Geoffrey Ainsworth Harrison

June 9, 1927–September 14, 2017

Geoffrey Ainsworth Harrison passed away on September 14, 2017 in Oxford. While an undergraduate at Cambridge University, Geoffrey Harrison was broadly interested in natural sciences and forestry. However, he was attracted to anthropology by ideas on human evolution and a lecture that he attended on Australopithecus by the legendary South African paleontologist, Robert Broom. He did graduate work at Oxford University under the direction of Joseph S. Weiner who was physical anthropology reader in Wilfrid E. LeGros Clark’s Anatomy Department. Weiner enlisted his assistance in fabricating a Piltdown jaw to replicate the fraudulent Piltdown fossil jaw and demonstrate its counterfeit status. In addition to a student-mentor relationship, Weiner and Harrison were lifelong friends and colleagues. As a student at Oxford, he participated in a variety of research projects, including taxonomy with Arthur J. Cain, and his own dissertation on adaptation of inbred and hybrid mice to hot environments.

His first academic position was at the University of Liverpool, after which he returned to the University of Oxford in the early 1960s as reader in physical anthropology. He remained at Oxford for the rest of his academic career, rising to professor of biological anthropology in 1976. While at Oxford, he helped to establish the Diploma in Human Biology (1964), the Department of Biological Anthropology (1976, later, the Institute of Biological Anthropology), and the MSc in Human Biology (1979). These successful programs attracted students and colleagues from around the world.

His knowledge and research had great breadth and he explored a variety of problems central to biological anthropology. His research had the underlying themes of variation, adaptation, fitness, and evolution—always focused on living populations, with strong analytical and statistical research designs. Moreover, he was committed to understanding the interrelationships between human biological and sociocultural processes. He collaborated on an International Biological Programme project to study high altitude adaptation in Ethiopia, while also designing a research plan employing high-altitude migrants to investigate some questions of adaptation. This design was employed by long-term friend and colleague, Paul T. Baker, with Andean populations. He conducted field studies of blood-group genetic polymorphisms, child growth, and the effects of modernization on health and fitness (Namibia, Ethiopia, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, and Australia). Some of his most significant contributions were from research in his own neighborhood—the Otmoor region of Oxfordshire. Here he worked with 400-year-old parish records to establish extensive genealogies, patterns of exogamy, and other evolutionary processes. Later work included collection of blood samples for genetic analysis of living residents and study of lifestyle influences on health status, sleep patterns, and stress indicators. This was a pioneering study that others followed, and Harrison’s research on stress indicators carved out a whole new area of continuing exploration in biological anthropology.

Harrison received many awards during his lifetime. Some were the Huxley Memorial Medal and Lecture from the Royal Anthropological Institute (1987); the Franz Boas Distinguished Achievement Award from the Human Biology Association (2003); and a Doctor of Science Honorary Degree from Durham University (2006). Geoffrey Harrison retired from Oxford in 1994, although he conducted research and wrote for another 20 years. His long and prosperous career set the directions of biological anthropology research in the UK and elsewhere for many years. (Michael A. Little)

Cite as: Little, Michael A. 2017. “Geoffrey Ainsworth Harrison.” Anthropology News website, October 27, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.658

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