Sydel Silverman, 1933-2019

Anthropologist who stood up for her discipline remembered

April 18, 2019
Sydel Silverman

A leading anthropologist and ethnographer who proved a powerful advocate for her discipline has died.

Sydel Silverman was born in Chicago in 1933, the daughter of a rabbi and a homemaker who had emigrated to the US from Lithuania. The brightest of seven siblings, she took part in a radio quiz show as a child and studied at the University of Illinois. She shifted to the University of Chicago for a master’s in human development (1957), writing a thesis on the climacterium phase that precedes the menopause. She then embarked on a PhD in anthropology at Columbia University (1963) and began teaching at the City University of New York’s Queens College.

Although she spent much of her career at CUNY, going on to chair the anthropology department at Queens (1970-73) and to serve as executive officer of the PhD programme for the whole university (1974-86), Dr Silverman had to overcome a major initial obstacle. The rules then in force did not allow pregnant women to continue in employment. It was only the support of her sympathetic chair, Ernestine Friedl, that allowed her stay on while pregnant with her second daughter.

From early on, much of Dr Silverman’s fieldwork focused on Italy. She spent an extended period with her first husband, Mel Silverman, a painter, in the Umbrian hillside town of Monte Castello di Vibio looking at relationships between town and country, landlord and peasant. This research led to her pioneering book Three Bells of Civilization: The Life of an Italian Hill Town (1975). She would later study the famous Palio horse race that takes place in Siena every year.

In 1973-74, when the city of New York experienced a fiscal crisis, Dr Silverman played a major role in fighting back against CUNY’s plan to shut anthropology as a “non-essential” discipline. She published a survey of her discipline through nine central figures, Totems and Teachers: Perspectives on the History of Anthropology (1981; second edition, 2003). And on leaving the university, she served as president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York (1987-99).

Responsible for organising a prestigious series of conferences, Dr Silverman went on to describe her experiences in The Beast on the Table: Conferencing with Anthropologists (2002). She was highly supportive of new generations of scholars, forged tighter links with the Pan African Association of Anthropologists and established a scheme that enables anthropologists to archive their papers at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Dr Silverman died of cancer on 25 March and is survived by two daughters, a stepson, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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