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Cora Alice Du Bois (1903–1991) is known for her studies in culture-and-personality and change in complex societies. Her personal and professional papers are divided among several institutions including Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Berkeley. Du Bois was educated at Barnard College (BA) and UC Berkeley (PhD) and spent much of her academic career at Harvard, where she would hold the Zemurray-Stone Professorship and become the school’s first tenured woman. She did fieldwork among Native Americans in the western US and in Orissa, India, and her work in Indonesia led to her landmark study, The People of Alor: A Social-Psychological Study of an East Asian Island.[i]

Susan Seymour, the Jean M. Pitzer Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Pitzer College and a student of Du Bois at Harvard, used Du Bois’s archival collections extensively when writing her 2015 biography of Du Bois, Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent.[ii] We asked her to write briefly about how her use of the Cora Du Bois Collection housed in Tozzer Library at Harvard, informed her work. 


The Cora Du Bois Archive

By Susan Seymour

I could not have written a biography of Cora Du Bois without her papers that are archived at the Tozzer Library of Anthropology at Harvard University.  They include such things as her private journals that provided insight into her childhood and adolescence; poetry that offered clues into her inner self; letters that enabled me to discover relatives; and extensive correspondence with friends, colleagues, and former students.  The fieldwork that led to Du Bois’s most significant publication, The People of Alor: A Social-Psychological Study of an East Asian Island, is well documented by hand-written journal entries, typed field notes, letters, test results, maps, transliterations of Abui (the language she recorded and learned), and photos.[iii]  Because of her lengthy letters to friends and colleagues during that two-year period, I could follow her path of discovery and present the chapter about this important fieldwork largely in the first person.  I was also able to reanalyze her household data and draw some slightly different conclusions about early childcare in Alor.  These archives also offered insight into Du Bois’s State Department years following World War II.  I discovered, for example, that she had been an early opponent of the US government’s involvement in Vietnam, which had serious repercussions for her.  Because of her alleged communist sympathies, she became a target of Joseph McCarthy and was investigated by the FBI for a decade.  In addition, when offered her dream position in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley—her graduate school alma mater—she ultimately declined it because she refused to sign California’s new loyalty oath.  It was too reminiscent of the “red purge” that she was experiencing in Washington, DC. (Figure 1).  Finally, her personal notes, following her years at Harvard, provided glimpses into how difficult those years had been for her as Harvard’s first tenured woman—something that she never admitted publicly.


Figure 1. In her letter to UC Berkeley President Sproul, dated September 27, 1950, Du Bois eloquently explains why she cannot in good conscience sign the loyalty oath required of University of California faculty. Letter from the Cora Alice Du Bois Papers in Tozzer Library. Image courtesy Tozzer Library, Harvard University.

For an ethnographer, undertaking the research for a biography was a new and exciting experience. While I knew about Du Bois’s research in Alor from reading her ethnography and her India research as a member of the Bhubaneswar, Orissa project, I knew little about her childhood, the years she served in the OSS during World War II, or the invitation to teach at Harvard—topics that she rarely, if ever, addressed.  I moved from archive to archive to capture as much of her life as possible through her correspondence with her mentors at UC Berkeley and Columbia and her communications during World War II at the National Archives in Washington, DC.   These were all treasure hunts.  Locating friends and relatives was part of the process, which took me to her childhood homes in France, Germany, and Switzerland. Trying to put together a whole life is both a challenging and rewarding enterprise and these  archival resources made it possible.


[i]Cora Du Bois, The People of Alor: A Social-Psychological Study of an East Indian Island (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944).

[ii]Susan C. Seymour, Cora Du Bois: Anthropologist, Diplomat, Agent (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

[iii]Du Bois, The People of Alor: A Social-Psychological Study of an East Indian Island.


Susan Seymour: contributions / website /