Putnam, Frederic Ward

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Putnam, Frederic Ward



Frederic Ward Putnam (1839-1915), one of the founders of modern American anthropology, was born in Salem, Massachusetts. He was educated largely by his father, who stimulated the boy’s interest in horticulture and in nature generally. This interest led to his election, while still in his teens, to the Essex Institute near his home and to the Boston Society of Natural History. He also met Louis Agassiz, the great Swiss-American naturalist, and under his influence entered the Lawrence Scientific School in 1856, graduating as of 1862. He served as a special assistant under Agassiz until 1864, when he returned to Salem to become curator of vertebrates at the Essex Institute.

Putnam had an early interest in archeological studies. He was among the first to recognize and investigate the archeological remains on the American continent. After holding a number of positions (at the museum of the East India Marine Society in Salem, the museum of the Peabody Academy of Science, and the Penikese Laboratory of the Anderson School of Natural History), Putnam became in 1875 curator of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, a position he held until he retired in 1909. He also held a professorship in archeology and ethnology at the university.

From his base at the Peabody Museum, Putnam did much to revolutionize American museum methods by inaugurating scientific expeditions. From 1876 to 1879 he participated in the U.S. geographical and geological surveys west of the 100th meridian under the direction of Lt. G. M. Wheeler; Putnam had charge of the archeological collections made on those surveys and prepared for publication the volume Archaeology (1879). He himself direct ed field research in archeology, especially in New Jersey, Ohio, the southwestern United States, Mexico, Central America, and South America.

In 1891 Putnam was appointed chief of the department of archeology and ethnology for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The ethnological and natural history collections which he assembled led to the founding of the Columbian Museum in Chicago, now called the Field Museum of Natural History. At the conclusion of his services there he was appointed curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York; one of his assistant curators was Franz Boas. Putnam remained at the American Museum on a part-time basis until 1903, continuing also his administration of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, until his retirement from professional life at the age of 70.

Before he retired, however, he accomplished one more organizational feat for American anthropology. In 1903 he was called to the University of California, where he became professor of anthropology and director of the anthropological museum: this meant that he organized both a museum and a department for the teaching of anthropology at Berkeley.

During his lifetime he published some four hundred papers, reports, and notes in the fields of zoology and anthropology. He also served his profession well as an editor: over a period of 25 years he performed editorial services for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and for all of the museums and departments of anthropology with which he was affiliated. He was a founder and editor of the American Naturalist and the Naturalists Directory. After holding the position of secretary of the AAAS for 25 years, he was elected president for 1898-1899.

At Putnam’s death, his contributions to anthropology were well described in the Massachusetts Memorial -. “His skill as an organizer made him the most potent factor in the development of anthropological institutions all over the country … his interests centered in the objective, tangible sides of anthropology, and therefore his chief contribution consisted of the development of museum work.”

Ralph W. Dexter


(1871) 1872 Packard, Alpheus S.; and Putnam, Frederic W. The Mammoth Cave and Its Inhabitants: Or, Descriptions of the Fishes, Insects and Crustaceans Found in the Cave. Salem, Mass.: Naturalist’s Agency.

1875a [Archaeological Researches in Kentucky and Indiana.] Boston Society for Natural History, Proceedings 17:314-332.

1875& [The Swallow Archaeological Collection From New Madrid, Mo.] Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Report of the Trustees 8:16-46. -” Reprinted in 1875 in the American Naturalist as “The Pottery of the Mound Builders.”

1878 Archaeological Explorations in Tennessee, 1878. Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Report of the Trustees 11:305-360. -> Reprinted in Volume 10 of the Essex Institute Bulletin.

1879 U.S. Geographic Surveys West Of The100th MeridianReport. Volume 7: Archaeology. Washing-

ton: Government Printing Office. -“Putnam both edited and contributed to the Report.

1883a Iron From the Ohio Mounds: A Review of the Statements and Misconceptions of Two Writers of Over Sixty Years Ago. American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass., Proceedings New Series 2:349-363.

1883b Notes on Copper Implements From Mexico. American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass., Proceedings New Series 2:235-246.

1887 Notes on the Copper Objects From North and South America, Contained in the Collections of the Peabody Museum. Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Report of the Trustees 15:83-148.

1896 Putnam, Frederic W.; and Willoughby, C. C. Symbolism in Ancient American Art. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Proceedings 44:302-322.


Dexter, Ralph W. 1964 Frederic Ward Putnam and the Development of Museums of Natural History and Anthropology in the United States. Unpublished manuscript. -” This paper was read at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society held in conjunction with the meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Montreal, Canada, 1964.

Kroeber, A. L. 1915 Frederic Ward Putnam. American Anthropologist New Series 17:712-718.

Mead, Frances H. 1909 Bibliography of Frederic Ward Putnam. Pages 601-627 in Putnam Anniversary Volume. New York: Stechert.

Putnam Anniversary Volume: Anthropological Essays Presented to Frederic Ward Putnam in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday, April 16, 1909, by His Friends and Associates. 1909 New York: Stechert.

Tozzer, A. M. 1935 Frederic Ward Putnam, 1839-1915. Volume 16, pages 125-153 in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs. Washington: The Academy.

Putnam, Frederic Ward

views updated Jun 27 2018


(b. salem, Massachusetts, 16 April 1839; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 14 August 1915)

archaeology, anthropology.

Putnam was the son of Ebenezer Putnam and Elizabeth Appleton. In 1856, after early education at home and in local private schools, he entered Harvard College, where he became an assistant to Louis Agassiz. Although Putnam later left this assistantship to free himself from Agassiz’ dominance, the latter’s rigid empiricism, together with a general and popular approach to the natural sciences, provided the foundations for Putam’s later activities.

With Jeffries Wyman, first curator of the Peabody Museum of American Archaology and Ethnology at Harvard, Putnam excavated shell heaps in New England . This work provided an important empirical base for American archaeology. In 1874, following Wyman’s death, Putnam was named curator of the museum, which he established as the leading center for anthropological research in America. From 1887 he served as Peabody professor at Harvard. In 1891 he was appointed chief of the ethnology and archaeology department of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893). Against great public opposition and ridicule, he gathered a comprehensive exhibit—based upon commissioned research and collections—that in itself defined the broad range of the field of anthropology and brought the term into common and accepted usage. His chief assistant in Chicago was Franz Boas, whom Putnam later employed when, in 1894, he became curator of the American Museum of Natural History. There he initiated a center for anthropological activity rivaling that which he had organized at Harvard.

Putnam served as permanent secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science from 1873 to 1898, when he became its president. He thus played a significant role in defining the association as the focal point for professional science and scientific communication.

Putnam’s particular contributions to an investigative science were modest. His most important work was done as an educator and museum administrator. He sought not only to enlarge the activities and responsibilities of science and its practitioners but also to relate both to society.


The Putnam Anniversary Volume (New York, 1909), a collection of anthropological essays by Putnam’s friends and associates, was presented to him in honor of his seventieth birthday and contains a bibliography of his writings. See also Alfred M. Tozzer’s notice in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of sciences,16 (1936), 125–153, with portrait, comprehensive bibliography of Putnam’s works, and brief list of secondary literature; and the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V, 47; VIII, 675; XI, 80; and XVII, 1051, which lists 29 memoirs by Putnam and 1 of which he was coauthor.

Jacob W. Gruber

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