Anthropologist Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia in 1901, the eldest of four children in a Quaker family. Her father, Sherwood Mead, was a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and mother, Emily (Fogg) Mead, was a sociologist; young Margaret's grandmother was a suffragette, so she had strong female role models from an early age. She went to Barnard College to study the new subject of anthropology with Franz Boas and his student Ruth Benedict; she graduated with a BA in 1923, and went on to earn an MA in psychology at Columbia University the next year. She received her PhD from Columbia in 1929.
In 1925 Mead undertook her first fieldwork in Samoa; adopting Bronislaw Malinowski's fieldwork methods, she lived with villagers for nine months and studied the lives of adolescent village girls. She came to believe that Samoan culture, which recognized adolescent sexuality and accepted its expression, allowed Samoan girls a much easier transition to adulthood than American girls. Based on her findings, she published Coming of Age in Samoa, a book which became a bestseller with its revolutionary and quite explicit argument that "civilized" people could learn a thing or two from "primitives". Mead was a revolutionary in the field of anthropology too: she was the first to study child-rearing practices and to look at human development in cross-cultural perspective, and the first to conduct psychologically-oriented fieldwork; she pioneered the theory of learning by imprinting.
Besides being a formidable intellectual, Mead was also a very human woman. She first married Luther Cressman, a minister and archaeologist, in 1923, and when that marriage ended in 1928 she married fellow anthropologist Reo Fortune. The two travelled to Manu'a Island in New Guinea, where she studied play and imagination in young children; in 1930 she published Growing Up In New Guinea based on this work, in which she successfully refuted the idea that "primitive" people are childlike. Later, in fieldwork on mainland New Guinea, Mead found that gender roles differed greatly from one society to another, and that appropriately "feminine" behaviour in one culture might be seen as "masculine" behaviour in another, again upsetting received notions of men's and women's roles; based on these observations, she published Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies in 1935, which she later adapted as Male and Female. In 1936 Mead went to Bali with her third husband, Gregory Bateson; there the two pioneered the use of photography in fieldwork, taking tens of thousands of photographs which were incorporated into their innovative 1941 book, Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. In 1939, after many miscarriages, Mead had one child, Mary Catherine Bateson.
It's also been said that Mead and Ruth Benedict were lovers.
Back in the United States, Mead pursued a topic that had always been dear to her heart: and bringing the knowledge she had gained from other groups in the field back to modern American life in order to learn from it. This wasn't just learning for its own sake, but learning that would allow people - all people, not just Americans - to choose among possible futures. She believed that cultural patterns like warfare, racism, and sexism were learned, and that members of a society could work together to modify their traditions and construct new institutions.
Mead taught at many places, but had her professional base at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where she became a familiar figure, short and heavy, stumping around with a cane. From 1961 until her death she had a column in Redbook magazine, giving advice to American women. She made several films with The National Film Board of Canada on child-rearing in different cultures and appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Much honoured during her lifetime and after, Margaret Mead received 28 honorary doctorates and a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom; she was president of major scientific assocations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Mead has been honoured in the National Women's Hall of Fame and in 1969 was named Time Magazine's "Mother of the Year". In 1998 she had her image on an American postage stamp; her archives are in the Library of Congress. And please don't assume that she gained all these honours for taking the popular or easy line: she spoke out for abortion and birth control, advocated decriminalizing marijuana, and published A Rap on Race with black activist James Baldwin.
Since Mead's death Derek Freeman, an Australian anthropologist, has published ruthless attacks on Mead’s work on Samoa, in which he alleges that her methodology was flawed and that she mistook Samoan's jokes for reality. Freeman's scathing attacks have been successfully refuted by a number of scholars, and I don't want to say much more than that it is a shame that someone can make himself famous with ad hominem attacks on a great scholar and humanist. At the time of her death from cancer in 1978 Margaret Mead was undoubtedly the most famous anthropologist in the world, an accomplishment all the more remarkable in that she was a woman, thrice divorced, and a strong voice for compassionate caring and change. Truly an inspirational person.
Mead's daughter published a biography of her parents in 1984, entitled With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. On the Mead/Freeman controversy, see James Cote's Adolescent Storm and Stress. And for more on Mead and Benedict, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women by Hilary Lapsley (2001).