Although her father taught economics at the Wharton School, Margaret had to struggle to persuade him to send her to college.
At Barnard she studied with Franz Boas and his brilliant student Ruth Benedict. They convinced her to join them in a new science, anthropology, devoted to the study of varieties of human culture. Over Boas’s opposition, Margaret went by herself to Samoa to do field work. The result was a tremendously popular and influential book, Coming of Age in Samoa. Adolescence, she argued, is not inevitably a time of stress and conflict. While portraying the free and easy Samoan life, she was critical of American society for shrouding sexuality in secrecy.
Mead went on to a career of brilliant field work. While other anthropologists spent a lifetime studying one primitive tribe, she studied half a dozen.
In the 1920s and 30s the Pacific Islands and New Guinea still offered conditions that tested a scholar’s mettle. “The natives are superficially agreeable,” she once wrote home, “but they go in for cannibalism, headhunting, infanticide, incest, avoidance and joking relationships, and biting lice in half with their teeth.” She pushed back the boundaries of her science, and her clear style of writing and public speaking brought advanced ideas to the general public.