Sixth Emeritus Faculty Lecture Honoring George M. Foster

On the Occasion of the Presentation of George Foster's Oral History
March 5, 2001
The George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library
U.C. Berkeley

Remarks by Elizabeth Colson

It is a pleasure to say why I think an oral history of George Foster is important and to recognize his distinction as an anthropologist, a devoted member of this University, and a long-time advocate for anthropologists to step out from academia to share their understandings with those who make policy and are affected by policy. His founding of medical anthropology is but one instance of that outreach.

George and I have a number of things in common. We both had our first field work experiences in California in the 1930s, he among the Yuki and I among the Pomo. We have both worked in what was then Northern Rhodesia and is now Zambia, for George and Mickie spent six months in 1962 near the small town of Monze which was my shopping centre in the 1940s when I worked among the Plateau Tonga. Mickie applied her linguistic skills to learning ciTonga. George has a seeing eye as well as concern for ideas, as evidenced by his work on material culture and by the current display of his wonderful photographs of Tzintzuntzan in the Hearst Museum.

From his study of the last days of colonial bureaucracy in Northern Rhodesia, George retrieved a scrap of real genuine red tape used to tie up bundles of files in the district office, a symbolic trophy he still treasures.

Despite our geographical overlaps, I did not meet George and Mickie until I came to Berkeley. I do not propose to speak here about his contributions to the American Anthropological Association which he served as president nor of his theoretical and methodological contributions to anthropology. The theory of Limited Good, the emphasis on the importance of contractual relationships, the identification of the role of hot and cold in medical practices in Mexico and elsewhere are now part of the mental toolkit of anthropology, as is the importance of long-term field research which George pioneered and championed.

Instead I have thought about what best characterizes what George has stood for here at Berkeley. Laura Nader once tried to sum him up when she said, "George is a great gentleman" and then she added something which is probably even more important to her 'and a good citizen.' I think what she was referring to was that special facility that George has for minimizing personal differences in the interests of a larger cause, often the good of the department. He keeps his eye on the end to be achieved and is willing to compromise, accepting defeat of his own position if this is necessary and doing so with good grace. His hair was once red and he was a fighter but he fought for causes and was a builder rather than a destroyer. It has been impressive to see how he built not to enhance his own position but to get things done. When he chaired the department, he did so with tact and consideration for the views of others.

There was of course another side to George. People used to say he was a bit rigid, a stickler for rules. At first I bought this and then discovered that George loves rules because they are a challenge to his ability to find alternative routes to desired ends. So in time when students approached me with what seemed like a good idea but said the rules prevented them from pursuing it, I sent them off to George with instructions to say, 'Professor Foster, I would like to do this but the rules say I can't.' George's eyes would light up as he considered possibilities and the student profited.

And this I think is the final thing I would like to say about George. He was a teacher who believed in the importance of students and their future. He obtained training grants and other funding for them, took them to the field with him to give them experience, and worked meticulously with them on their dissertations. His care for students and for the department continued long after his retirement: we owe it to Micky and George that we still have the anthropology library here in Kroeber Hall, one of the finest such libraries in the world and an invaluable resource for all present and future students. We owe much to George for the example set by his integrity and scholarship as well as by the Foster generosity.

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