My career as an anthropologist

Dr. James R. Bindon


When I was 12 years old, I attended a Boy Scout Jamboree at Colorado Springs and that started me thinking about careers. For several years I thought I wanted to attend the Air Force Academy, which I had visited as part of the Jamboree. By the tenth grade I had shifted my sights. My strengths in high school were science and math and I used those strengths to project a possible career as a physician. Accordingly, I prepared myself for a pre-medical collegiate curriculum. I graduated from high school in 1965, and joined the Naval Reserves just after graduation in an attempt to avoid being drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War. I attended U.C. Davis as a freshman, taking the standard pre-med courses. At the end of my freshman year I was called to active duty for a two year tour in the Navy. I specialized as a Hospital Corpsman, figuring that would be good for my medical training. I spent my first eight months training and then working on a hospital ward. After that I got assigned to a metabolic research unit where I conducted radio-immunoassays for insulin and growth hormone (that was state-of-the-art stuff back in 1967).

During my two year naval tour I grew increasingly cynical about and disenchanted with physicians from my close association with them. In addition to voraciously consuming science fiction, I began doing readings in basic behavioral science on my own, and I decided to try to study psychology when I got out of the Navy, planning to work as a clinical psychologist. I started back to school at U.C. Berkeley in winter of 1969, right after getting discharged from active duty, but I was late registering and I could not get the introductory course in psychology. I could, however, get into Anthro 1, which was the introduction to physical anthropology. My instructors for that course were Vincent Sarich, a pioneer in the molecular anthropology field, Phyllis Dolhinow, who trained many of our current primatologists, F. Clark Howell, famous for his work on fossil man, and Sherwood Washburn famous as a leader in redirecting the field of physical anthropology starting in the 1950s. The teaching assistant who led my discussion section was Leann Nash, a primatology graduate student and subsequently a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University.  In spite of difficulties--campus life in the late 1960s was strange, especially at Berkeley--including the firebombing of the auditorium where my anthropology class was held necessitating moving the class to the music building, and having to dodge clouds of pepper gas from circling helicopters trying to disperse crowds during the Third World Liberation Front Strike and the People's Park Riots, I fell in love with this discipline which merged the best aspects of science with the behavioral studies for which I had acquired a taste.

The introductory courses I was taking began to reawaken an interest in exotic locales and peoples that I had unknowingly cultivated by reading comic books in my pre-teen years. My favorite comic books were the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, drawn by the famous Disney artist, Carl Barks. I have come to learn in later years that many of the exotic trips Barks sent Donald and Scrooge on had their genesis in National Geographic articles detailing the peoples and places from far away. I began my own subscription to National Geographic in 1962 and it served to keep me aware of the great variety of the human experience. Popular culture also played a role in my late 1960s interest in physical anthropology. The hottest film showing while I was taking my first anthropology class was 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening sequence depicting Robert Ardrey's and Raymond Dart’s views of man the aggressor was just what I was reading about and studying in class. I quickly forgot about my desire to pursue psychology and threw myself into studying biological anthropology.

This pursuit was sidetracked by my marriage in June 1969 and the necessity of working for a living, so I didn’t get back to Berkeley until Fall 1971 to finish up my degree work, but I had continued with night classes and junior college classes in the interim, taking everything I could to bolster my knowledge in preparation for becoming an anthropologist. I spent two final years, fall 1971 - spring 1973 milking everything I could out of the program at Berkeley, including courses outside the department of anthropology in human biology, genetics, anatomy, math, and statistics. When I graduated in 1973 I was ready to undertake graduate work on the population biology of living humans, and I went to work at Penn State with Paul Baker, who had already earned an outstanding reputation in the field for studying how humans adapt to their environment. Dr. Baker ended up his career as a member of the National Academy of Science, an honor reserved for only a tiny fraction of a percent of top scientists in the U.S. I continue to attempt to follow in his tracks today, as evidenced by the article we co-wrote and published in 1997 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (Bindon, J.R. and P.T. Baker. 1997. Bergmann's rule and the thrifty genotype. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 104:201-210.)

