Amherst Magazine: Summer 2012

The Pioneer

By Emily Gold Boutilier

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Donald S. Pitkin, who introduced anthropology to the Amherst curriculum, died on May 11 at his home in Amherst. He was 90.

Pitkin arrived at Amherst in 1964 as one of the only anthropologists to have done fieldwork in Europe. He came with his young son and infant daughter, following the sudden death of his wife, Emily. During his 28-year career at Amherst, Pitkin deeply influenced the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, building and molding it from practically nothing.  

“Don’s vision of the field was one centered on the idea of humane understanding,” says Professor of Anthropology L. Alan Babb, whom Pitkin hired in 1969. “He was not much given to rigid disciplinary boundaries. Don was the ideal senior colleague—tolerant, warm, accepting, supportive.” Those qualities have become part of the ethos of the department, Babb says.

Professor Jan Dizard, also hired by Pitkin in 1969, says that while interviewing, “Don invited me to his house,” where the two watched the Winter Olympics on a minuscule television. Dizard chuckles at the memory: “There was more snow on the TV set than there was on the Alps.”


Pitkin early in his Amherst career

Pitkin was an avid skier who enjoyed winter camping and, as Babb discovered, winter picnics. When Babb interviewed at Amherst, Pitkin and Professor Leo Marx took him to Look Park in Northampton, where they drank wine and watched the sun shine on fresh snow. The outing showcased Pitkin’s “slightly wacky side” but also
his “warmth and sociability,” says Babb. “It was just Don, all the way through.”

Born in Boston, Pitkin graduated from Harvard College. During World War II he served with the 10th Mountain Division in the Aleutian Islands. As a second lieutenant in field artillery, he trained as a forward observer for the projected invasion of Japan.

He received his doctorate in anthropology from Harvard, based on the seminal fieldwork in cultural anthropology he conducted in Sermoneta, Italy, from 1951 to 1953. In a 2001 video interview Pitkin describes this fieldwork as “one of the great experiences of my life.”

Before arriving at Amherst he introduced anthropology to the sociology department at Northeastern University. In 1959 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship that took him to Portici, Naples.

Pitkin’s signature course at Amherst, “Deviance,” regularly drew 100 to 200 students, and he read every student paper himself.

He wrote The House that Giacomo Built and its Italian companion version, both published in 1985 by Cambridge University Press. The book is about three generations of an Italian family living in a small village. “His scholarship was not voluminous,” says Dizard, “but subtle and artful and permeated with an incredible empathy for the changes that this family was undergoing.”

His other books include Mamma, casa, posto fisso: Sermoneta rivisitata 1951–1986 (1990) and La ruota gira: Vita a Sermoneta 1951–1952 (1998). His latest, The Schorchts of Goettern: History of a German Family 1922–1997, will be published posthumously.

Pitkin retired from Amherst in 1992 and was named professor emeritus of anthropology. The American Anthropological Association honored him in 2000 as “one of the pioneering U.S. anthropologists to do fieldwork in Europe.”

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he “displayed great courage” and humor even in his final days, says Babb. He is survived by a son, Donald Stevenson “Steve” Pitkin III; a daughter, Roxanna Pitkin McKeever; a daughter-in-law; a son-in-law; two granddaughters; a sister; a niece and nephew-in-law; and three grandnephews.

A memorial service is planned for Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. in Johnson Chapel. In accordance with Pitkin’s wishes, his brain was bequeathed to the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center for continuing research on Parkinson’s, and his body to the UMass Memorial Medical Center for use by its medical students.

Photo from Amherst College Olio