Bernice Antoville “Bunny” Kaplan

1923–2020

Bernice Antoville “Bunny” Kaplan, professor emerita of anthropology at Wayne State University in Detroit, died aged 97 at home in Beverly Hills, Michigan, on October 10, 2020. Born April 21, 1923, in New York City, Kaplan was an only child whose childhood, adolescence, and youth were marked by times of the Great Depression and World War II. In view of her superior academic achievements skipped grades twice, and graduated from high school in her mid-teens.

Kaplan matriculated at the then-all-female Hunter College and became interested in learning how people from different backgrounds were living, and chose—or were led by their own cultures—to lead their lives. She began to work at the American Museum of Natural History, first volunteering while an undergraduate, then on a full-time basis while pursuing post-baccalaureate studies at Columbia. There, she worked with Franz Weidenreich (as a typist assisting on reporting his gigantopithecus research) and met Margaret Mead.

During the course of her advanced studies, she met Gabriel Lasker, another anthropologist (although focused physical anthropology). In 1946 he accepted a job teaching in the medical school at Wayne State University, and they married in 1949. During nonacademic sessions they conducted ongoing research (beginning in April 1948) in the then-small town of Paracho, Michoacán, Mexico.

The early years in Detroit were not particularly easy. Wayne State had an “anti-nepotism” employment policy that did not allow married couples both to hold university jobs, even if in entirely different schools/departments. To continue her career path, Kaplan took teaching jobs (generally, part-time) at institutions as far away from Detroit as East Lansing. However, when administrators learned that the University of Michigan was about to make her a job offer, they “decided” that, since the School of Medicine and the College of Liberal Arts were separate entities, the anti-nepotism policies needn’t apply. Subsequently she was offered a job at Wayne’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and got on the tenure track as an assistant professor. At the time of her retirement, Wayne State commemorated her meritorious professorial career with the very rare 50-year service award. By then, she had served on the advisory committee of over 75 percent of all awarded Wayne State anthropology PhDs.

Kaplan had a small but pivotal role in the integration of Atlanta’s hotel and convention industry in 1954, before the civil rights movement had succeeded in integrating hotels, restaurants, and other public accommodations. She convinced her husband, then secretary of the Anthropology Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), that he shouldn’t organize the anthropology program—or even attend the AAAS annual meeting—slated for segregated hotels in Atlanta.  He wrote to the executive director that some members (at first just Kaplan; later many more) wouldn’t attend a meeting where informal gatherings of all members would not be possible in the official hotels, so he would not organize an anthropological program.

The executive board counter-proposed that the Anthropology Section should meet at Morehouse College, a historically Black institution, where all members could attend. Following the meeting, a resolution that the organization should never again meet in a location where each and every member would not be able to participate fully in both formal and informal activities was put to the entire membership. It passed decisively, as reported in the New York Times and soon thereafter, the hotels in Atlanta were integrated.

As was common practice during the 1950s and ‘60s, Kaplan bore the principal responsibility for childrearing and household management, in addition to her academic and teaching responsibilities. In later years she enjoyed more freedom and recognition, and conducted research on the health care experiences of Pakistani immigrants (and second and third generation Pakistani families) in London, United Kingdom, in addition to pursuing other interests (academic and otherwise).

Kaplan is survived by her children: Robert Lasker of Beverly Hills, Michigan, Edward “Ted” Lasker of Farmington Hills, Michigan, and Anne Lasker of Grand Rapids, Michigan, as well as by her grandson, Wilson Eduardo Beltran Lasker, currently living and working in Tokyo, Japan. She is also survived by most of her nearly innumerable students and many colleagues. She was predeceased by her beloved husband, Gabriel Ward Lasker (1912–2002).

(Robert Lasker)

Cite as: Lasker, Robert. 2021. “Bernice Antoville “Bunny” Kaplan.” Anthropology News website, March 19, 2021. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1602

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