Early History of the Department

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David L. DeJarnette
David L. DeJarnette

The first anthropologist at the University of Alabama was David L. DeJarnette, a southeastern archaeologist.  He was hired in a curatorial position at the Alabama Museum of Natural History in 1929, having received his Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Alabama earlier that same year.  DeJarnette also came to be affiliated with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, as a lecturer in 1955 and later as Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, after receiving his Master’s degree in 1958.  He taught sociology, cultural anthropology, and archaeology, remaining at his position in the department until his retirement in 1976.  Throughout his life, David DeJarnette worked extensively at Moundville, serving as director of Mound State Monument from 1953 to 1976, but he also accomplished significant work in other areas of the southeast United States.  He participated in and directed the excavation of many sites within the state of Alabama, and one of the most well-known sites is the Stanfield-Worley Bluff Shelter, which has been dated to 7000 B.C.  DeJarnette’s affiliations with Moundville, the Museum, and the Department of Anthropology have certainly strengthened the working relationship among these entities over time.

David DeJarnette had many important collaborators over the years, including Stephen B. Wimberly, a southeastern archaeologist who was hired at the Museum in 1945.  Another set of important collaborators were DeJarnette’s students.  He taught a large number of students, including our own Dr. Jim Knight, most notably through twenty years of archaeological field schools.  He also helped found the Alabama Archaeology Society in the 1950s.  DeJarnette has been called a “scholar of culture” (personal interview, Sally Caldwell), and he was well-known for his photographs of his field research in the United States and in the Yucatan, and of his time spent in New Guinea during WWII.  Often these photographs were used in the classes he taught at the University.  DeJarnette was a founding father of anthropology in the state of Alabama and at the University of Alabama, and his legacy is still felt with the David and Elizabeth DeJarnette Endowed Scholarship in Anthropology, awarded each year to support a graduate student in their research on Moundville or Moundville-related topics.

While the first anthropology course (Social Anthropology) was offered in 1941, anthropologists did not join with the sociology department until 1948.  It was at this time that Solon Kimball and Asael Hansen were hired in to start a new dual program.  Anthropology classes offered in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 1948 included Culture and Environment, Social Anthropology, Primitive Religion, Minority Peoples, Folk Society and Culture, Culture and Personality, and Culture, Society, and Symbolics.

Solon Kimball
Solon Kimball

Solon Kimball came to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology as professor and chair in 1948.  Kimball received his doctorate from Harvard in 1936 and in 1940 he published Family and Community in Ireland, one of the first anthropological works on European communities.  He was from the functionalist school, and used this theoretical perspective to conduct many other “community as system” studies throughout his career.  The Talladega Story:  A Study of Community Process, published in 1954 with UA professor Marion Pearsall, was a community health survey of Talladega, Alabama that followed the town’s development of a public health program.Kimball was one of the founding fathers of the Society for Applied Anthropology, which was created in 1940.  He was also instrumental in forming the Council on Anthropology and Education.  His position at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, beginning in 1953, allowed him to further develop his professional interests in the anthropology of education.  He continued his work at the University of Florida until his retirement in 1980.  Solon Kimball died in 1982, a short time before he was slated to receive the Malinowski Award from the Society for Applied Anthropology.

Asael Hansen was hired at the same time as Kimball, in 1948.  He received his B.S. at Utah State College and his Ph.D. at Wisconsin.  Hansen was hired as an associate professor at the University of Alabama, and was promoted to full professor in 1951.  One of his major research projects was among the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, in Merida.  Collaborations with Robert Redfield resulted in Redfield’s 1941 publication The Folk Culture of the Yucatan.  Hansen also worked with David DeJarnette to publish the findings of DeJarnette’s Master’s thesis on the Childersburg Site.  Additional publications of Hansen’s include work on the WWII camps for Japanese Americans.  Throughout his career, Hansen was interested in promoting anthropology in the southeast United States.  In 1965 Hansen presented a conference paper identifying the need for a formal organization of anthropologists in the South, which led to the formation of the Southern Anthropological Society in 1966.  Hansen was elected president of the Society.

