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Luther Paul Gerlach was born in Reading, Pennsylvania. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Minnesota in 1952. He then served in the US Army in for two years (1952–54) and as a government researcher in Germany before earning a PhD in cultural anthropology in 1961 from the University of London, with certificates in African and Islamic law and Swahili at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in 1958.  With the support of a Fulbright fellowship, he did fieldwork in sub-Saharan Africa on the economy and society of the Digo and Duruma peoples in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

In 1961, Gerlach was hired as an assistant professor of anthropology and sociology at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania. Two years later, he returned to his undergraduate alma mater, where he joined the Anthropology Department at the University of Minnesota, and spent the rest of his career there (1963–2000), except for separate leaves at the California Institute of Technology (1971–72) and at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies (1972–73). 

Gerlach taught the introductory course in Cultural Anthropology and a new course on Ecological Anthropology for many years, and did so with verve, energy, and an openness to incorporate audio-visual technologies into his pedagogy. His teaching assistants recall skipping around large lecture halls, holding microphones, so students could pose questions or make comments. He later moved versions of those courses to what was called distance learning.

During his years at Minnesota, Gerlach developed strong interests in environmental anthropology and American social movements, with particular reference to civil rights and conservation organizations. 

He directed the graduate program in human ecology, which he founded and coordinated, and served as an instructor in Peace Corps training programs on campus. He also served as a consultant and lecturer to the Minneapolis Police Force and the Minnesota Corrections Associations in an effort to foster positive responses to Black Power and other local change-oriented initiatives.   

Gerlach was beloved by his graduate students, and one of them, Lisa Brandt, edited a festschrift in his honor in 2007.

He authored two books with Virginia H. Hine: People, Power, Change: Movements of Social Transformation (1970) and Lifeway Leap: The Dynamics of Change in America (1973). The latter volume was later adapted into a television series. Gerlach also produced several films: People, Power, Change: A Study of Movements of Revolutionary Change (1968), People Eco Action (1970), and Jamaica: Why Don’t You Stop and Say Hello? (1973), as well as Grassroots-Energy with Ursula Gerlach and Paul Eide (1978). Grassroots-Energy focused on resistance by farmers and townsfolk to state authorities who allowed the construction of a high-voltage electrical line from North Dakota to a Minneapolis suburb.

Gerlach’s wife of 65 years, Ursula Gerlach (nee Solter), survives him as do his three children, Luther Douglas Gerlach, Suzanne Gerlach-Downie and Andrew Gerlach.

Luther Gerlach (1930-2024) takes a photograph.
Luther Gerlach (1930-2024)

(David Lipset)

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