Bea Whiting, 89, Was an Eminent Anthropologist

Beatrice Blyth Whiting, a leading anthropologist of childhood and professor emerita of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, died on Monday, Sept. 29 of pneumonia at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. She was 89.

Bea, as she was called, first came to the Vineyard in the 1930s with several other Yale graduate students including John W. M. Whiting. The group stayed on Tisbury Great Pond at a camp called the Studio that was owned by John's parents, Johnson and Emma Mayhew Whiting. The Yalies were on Island to cram from their German Ph.D exams. To this day, there are still German signs in the Studio. Bea married John W. M. Whiting. In 1942 Bea and John had Daniel Manter build a house for them on the property next to the Studio on Tisbury Great Pond. That house is called the Establishment.

Bea loved South Beach and walked on it daily for most of her life. She loved to swim in the ocean and in the opening. 

Bea was what one might call an aspiring flower gardener. She yearned for a perfect flower garden but was always too busy with her academic endeavors to realize her wish. She loved to engage in intellectual conversation and many people traveled Down Pond to do just that.

Shortly before her death Bea had finished checking the galley proofs for a new book she had coauthored with Caroline P. Edwards entitled: Ngecha: A Kenyan Community in a Time of Rapid Social Change, which is to be published later this year. This forthcoming work focuses on the lives of Kikuyu women in Kenya.

Dr. B. Whiting had previously coauthored: Children of Different Worlds: The Formation of Social Behavior (1988) with C. Edwards. That work was based on field studies in 14 diverse communities, and was a landmark study of children's social lives and the development of gender roles. 

Dr. Whiting was a pioneer in psychological anthropology and the comparative study of child development and was one of the first women to be appointed to a tenured professorship at Harvard University. She investigated the activities, relationships and learning of children and women in diverse cultures, particularly in developing countries. She devised a naturalistic approach to the observation of child behavior that was influential in child development research.

Dr. Whiting's long-term collaboration with her late husband of 60 plus years, John W. M. Whiting, a fellow anthropologist and professor at Harvard who died in 1999, formed the basis of a unique training center for students for more than 30 years (1952-1985).    

Beatrice H. Blyth was born in New York on April 14, 1914 and raised on Staten Island. After graduating from Bryn Mawr College in 1935, Dr. Whiting became one of the first women to study anthropology at Yale. She did fieldwork amongst the Paiute Indians in Oregon and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1943; her dissertation was published as a book, Paiute Sorcery: A Study of Social Control (1950). She lectured at Brandeis University and conducted research for Wellesley College prior to joining Harvard as a research associate in 1952; she became a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1973 and retired in 1980. She was a distinguished fellow at the Henry A. Murray Center for the Study of Lives at Radcliffe College from 1980-1985.

In 1954 the Whitings initiated the Six Cultures Study of Socialization of the Child, involving field studies on three continents, with collaborators from Yale and Cornell. In 1966 they founded and directed the child development research unit at the University of Nairobi. They and their students conducted field studies in Kenya in a rural Kikuyu community. The Whitings brought Kenyans to Harvard for graduate training from 1966 to 1973. After their retirement the Whitings directed the Comparative Adolescence Project, including studies on four continents, with Prof. Irven DeVore from 1980 to 1985.

Bea was a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1978-79. The Whitings jointly received the distinguished service award from the American Anthropological Association in 1982 and the career contribution award of the Society for Psychological Anthropology in 1989. In 1987 Beatrice received the distinguished scientific contributions award from the Society for Research in Child Development.

The Whitings remained active in the Martha's Vineyard community, where Mr. Whiting was born, and Mrs. Whiting served on the board of Martha's Vineyard Community Services for many years. 

Her husband John W. M. Whiting and her son, William Bradford Whiting, predeceased Dr. Whiting. She is survived by her daughter, Susan Whiting of Chilmark, and son Stuart Whiting of Florida.

There will be a memorial service at the Whitings summer home on Tisbury Great Pond on October 19 at 1 p.m. Please bring a dish and share your memories of Bea.

In lieu of flowers donations are welcome to: Sheriff's Meadow Foundation, P.O. Box 319X, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568 or William Bradford Whiting Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 3177, West Tisbury, MA 02575.