University of Rochester

Professor Emerita of Anthropology Grace Gredys Harris Dies at 85

January 5, 2012

Grace Gredys Harris, professor emerita of anthropology and of religion at the University of Rochester and known for her insights into the cultural meaning of religious rituals in Africa, died Dec. 20. She was 85.

Professor Harris was a maverick in many ways, say her former colleagues. She made her mark initially exploring "spirit possession" among the Taita of Kenya. Her 1957 paper describing the symbolism of that ritual has been widely cited by anthropologists.

Arriving in Rochester in 1961 just as the new Department of Anthropology and Sociology emerged, she became the lone woman in an all-male faculty. For her first seven years on campus, she was limited to part time; her husband, Alfred Harris, was the family member who had been appointed to the department and spouses were prohibited from holding full-time positions in the same department. It was an era, she recalled in 1996, when the College faculty defeated a proposal to open faculty recruitment to all persons, irrespective of race, religion or sex.

Her struggle for a professional career in the University informed her "concern about the place of women in academia," says Dean Harper, professor emeritus of sociology, former colleague, and friend for many decades.

But by 1968, Professor Harris was appointed a full-time associate professor. She rose to professor in 1977 and served as department chair from 1977 to 1983. She helped establish the doctoral program in anthropology in 1963. "The program was path breaking at the time," says Anthony Carter, professor emeritus of anthropology at Rochester, because it was the first program in the United States to follow the British model of social anthropology.

For many years, Professor Harris taught the program's core seminar in social anthropology required of all graduate students. She supervised 10 doctoral students, guiding fieldwork in Okinawa, Africa, India, Iceland, Brazil, and the United States.

"She had no patience for superficial thinking or pretending that you knew something you didn't," says Ayala Emmett, associate professor of anthropology at Rochester who completed her Ph.D. under Professor Harris. "She really asked students for the best of their intellectual capacity. She demanded that they have a very firm grasp of theory. She always wanted students to describe ethnology in great detail and methodologically, with rigorous thinking theoretically."

But she was fair and generous with her time, helping students land highly competitive grants for research, says Emmett. She also instilled in students a deep sense of moral responsibility toward the people and cultures they observed. "She taught that they give us this gift of cultural knowledge and we should treat it with great respect," Emmett added.

In her own research, Professor Harris continued the examination of ritual in her 1978 book Casting Out Anger: Religion among the Taita of Kenya. Published by Cambridge University Press, the work also explores the ways in which people assign moral meaning to sickness and other calamities. She pursued that question in Rochester clinics and hospitals as well during a year of research in the early 1980s, asking how American patients used concepts like stress to understand illness and accidents. In 2007 her book was reissued as a paperback by Cambridge University Press.

In 2005 she donated to the University of Iceland at Reykjavik over 3000 books and journals from the library that she and her husband had acquired over the years.

A graduate of the University of Chicago, where she obtained both her bachelors of philosophy and master's degrees, Professor Harris received her doctorate in anthropology from Cambridge University in England in 1956. She taught at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Brandeis University before coming to Rochester. In 1996, after 35 years at the University, she retired and was appointed professor emerita.

Professor Harris was an active member of the Greek Orthodox Church. For several years she resided in an apartment at the Riveredge Manor, part of the Episcopal Church Home on Mt. Hope Avenue; after a stroke she moved to the nursing home there where she lived until her death. Her husband, Alfred Harris, died in 2001.

A memorial service will be held at the Chapel of the Episcopal Church Home on Thursday, April 12 at 3:30.