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WSU anthropology department founder Lowell Holmes dies at 85

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Sep. 20, 2010, at 12:03 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Sep. 20, 2010, at 12:24 a.m.

Friends and colleagues describe Lowell Holmes' career and personality as steady and likable, but truth was he could also take on the big guns when warranted.

Dr. Holmes, the professor who founded Wichita State University's anthropology department, died Aug. 31. He was 85.

A memorial service is pending.

He was born June 15, 1925, in Sioux City, Iowa.

During World War II, Dr. Holmes served in the U.S. Coast Guard. After his military service ended, he received his bachelor's degree in English from Northwestern University in 1950; his master's degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin in 1951; and his doctorate in anthropology from Northwestern in 1957.

Dr. Holmes did his doctoral research in the same village in Samoa where Margaret Mead studied adolescent girls.

A past chair of WSU's anthropology department, Dr. Holmes taught at WSU from 1959 to 1990. He also authored numerous books.

"I took my first anthropology course from him in the early 1960s, and he was one of the most popular teachers," said Jerry Martin, director of the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology at WSU. "He would have 500 to

600 students at each class. He had a tremendous effect on my life and is the reason I became an

anthropologist."

In 1967, Dr. Holmes negotiated the split of the WSU department of anthropology from sociology and served as the first department chair.

He established the Museum of Anthropology and founded Lambda Alpha, the international honor society for anthropology students.

"There are chapters of Lambda Alpha in almost every major university in the country," Martin said.

In 1987, when a national debate over Mead's work went from anthropology circles to national talk shows such as "The Phil Donahue Show," Dr. Holmes published a book, "The Mead/Freeman Controversy & Beyond."

Dr. Holmes' book refuted Derek Freeman's book —"Margaret Mead and Samoa: the Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth," which became a best-seller — as well as Mead.

Dr. Holmes claimed Freeman's work was shallow and that it wasn't so much an attack against Mead as American anthropology; and Mead — he told a Wichita Eagle reporter in 1987 — was "a populizer and many academians don't like popularizers. She was very popular, and she made a lot of money."

In 1990, when Dr. Holmes retired, he received the National Distinguished Teaching Award from the National Association of Student Anthropology. And, in 1968, he received the Kansas Regents Excellence in Teaching Award.

"He was a truth seeker," said Arthur Rohn, a retired WSU anthropology professor. "He went out to try to expand on what Margaret Mead did, add to what she did and straighten out the things he disagreed with. What made him remarkable was his expression of ideas and his steadiness. He was always trying to get the truth out of a matter."

Dr. Holmes wasn't afraid of taking on university officials when they threatened departmental cutbacks.

In 1990, he took on then-WSU president Warren Armstrong saying he feared WSU was becoming "a kind of technical trade school that is training people for jobs without educating them."

Dr. Holmes is survived by his wife, Ellen, and five children.

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