Groundbreaking Scholar, Beloved Mentor

Professor George Armelagos

By Carol Clark

Image of Professor George ArmelagosGeorge Armelagos, professor of anthropology at Emory and one of the founders and leaders of the field of paleopathology, died May 15, six days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Armelagos, seventy-seven, came to Emory in 1993 as the Goodrich C. White Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and helped solidify the university’s reputation as a national leader in the biocultural approach to anthropology. He continued to teach, mentor, and publish until his death.

“George was a joyous man who loved life, people, and his work,” said Peter Brown, Emory professor of anthropology and global health. “He taught all of us many things—humility, generosity, curiosity, hard work, and the critical importance of social relationships.”

He also was a prolific scientist, leaving behind thirteen books and monographs and more than 250 journal articles.

While a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Armelagos worked on a dig in Sudanese Nubia, including human remains that dated back five hundred to ten thousand years. He didn’t restrict his analysis to individual skeletons, applying epidemiology and demography to study patterns of illness and death among populations. This revolutionary approach led to a flurry of groundbreaking papers.

One of Armelagos’s major contributions was this marriage of biology with archeology. He used this approach to ask “some of the really big questions of our time,” said anthropologist Debra Martin in a 2013 article. “He showed how the past sheds light not only on the origins of human conditions, but where we’re going.”

Armelagos made significant contributions to our understanding of the evolutionary history of infectious diseases like syphilis and was a world expert on the impact of the human diet on evolution. In 1980, he cowrote Consuming Passions, about the anthropology of eating.

In addition to writing about food, he was an accomplished chef who cooked gourmet meals for his students and turned the dining table of his home into an extension of the classroom.

Recent graduate Megan Light 14C, winner of the 2014 Marion Luther Brittain Award (see story), was nominated for the award by Armelagos.

“George was much more than just a professor for me and many other students at Emory. He had such a passion for what he did and, even more so, did everything he could to ensure that his students enjoyed the material as well,” Light says. “Learning from the best in the field can’t be beat, but beyond the classroom he was so interested in everything else that was going on in his students’ lives. That’s the kind of guy he was. A great professor and an even better mentor.”

Armelagos won 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. Prior to chairing Emory’s Department of Anthropology from 2003 to 2009, he was a professor at the University of Utah, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the University of Florida.

Gifts honoring Armelagos can be made to two funds he established at Emory, the Armelagos-Brown Bio-Cultural Lecture and the Armelagos Graduate Teaching Award.

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