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Pioneering Anthropologist, Prolific Teacher, Dies

Many of the items found in Harvard Yard are stored in the Peabody Museum.
Many of the items found in Harvard Yard are stored in the Peabody Museum.
By Zara Zhang, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: September 20, 2014, at 4:23 p.m.

Former Chair of the Anthropology Department Irven DeVore, who taught generations of Harvard undergraduates a lotteried class popularly known as “Sex," died last Tuesday of cardiac failure. He was 80.

During his 37-year tenure at Harvard, DeVore chaired the Anthropology Department and directed the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. However, he was best known to undergraduates as the instructor of Science B-29: "Human Behavioral Biology," usually referred to by students as "Sex." According to a 2001 ariticle in Harvard Magazine, almost a third of students who passed through the College from 1970 to 2000 took the class, which amounts to between 12,000 and 15,000 students.

The Texas-born scholar studied indigenous people in Botswana, hunter-gatherers in Democratic Republic of the Congo, and baboons in Kenya. Scholars in the field, who taught with or studied under him said DeVore was one of the founders of modern behavioral biology as applied to human beings.

Irven DeVore served as a curator and director at Harvard's Peabody Museum for many years of his nearly four-decade stay at Harvard.
Irven DeVore served as a curator and director at Harvard's Peabody Museum for many years of his nearly four-decade stay at Harvard. By Rohan W. Goel

Terrence W. Deacon, now an anthropology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-taught Science B-29 with DeVore.

“He was a very difficult person to teach with, in part because he was so good,” Deacon said. “He was a great story-teller with his southern accent and calm demeanor.”

According to Deacon, DeVore started an initiative called the “Simian Seminar” at his home in Cambridge, Mass., where prominent scholars in the field made presentations on their latest research in his living room.

“The field of biological anthropology really was developed almost in his living room. It was an incredible place where new ideas in the field took place,” Deacon said.

Gregory T. Laden, who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1992, was one of DeVore’s advisees. According to Laden, DeVore almost “single-handedly invented the field of primate studies,” and was instrumental to bringing more women into a traditionally male-dominated field.

“At Harvard in the 1960s, if you were a woman in graduate school you couldn’t sit in a seminar. You had to sit in the hallway,” Laden said. “DeVore launched more women in their careers than there were in the entire field for several other institutions.”

Sarah B. Hrdy ’68, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Davis, was DeVore’s first female graduate student. According to Hrdy, DeVore was a “fabulous lecturer” who was a “master” at commanding his audience.

“He had for spotting talents,” Hrdy said. “He was a catalyst in giving people free rein to just go out there and do things.”

Daniel E. Lieberman ’86, chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and a former student of DeVore’s, said DeVore was a “delightful, kind, and nurturing” professor who had an “infectious enthusiasm for the subject.”

“He was extremely avuncular…. His door was always open, and he was never too busy to help anybody. He was sort of like everybody’s advisor,” Lieberman said.

DeVore is survived by his wife, daughter, and grandchildren. No memorial service has been scheduled to date.

—Contributing writer So-Young Iris Chung contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff Writer Zara Zhang can be reached at

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: September 30, 2014

An earlier version of this article stated that Irven DeVore was a curator at Harvard's Peadbody Museum. To clarify, DeVore also served as the museum's director in the 1990s.

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