Anthropologist; b. Hoerde, Westphalia, Germany, Feb. 16, 1868; d. Fribourg, Switzerland, Feb. 10, 1954. Early in life Schmidt resolved to become himself a foreign missionary, and he joined the Society of the Divine Word, studying at the Gymnasium in Steyl, Holland, and at St. Gabriel Mission Seminary, Mödling, near Vienna. After ordination in 1892, he studied linguistics in Berlin and then taught languages and ethnology at St. Gabriel. There, in 1906, he founded the Anthropos-Institut and the journal Anthropos, which continues to give preference to manuscripts submitted by missionaries. In 1918 he was appointed professor of ethnology and the science of religion at the University of Vienna. Escaping arrest by the Nazi police in June of 1938, he received a friendly welcome in Switzerland and lectured at the University of Fribourg until shortly before his death.
Schmidt was a successful organizer. At the invitation of Pope Pius XI, he built up between 1924 and 1927 the Vatican mission exhibit, which became the Pontificio Museo Missionario-Ethnologico in the Lateran Palace. He was appointed the first director and continued as director ad honorem until his death. He organized several conferences, especially for missionaries to discuss the religion and ethics of non-Christian peoples, and was frequently in charge of congresses and meetings of ethnologists and linguists. His efforts brought about the founding of the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna.
Concerned that native cultures should be thoroughly and systematically studied, Schmidt organized several expeditions to Pygmy and pygmoid peoples; the natives of Tierra del Fuego; the African bushmen; the indigenous peoples of Brazil, India, Tibet, New Guinea, among other places. In linguistics, his first and greatest love, his major accomplishment was the discovery of the "austric linguistic stock," which prevails over almost two-thirds of the earth's inhabited area. In 1952 he published a magnificent study of the long-dead languages of Tasmania. His monumental 12-volume Ursprung der Gottesidee (Münster 1912–54) was the most significant of his many works, a complete bibliography of which was published in Anthropos 49 (1954): 713–718.
Schmidt's contributions to ethnology and the study of primitive religion can be fully appreciated only when it is recalled that at the end of the nineteenth century, the ascendant evolutionary theory portrayed man and civilization as products of a unilinear, step-by-step rise from a primitive state. Developing the theories of F. Ratzel and F. Graebner, Schmidt formulated the "culture-historical method" in which ethnology was regarded as a branch of cultural history depicting the existence, growth, and activity of primitive peoples as fully human types. This school's search for archaic culture types and the classifications resulting therefrom never gained recognition among English-speaking anthropologists, but it had considerable influence on both field research and theory on the Continent, especially through the reports of missionaries published in Anthropos.
Bibliography: f. bornemann, "Verzeichnis der Schriften von P. W. Schmidt (1868–1954)," Anthropos 49 (1954): 384–432. a. burgmann, "P. W. Schmidt als Linguist," ibid. 627–658.
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