Obituary: George J. Armelagos, Retired Professor of Anthropology

May 21, 2014
George Armelagos

George J. Armelagos, 77, of Atlanta, former professor of anthropology, died May 15 a week after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Born in Detroit, he received a B.A. with honors from the University of Michigan in 1958 and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Colorado in 1968.

He joined the anthropology faculty in 1968 and was instrumental in shaping the newly developed Ph.D. program after he arrived. He retired from the faculty in 1990 and taught at the University of Florida for three years before his appointment as the Goodrich C. White Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Emory University. He served as chair of the anthropology department at Emory from 2003-09, and continued to teach, mentor and publish until his death.

“He was one of his generation’s most celebrated anthropologists,” said his former colleague Alan Swedlund, professor emeritus of anthropology, adding that Armelagos made “many significant and pioneering contributions to anthropology and the intersection of human biology, archaeology and culture.”

His contributions to the field of anthropology were immense, particularly in the bio-cultural approach to the discipline. He pioneered the field of paleopathology, the analysis of skeletal remains to reconstruct how cultural changes lead to changing patterns of disease and nutrition in ancient populations. His contributions included a new understanding of the biological consequences of early agriculture and the evolutionary history of infectious diseases like syphilis. From early in his career he wrote courageously about the myth of “race” as a biological concept, and the reality of racism as a social fact that affects health. He had a lifetime interest in food and nutrition. In addition to writing about food, he was a master chef who relished sharing food and conversation with his numerous students and friends. He was a prolific researcher and author, often collaborating with his students and colleagues. He published 13 books and monographs and more than 250 journal articles.

He was awarded the highest honors for his scholarship and service to anthropology, including the Viking Medal from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Charles Darwin Award for Lifetime Achievement to Biological Anthropology from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology from the American Anthropological Association.

He was recognized with the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1973 and the Chancellor’s Medal as a Chancellor’s Lecturer in 1980.

“Most importantly, George was a much beloved teacher and friend to thousands of undergraduates and hundreds of graduate students,” said Swedlund. “He was cherished for his intellect, generosity, encouragement, humility and humor.”

He leaves two brothers, Nick and James Armelagos of Detroit, as well as numerous family, friends, former students and colleagues throughout the world. A private internment service will be held near St Catherine’s Island, Georgia. Memorial donations are suggested to the Armelagos Lecture Fund, c/o James Mallet, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 40 Campus Center Way, Amherst 01003