May 20, 1999
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Whiting, Expert in Child Development, Dies at Age 90

J.W.M. Whiting

John Wesley Mayhew Whiting, Professor of Social Anthropology Emeritus, died on May 13 in Chilmark, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard, where he was born in 1908.

Whiting, who would have turned 91 on June 12, was a leading psychological anthropologist and a pioneer of comparative studies in child development. His field work on childhood learning in New Guinea during the 1930s led to the publication of Becoming a Kwoma (Yale University Press, 1941).

He devoted the rest of his long career to the systematic comparison of child behavior and parental practices in diverse human societies, seeking to find generalizations about human development that would survive the test of cross- cultural investigation. His ongoing seminar at Harvard, conducted with his wife, Beatrice Blyth Whiting (now Professor of Education and Anthropology Emerita), was the major training base in comparative child development from 1950 to 1980.

Whiting's teaching was legendary, not for his performance on the lecture platform but for treating graduate students as equals in his seminar, challenging them to prove their points and encouraging them to challenge him. Most American investigators of childhood in cross-cultural perspective during the second half of the 20th century were students of the Whitings or of their students.

After publication of his landmark volume Child Training and Personality (with Irvin Child, 1953), Whiting's major projects included The Six Cultures Study of Socialization, a comparative field study in Mexico, India, Kenya, Okinawa, the Philippines, and the Untied States. The study (launched in 1964) produced many publications, and remains the most intensive investigation of childhood in diverse cultures undertaken thus far.

Beginning in 1966, the Whitings founded and directed the Child Development Research Unit at the University of Nairobi, involving fieldwork in many parts of Kenya. This Carnegie project also brought Kenyans to Harvard for graduate training, representing Whiting's goal of making comparative child research a global project in which scientists of all cultures could participate on an equal basis.

Whiting's academic career began at Yale, where he earned his B.A. (1931) and his doctorate in sociology and anthropology (1938). He served on the staff of the Yale Institute of Human Relations until 1947, with an interlude in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

After two years at the State University of Iowa, he came to Harvard in 1949 on the staff of the new Laboratory of Human Development at the Graduate School of Education. He became Director of the Laboratory in 1953, Professor of Education in 1955, and the first Charles Bigelow Professor of Education in 1960. Three years later, he transferred to the Department of Social Relations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where he spent his last 15 years at Harvard as Professor of Social Anthropology.

Although he retired in 1978, Whiting worked with his wife, Beatrice, Irven DeVore, and other Harvard faculty in a cross-cultural field study of adolescence from 1980 to 1985. His most important research papers were reprinted with new introductions and an autobiographical memoir in Culture and Human Development: The Selected Papers of John Whiting (edited by Eleanor Hollenberg Chasdi; Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Whiting was a member of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the American Psychological Association (APA), and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1973, the APA honored Whiting with the G. Stanley Hall Award for Distinguished Contributions to Developmental Psychology, and he gave the Distinguished Lecture to the AAA in the same year. In 1978, he was elected the first President of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. In 1989, he and Beatrice Whiting received the Society's first Career Contribution Award. They also won the AAA's Distinguished Service Award in 1982.

The Whitings had one of the longest and most productive husband-wife collaborations in the history of anthropology. As a Harvard colleague once observed, "They always argued with each other and went on working together."

Whiting leaves his wife of nearly 61 years (the couple married on June 8, 1938); his daughter Susan Whiting and son-in-law Phillips Harrington, of Florida; and the children and grandchildren of his brother Everett Whiting, of West Tisbury, Mass. His son William Bradford Whiting died in a 1961 automobile accident.

Private burial will be in the family plot in the West Tisbury graveyard. A memorial ceremony is being planned and will be announced later.

The family requests that memorial contributions be made to the William Bradford Whiting Scholarship Fund for Island Children's Education, through the Cambridge Savings Bank, 1374 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02238; or to the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group, Weaver Lane, Tisbury, MA 02568.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College