1922 - 2004
William Hunt Davenport, ASAO Honorary Fellow, Professor and Curator
Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, died at age 81 on Friday,
March 12, 2004. He is survived by his sister, Mary Yohalem of New York
City, two nieces, Jennifer and Deborah Salt, both living in California,
and a great nephew, Jonah Greenberg, currently residing in Beijing,
Bill's life was rich, exciting, and productive. His scholarship and
teaching combined a curator's attention to detail with an adventurous
spirit, an expansive curiosity, and an original and creative mind.
His enthusiasm and knowledge left an indelible impact on his students
Bill's travels began early. Born in 1922, he grew up in Cucamonga,
California. At age 14 he stowed away on a boat that took him to Singapore,
where according to his sister, he enjoyed a brief stay in a Singapore
jail. Before starting college he studied photography, worked in Hollywood,
acquired a reputation as a talented surfer, sailed with the US Naval
Merchant Marine, ran a shipping company, and served in the Pacific
during World War II. In his mid-twenties, he enrolled at the University
of Hawai'i to pursue an interest in Japanese and Chinese philosophy.
He studied with Peter Buck and Kenneth Emory, beginning his life-long
involvement with anthropology. After completing his B.A. at Hawai'i,
he continued his studies in anthropology at Yale University, where
he received his doctoral degree under the supervision of Sidney Mintz.
At Yale he undertook interdisciplinary training in the behavioral sciences
that included courses in psychology, social psychology, sociology,
He joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, and
was professor of anthropology and curator of the Pacific collections
at the University of Pennsylvania Museum for most of the ensuing three
decades. During his long career, he also held visiting professorships
at Wesleyan, the University of California at Santa Cruz, Bryn Mawr
College, and the University of Hawai'i. In 1971-72, he was a fellow
at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo
Bill conducted many different ethnographic research projects, most
of them close to saltwater. He carried out his doctoral dissertation
research in Jamaica, using game theory to analyze two fishing communities.
In the early 1960s, he began a series of long-term research projects
in the Solomon Islands on social organization, economics, art, and
navigation. Starting in the 1970s, he developed an interest in the
art and ethnography of Southeast Asia, and he continued research in
Indonesia and Malaysia well into the 1990s.
Bill made substantial contributions to the field of anthropology in
general, and to the scholarship of Oceania in particular. In addition
to seminal articles on kinship, exchange, sexuality, and art, he also
published on leadership, stratification, royal incest, and social movements.
He was one of only a few scholars to have carried out research and
published on each of the three major regions of Oceania, ranging from
Marshall Islands stick charts, to his book Hawaiian Sculpture with
J. W. Cox, and to "red-feather money" in the Santa Cruz Islands.
Bill's scholarship effortlessly spanned linguistic anthropology, cultural
anthropology, and archaeology, appearing in journals as diverse as American
Anthropologist, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Baessler-Archiv, Journal
of American Folklore, Scientific American, Sarawak
Museum Journal, and Expedition.
Bill was also very active in service to the profession. He was an
Associate at the Bishop Museum in Hawai'i (1953-60, 1980-2004), served
on numerous committees of the American Anthropological Association,
and was appointed to the Council of the Smithsonian Institution in
Washington, D.C. (1976-1984). He was one of the founding members of
the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO), and in 1989
was elected to the status of Honorary Fellow.
His energy and enthusiasm always seemed boundless. He continued sailing
long after his retirement in 1992 and his neighbors in North East,
Maryland report that even in his late seventies, "he could still
bring his boat into dock under sail!" A scholar until the end,
he was completing an article for Expedition and a book on
Santa Cruz art at the time of his death.
Bill's wide-ranging life experiences and his great passion for knowledge
made him an extraordinary scholar, mentor, and colleague. His research
in Hawai'i followed on his early experiences there, which included
being at Pearl Harbor during the air attack, meeting Duke Kahanamoku,
and working as a bouncer. His contributions to the anthropology of
art drew upon his training at the Art Center School in photography
and his work in Hollywood film studios. His understanding of Santa
Cruz voyaging was enhanced by his travels in the Merchant Marine and
his life-long love of sailing. Whether it was the workings of Chinese
fireworks, the invention of the chronometer that enabled sailors to
chart longitude, or how Melanesians "kissed," Bill could
always be counted on not only for an explanation, but also a first-rate
Students, not surprisingly, loved his classes. Discussions moved effortlessly
from the classroom to the Potlatch coffee shop in the University Museum,
and not infrequently led to long dinners spent talking about fieldwork,
anthropology, and life. His students sometimes hid their watches from
view, hoping that Bill would not notice that class was over. His lectures
combined vivid descriptions of life in the Pacific with original insights
and a strong dose of humor. And always there was a balanced perspective
on work and life, as suggested by his parting words of advice to a
graduate student before he left for several years of ethnographic field
research: "Have a great time!"
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bill had a kind and generous
spirit that affected everyone he met, whether students, colleagues,
and staff at the museum, his neighbors in Philadelphia and Maryland,
or the many people he befriended during the course of his extensive
travels. He inspired tremendous loyalty and affection among those who
knew him well. Bill was an inspirational romantic when it came to anthropology
and many of our paths have been immeasurably enriched by his contagious
enthusiasm for the subject. His death is a great loss; but his students,
colleagues, friends, and family can also celebrate all that he brought
to us, and to the world.
A memorial service is being planned at the University of Pennsylvania
Museum in the spring. His papers will be deposited in the University
Museum archives, close to the collections he helped to build.
Bill Donner and Stuart Kirsch, with numerous contributors
April 2004 Newsletter (#118)