When I arrived at Penn State in 1973, Dr. Baker had just completed over a decade of research on human adaptation to high altitude in a major multidisciplinary project focusing on the highlands of Peru. I got nose bleeds visiting my cousins in Reno at 5,000 feet, so I wasn't too keen on heading to the Peruvian Altiplaño to work at 14,000 feet. Much to my delight, Dr. Baker had been talking to one of his former students, Mike Hanna, at the University of Hawaii about new research directions, and I spent the summer of 1974 at the Physiology Department of the School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii, Manoa Campus. Mike Hanna was directing a project to determine the effects of marijuana smoking on cold tolerance and breath holding, and I became one of the lab techs getting people stoned and measuring their skin and rectal temperatures and doing literature research for Mike. That research became the basis of my master's paper and my first publications (as a junior co-author: Hanna, J.M., R. Strauss, B. Itagaki, W. Kwon, R. Stanyon, J.R. Bindon, and S.K. Hong. 1976. Marijuana smoking and cold tolerance in man. Aviation and Space Environmental Medicine, 47:634-639.).

Dr. Baker's conversations with Dr. Hanna led to the formulation of a plan to conduct a large multidisciplinary research project on the influence of culture change on the biology and health of the Samoan population. The first decade of this work is beautifully summarized in the 1986 book The Changing Samoans: Behavior and Health in Transition, edited by P.T. Baker, J.M. Hanna, and T.S. Baker (New York: Oxford University Press.) I was lucky enough to be one of the first graduate students sent to American Samoa for my dissertation research (Bindon, J.R. 1981. Genetic and Environmental Influences on the Morphology of Samoan Adults. Ph.D. dissertation in Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms.)

I took a faculty position in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama in 1978, and I have been here ever since, serving as an Assistant, then Associate, and finally full Professor and Department Chairman. I returned to the Samoan Islands for additional research in 1982, 1986, 1989, and 1991. The results of those trips can be seen in the publications listed on my vita. In addition to the many years of research with the Samoans, in 1991, a former M.A. student, Dr. M. Janice Gilliland, got me involved in her research on the Mississippi Choctaw. In that work, we replicated similar studies that I had done in Samoa with my friends and collaborators Dr. Douglas E. Crews (Ohio State University) and Dr. Bill Dressler (my colleague in the Department of Anthropology at UA). Dr. Dressler and I shared a long-term interest in the influence of behavior on health, and in addition to collaborating on the work in Samoa and with the Mississippi Choctaw, we conducted similar research from 1993 - 1996 in a local Alabama African American community.

I have been very fortunate through all this time to have the privilege to work with good people and to have the support of my wife (Kathy, an accounting professor) and son (Michael, now a resident in Emergency Medicine at UAB!). My most recent research project involves collaborating with two good friends, one at the University of Hawaii, Hilo campus, Dr. Dan Brown and the other at Binghamton, Dr. Gary James, on stress and blood pressure in hotel industry workers in Hawaii. Heavens, more trips to Polynesia! But as I tell my family, someone has to do the dirty work.

I must be doing something right. I was named an inaugural College of Arts and Sciences Leadership Board Fellow for 2002 - 2005, and I won the University of Alabama National Alumnae Association Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award in 2004. I served as McNair Scholars Program Faculty Fellow in 2006, helping undergraduates from groups that are underrepresented in graduate programs and university faculties learn to conduct research and prepare for graduate education. My favorite class these days is my lower division class on race: ANT 275 Race, Ethnicity, and Human Variation. I took a course on a similar topic from Dr. Sarich at Berkeley as an undergraduate. My course is very different both in substance and in form. I don't think he would approve of what I teach, but the students certainly enjoy the opportunity to share ideas and learn about such a controversial topic. Experiences like this keep me active and excited about the pedagogical side of the profession.

I can't say for sure whether I would follow this same career track if I were starting out today.  The anti-education climate in this country and the emphasis on ever more paperwork to document everything that one does has made it a lot less fun to be a professor than it was 20 or 30 years ago, but I can say that I have no regrets about the career choice I made.

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