Edith Turner

June 17, 1921–June 18, 2016

Edith Lucy Brocklesby Turner, “Edie,” passed away peacefully on June 18, 2016, the day after her 95th birthday. Turner was a singular and beloved figure in anthropology, both through her remarkable intellectual partnership with her husband Victor Turner, and through her own writing, teaching, editing, and fierce advocacy for story and spirituality as essential to ethnography. Her luminous accounts of her ethnographic experiences contribute to abiding questions regarding the scope of human reality and the anthropological project of representing the fullness and exquisiteness of its unfolding.

Turner was born in Ely, on June 17, 1921 near Cambridge, England. During World War II she worked as an agricultural laborer as a “land girl” in the Land Army, at which time, through a shared love of poetry, she met and married Victor Witter Turner “Vic” (1920–1983). With their three children, Turner accompanied Vic on two extended periods of anthropological fieldwork (1951–54) in the northwest of what is now Zambia, among the Ndembu peoples. She made extensive notes of her experiences among Ndembu women and created an important photographic archive. Her fieldwork enabled her much later to write an ethnographic memoir of her life there, The Spirit and the Drum (1987). In 1963 the family moved to the United States, first to Ithaca, then Chicago, and in 1977 Vic became professor of anthropology and religion at the University of Virginia. In Charlottesville, Turner earned an MA in English between extended research visits with Vic to India, Brazil, Japan, and Israel. Her work was fundamental to Vic’s numerous anthropological books and research papers and their joint publication, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (1978) is an example of this co-authorship.

After Vic’s death in 1983, Turner was offered a position as lecturer in UVA’s anthropology department, a position which she held until her retirement in 2016 at the age of 94. Her fascinating courses on spirituality, shamanism, and ritual were often over-subscribed, and she was acknowledged as a major inspiration by many of her students. As editor of Anthropology and Humanism, she greatly advanced the discipline of humanistic anthropology, and she was influential in the subfields of consciousness and religion. With the help of successive research grants, she made intensive studies of traditional healing and ritual, with a repeat visit to Zambia in 1985, and later fieldwork among native peoples in Arizona, Alaska, Korea, Northwest Russia, and western Ireland. This led to several books: Experiencing Ritual, The Hands Feel It, Among the Healers, Communitas, and her autobiographical Heart of Lightness.

Turner was a committed social activist throughout her entire life, devoting herself to social justice. For instance, in the early years in Africa, she worked in the anti-apartheid movement, and later she partnered with her friends in Alaska to resist nuclear waste dumping on the North Slope.

Edie Turner is survived by a loving family including a younger sister, five children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. She is sorely missed by many lifelong friends and colleagues all over the world.

Contributions in her memory can be made to the Edie Turner Anthropology Award via the website: http://edieturner.mydagsite.com/. This award honors Turner by acknowledging students at the University of Virginia whose teaching, activism, and writing recognize the richness of human experience. (Rory Turner and Rose Wellman)

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