doctorate in anthropology at Harvard University and was doing a study on population genetics.
“So, I walked into his office and said, ‘I’m going to be here for three years doing a thesis. Can I work with you?’ He gave me a big stack of books that are still on my shelf and told me to read them and come back,” Smith says.
“I read them, came back to his office and we worked together for three years.”
In 1976, Smith went to Yale University to work on a doctorate degree in anthropology.
“By the time I started the doctoral program I was 27, had been married for six years and had one child with another on the way,” he says. “I was also an orthodontist. That sort of placed some restrictions on what I could do. It wouldn’t be easy to jet off to the field somewhere for months at a time.
So, he carved out a niche in physical anthropology that reflected his situation.
“I began to study how small scraps of bone were interpreted as entire organisms,” he says. “How do we get from the pieces to the full picture? I deal mainly with the inferential models that are used by others in the field.”
Smith graduated from Yale in 1979 and went to the University of Maryland dental school as an assistant professor of orthodontics. Smith came to WUSTL in 1984 as professor and chair of the Department of Orthodontics.
In 1989, he was selected to be the next dean of the school but shortly thereafter, the decision was made to close the school.
Smith became heavily involved in the process of closing the school, a time he calls “a fascinating and difficult experience.”
After the school closed, with the help of then-Chancellor William H. Danforth and the support of many colleagues in the Department of Anthropology, Smith chose to redirect his career and joined the faculty as professor of anthropology in 1991.
He became chair in 1993.
“Professor Smith is deeply committed to excellent teaching in his class as well as in his department,” says James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.
“He brings learning, wisdom and great skill to the classroom. Students look forward to taking his course.”
Now in his third term as chair, Smith is proud of the growth of the department over the past decade.
“I think part of his success stems from his engagement at all levels of the department,” says Kathleen Cook, Ph.D., adacemic coordinator in the department.
“In addition to his research agenda and University service, he teaches a popular introductory course, advises undergraduate majors, mentors graduate students and makes himself available to faculty, staff and students.”
The department continues to become stronger while many anthropology departments are being torn apart by politics or are literally splitting in two, like those at Stanford and Duke universities.
“Anthropology is often the third- or fourth-largest major in the graduating class,” he said. “We might have 80-90 majors graduate each year, whereas many comparable institutions like Northwestern University have 15-20.
“We’ve managed that in part on the strength of our introductory courses. I teach ‘Introduction to Physical Anthropology,’ which routinely has more than 350 students even though it’s not a pre-med course.”
Smith’s research focuses on solving problems generated by how physical anthropologists interpret their data.
In a recent paper, Smith examined data from the past 10 years in which physical anthropologists identified 8-10 new species in the human fossil record. He looked at the validity of statistical arguments being made about these new species and comparable species that have already been established.
“If you have one specimen, you don’t know if it was the tallest out of a thousand, the shortest out of a thousand or average,” he explains. “Small sample sizes create all kinds of statistical issues about variability.”
After examining several uncertainties associated with statements made about new species over the past decade, Smith concluded that many of the species are “on very shaky ground.”
“We don’t yet have reasonable sufficient evidence to say that many of the new species we’ve named and that people have claimed to be different from the established fossil record are actually different,” he said.
Smith is also very interested in issues of sexual dimorphism in size among species.
“Human males and females differ slightly in terms of body size. Gorilla males and females, for example, differ by quite a bit. Males are twice the size of females,” he says. “Those differences are then reflected in other organs. So there is a sex difference in brain size, for instance. In gorillas, the male weighs twice as much as the female, but the male’s brain only weighs 20 percent more. Does that mean females are smarter?
“I deal with puzzles mostly arguing about how little we can really know from those simple observations.”
Life outside work
Richard J. Smith
Title: The Ralph E. Morrow Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences
Family: He and his wife of 35 years, Linda, have three children
Hobbies: Reading, travel, spending time with his family and running
When he isn’t thinking about the use and misuse of fossil evidence, Smith is an avid reader.
“When I was in middle school, I probably thought I’d get a doctorate in literature and study 19th century British and American literature,” he recalls.
“If I can in any way bemoan the undergraduate education of today it’s how you can get out college without having read great books. Dickens, Melville, Poe, Thackeray, Longfellow — they, and others, were an intense intellectual experience when I was first exposed to them and they greatly influenced my view of the world and of myself.”
He has been married to his wife, Linda, for 35 years and the couple has three children — Jason; Owen (WUSTL class of 1999); and Hilary, a WUSTL senior.
He and his wife enjoy traveling — “I am an amateur travel agent. I plan everything and learn about the culture and decide where to go,” Smith said.
He also enjoys spending time with his family, which is beginning more and more to require visits to children living out of town, and, until he recently suffered a leg injury, he loved running.
“I ran a marathon a few years ago, but I seem to be injury-prone,” he says. “I’m hoping to recover and do some more age-appropriate running.”
Smith loves working at the University.
“It’s a wonderful place,” he says. “Spectacular. It’s been an extraordinarily exciting 20 years and I really love this institution. It’s a great place to work and to send your kids to school.
“You hear a lot of people talking about having the best job in the world — that’s because they don’t know about this job.”