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Photograph of a woman sitting on a couch

Image description: A light-skinned woman with white and grey hair sits with her hands crossed in front of her chest and smiles. She wears glasses and a yellow shirt with a red and pink flower embroidered on the shoulder.
Caption: Madelyn Iris


Madelyn “Micki” Iris passed away on January 7, 2020, in Chicago, Illinois, at age 73 after having been diagnosed with cancer in 2017.

Iris received her BA in English from Northwestern University, MA in medieval studies from University of Toronto, and PhD in cultural anthropology from Northwestern. Her dissertation on language acquisition among Navajo children on the Navajo Nation reservation in the Four Corners area was supervised by advisor and lifelong friend, Ossy Werner, whom she eventually succeeded as director of Northwestern’s Summer Field School in Anthropology on the Navajo Reservation.

An applied anthropologist specializing in aging, Iris’s professional career began on Northwestern’s Medical School faculty as research scientist and ultimately acting director of the Northwestern Buehler Center on Aging. She later served as associate director and then director of research at Schanfield Research Institute at the Council for Jewish Elderly. Grounded in real-world problems, she masterfully applied qualitative and ethnographic methods to address thorny issues. Her lifelong research on elder abuse and guardianship was funded by numerous foundations and most recently by the National Institute of Justice. In recognition of this body of work, Iris received the Rosalie Wolf Memorial Award from the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and National Protective Services Association. However, her interests ranged widely, as reflected in her numerous publications, over 20 grants, and countless community involvements: including the ethnography of aging in urban Chicago, protective services, financial exploitation of older adults, self-neglect, disability studies, and Alzheimer’s disease.

As noted, she was especially skilled at bringing applied anthropology to the development and improvement of community agencies devoted to older adults. While at Northwestern, she developed a research and evaluation training program—Aging Services Support for Education, Research, and Training (ASSERT)—for social service providers, and she worked with numerous social service agencies in the Chicago area to implement the program. Her peers in anthropology recognized her leadership in electing her president of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (2004–2006) and president of the Association for Anthropology and Gerontology (1998–1999).

Of special note, Iris was deeply involved in Keshet, a nonprofit organization in the Chicago area that provides educational, recreational, and vocational programs for children and young adults with developmental challenges. She put her skills, energy, and dedication at Keshet’s disposal, served on its Board of Directors, and became its co-president for four years.

For those of us who were blessed with the great good fortune of working with Iris, this estimable body of academic work and these many years of community service reflect her eminently collaborative style. She had an uncanny ability to pull people together around a project, forefront each person’s unique contribution, and create an atmosphere of shared accomplishment. Her warmth, humor, encouragement, and wisdom brought out the same qualities in her many colleagues. Indeed, each one of us find ourselves in her CV.

Preceded in death by her son, David, we mourn her passing with Mark, her husband of 44 years, son Ari, daughter-in-law Julia, three grandchildren, a sister, and many friends and colleagues.

(Rebecca Berman, Margaret Perkinson, Robert Schrauf, and Ellen Ziegemeier)

Cite as: Berman, Rebecca, Margaret Perkinson, Robert Schrauf, and Ellen Ziegemeier. 2020. “Madelyn Iris.” Anthropology News website, September 23, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1504