Marion Pearsall received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico in 1944, and her Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1950.  After doing research in British Central Africa for a fellowship from the Rhodes-Livingston Institute, she came to the University of Alabama in 1952 as an assistant professor.  While Pearsall was here, she became involved in community health survey fieldwork in Talladega, Alabama, with Solon Kimball.  The publication resulting from this fieldwork is called The Talladega Story:  A Study of Community Process (1954).  Her work on medical and applied anthropology continued until her death in 1984.  In 1956 she left Alabama to become a Russell Sage Foundation Social Science Resident in Health, where she researched medical professionals, and nurses in particular.  In the 1960s Pearsall was involved with the development of the Society for Medical Anthropology.  Pearsall also became known for her work in the American South, first with her doctoral dissertation research conducted in Appalachia, then with her community study in Talladega.  She continued to work in the South at the University of Kentucky, holding positions in Behavioral Science, Rural Sociology, the College of Medicine, and Anthropology.

Donald C. Simmons was a West Africanist who was briefly employed at the University of Alabama in 1956, in part to due to Marion Pearsall’s absence.  Much of his career after his time at UA was spent at the University of Connecticut.  While at UConn, he had many publications concerning his research on the proverbs, riddles, and folklore of the Efik ethnic group in Nigeria and Cameroon.

E. Carl Sensenig was hired as a physical anthropologist at the Museum in 1958.  He published on skeletal material found at the Stanfield-Worley Bluff Shelter in the Journal of Alabama Archaeology.  This site was excavated by David DeJarnette from 1960 to 1963.  Sensenig was also a faculty member in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Alabama.

Margaret Searcy was the first student to receive a Master’s in anthropology at the University of Alabama.  She received her degree in 1954.  In 1963 Margaret was hired to teach in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and continued to do so until her retirement in 1988.  Margaret was responsible for teaching a large introductory-level four-field class in the anthropology department for many years, and was most likely responsible for many students’ first exposure to the study of anthropology (personal interview, Dr. Jim Knight).

The Department of Sociology and Anthropology moved into ten Hoor Hallafter its completion in 1963.  The anthropology department continues to inhabit the basement of  ten Hoor to the present day.

James G. E. Smith was hired in 1965 at the University of Alabama.  He was a cultural anthropologist who conducted research among the southwestern Ojibwa, the Cree, and the Chippewa.  In the 1980s, Smith worked at the Museum of the American Indian in New York.  He died in 1990.

On September 1, 1967, the Department of Anthropology was established as an entity separate from the Department of Sociology.  Paul H. Nesbitt was brought in to act as Department Head.  The faculty for this new department consisted of Nesbitt (lecturer), DeJarnette (Associate Professor), Hansen (Professor), and Margaret Searcy (part-time temporary Instructor).

Paul H. Nesbitt
Paul H. Nesbitt

Paul H. Nesbitt was hired to chair the newly established anthropology department in 1967.  After his discharge from the Air Force around 1945 following service in WWII, during which time he served in Europe as an intelligence officer, he resumed the position of curator at the Logan Museum at Beloit College where he had been since the early 1930s.  While at the museum, Nesbitt conducted many field studies of Pueblo culture at Mimbres, New Mexico.  Numerous publications resulted from this fieldwork.  He also used his military experience to contribute to the writing of A Pilot’s Survival Manual (1978) and articles such as Anthropology and the Air Force and Anthropology and Counterinsurgency (1964).  A volume entitled The Maya of the Yucatán was published by the University of Alabama Press in 1980.

Born in 1900, Alfredo Barrera Vasquez worked in the anthropology department as a research associate from 1969 until his death.  He is well known for work as a scholar in the Yucatán.  A remarkable contribution to anthropology, and linguistics in particular, was the Mayan-Spanish dictionary (Diccionario Maya Cordemex, published 1980) that Barrera Vasquez worked on before his death in 1980.  Copies of his monumental Diccionario are available in Gorgas Library.

C. Earl Smith Jr. came to the Department of Anthropology in 1970, and served as chair from 1981-1986.  He also was a Professor of Biology at UA.  Before coming to the department, he received three degrees from Harvard, was employed at the Field Museum, and later as a botanist at the United States Department of Agriculture.  Smith was very involved in the development of archaeoethnobotany, and conducted fieldwork all over the world, in locations such as the United States, Europe, the former Soviet Union, South America, Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and Australia.  After his death in 1986, a memorial fund was set up by the anthropology department.