Anthropologist Ruth Fulton Benedict was born in New York state (the exact provenance is the subject of some debate) in 1887. Her father Frederick Fulton, a surgeon, died when his daughter was less than three years old, and her mother Beatrice, a Vassar graduate and teacher, was devastated by the loss. Young Ruth resented her mother's grief and her younger sister Margery, her mother's favourite; she withdrew into a fantasy life with an imaginary friend. She was apparently given to severe temper tantrums and occasional bouts of violent vomitting; she seems to have been a bit of a difficult girl. In 1895 she was diagnosed as partially deaf, which may have exacerbated the divisions between Ruth and her mother and sister. Anyway, when Ruth was eleven her mother got a job as a librarian in Buffalo, New York, where the family stayed for a time.
Benedict was intelligent and creative. From the time she was a teenager she penned poetry under the name Ann Singeton. She attended Vassar College, majoring in English, and graduated in 1909, after which she went to Europe for a tour. When she returned, she worked as a social worker and then a teacher, before marrying Stanley Benedict, a biochemistry professor at Cornell Medical College in New York City, in 1914. It seems she married him not for great love, but because she feared becoming an old maid; it wasn't a particularly happy marriage, and though she hoped for a child to put matters right, none came. After some years of marriage Stanley was badly gassed in an accident in his lab and began to spend a great deal of time out of the city at various country homes; Ruth wasn't particularly happy with the arrangement and, learning that she was unable to conceive a child, she decided to throw herself into the academic life in the city.
She began attending the New School for Social Research, where she studied under one of the first female anthropologists, Elsie Clews Parsons. Parsons introduced her to the great ethnologist who would become her mentor and father figure, Franz Boas. Boas was Benedict's supervisor during her doctoral studies, which must have been difficult because Boas was a notorious mumbler and Benedict's hearing wasn't good; nevertheless, she received her PhD from Columbia in 1923. Her thesis, The Concept of the Guardian Spirit in North America, examined how individual religious experience had cultural implications, and throughout her work she would examine cultures through choices made by individuals. Edward Sapir wrote her after reading it, and the two became friends. Benedict lectured for most of her adult life at Columbia, but soon after her graduation Sapir helped her get a job teaching for a semester at Barnard, where she met Margaret Mead and persuaded that great woman to switch her major from psychology to anthropology. Mead recalled that Benedict was very shy and always wore the same dress, sadly not a very becoming one; she was also most intelligent and an excellent role model.
Benedict began to do fieldwork with native Americans: in 1922 in California with the Serrano; and in the southwestern US with the Zuni Pueblo in 1924, Cochiti in 1925, and the Pima in 1926. Sadly, Stanley was less than pleased about Benedict's career, and the couple became even more estranged. In addition, Benedict didn't get paid for her teaching at Columbia because she was considered his dependent, which might explain why she always wore the same dress. In 1930, after 16 years of marriage, the couple formally separated; Stanley died in 1936.
Meanwhile, Benedict's life had become more fulfilling. There are suggestions that Benedict was a lesbian and that she and Mead were lovers. Also, no longer a dependent of her husband, Benedict at last became a salaried assistant professor at Columbia. Finally, through her researches, Benedict had formulated a theory that culture is really personality writ large - the now largely defunct "culture and personality school" of anthropological theory. She popularized her ideas in the best-selling Patterns of Culture in 1934, contrasts the placid and harmonious Pueblo to the Dobu Islanders, characterized by Reo Fortune (Mead's second husband) as paranoid and mean spirited, and to the Kwakiutl, who Boas considered megalomaniacal and self-aggrandizing. Though it might sound like cultural determinism, Benedict, like Mead, argued that individuals could change, thus changing culture; she emphasized tolerance and attacked racism and ethnocentrism.
In 1939 Benedict did fieldwork with the Blackfoot in the northwest. In 1941 she became a founding member of The Institute for Intercultural Studies and worked for the Office of War Information on "enemy" cultures, particularly Japan. Unable to travel there to do fieldwork, she studied Japanese propaganda films, read the confiscated diaries of captured Japanese soldiers, and interviewed expatriates who had lived in the country. She published The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture in 1946 as a result of this work; it became another bestseller. She undertook a massive research project in 1946 on six European cultures and was pleased to be able to travel to Europe to see how closely her armchair ethnography was born out in reality, but the trip took its toll, and she died of a heart attack in 1948. Ironically, after years of being passed over for a full professorship, she was finally granted one in that final year of her life, but was too ill to be able to actually teach. Benedict's voluminous papers, including diaries and letters, are housed at Vassar.
Ruth Benedict's major works include:
Biographical works about her include: