Frederic Ward Putnam

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Frederic Ward Putnam (April 16, 1839 – August 14, 1915) was an American naturalist and anthropologist, who developed two of the nation's most notable anthropological departments: at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. He also developed four of the nation’s most respected anthropological museums: the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, and the Anthropological Museum of the University of California, Berkeley. His research pioneered archaeological excavations in North and Central America, inspiring others to continue and expand this work. Putnam's life and work testify to his talent for observation and his organizational abilities, both of which he used to the fullest extent in contributing to the records of the science of life.


Frederic Ward Putnam was born on April 16, 1839, in Salem, Massachusetts, into a New England family whose ancestors could be tracked down to the first settlers of America. Putnam attended private school in Massachusetts and was home schooled for several years.

Already as a young boy he showed great interest in nature. He studied the birds in his area, and at the age of 16, published the List of the Birds of Essex County (1856). Through this work he was invited to become curator of ornithology in the Essex Institute, a position he accepted in 1856. One year later, at the age of 17, he entered Harvard University to study zoology under Louis Agassiz.

At Harvard, Putnam revealed his enormous talent for natural observation, catching the eye of his mentor Louis Agassiz, who made Putnam his assistant (a position in which he served from 1857 to 1864). Under the influence of Agassiz, Putnam’s changed his interest from ornithology to ichthyology. In 1864, he left Harvard, without a degree, to become curator of vertebrates for the Essex Institute. In the same year, he married Adelaide Martha Edmands, with whom he had three children: Eben Putnam, Alice Edmands Putnam, and Ethel Appleton Fiske Lewis.

In 1869, he was appointed director of the Museum in the Essex Institute, a duty he continued until 1873. He also served from 1859 to 1868 as curator of ichthyology at the Boston Society of Natural History; and from 1867 to 1869 as superintendent of the Museum of the East Indian Marine Society.

In 1873, he accepted his first major appointment as permanent secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a position he maintained for 25 years. As recognition for his contribution to science, in 1898, he was appointed the president of the association. In 1901, he served as president of the American Folklore Society, and in 1905, as president of the American Anthropological Association.

From 1874 to 1909, Putnam served as the curator of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. He directed archaeological digs across 37 U.S. states and in other countries. He reorganized the museum's anthropological collection, almost doubling the number of artifacts. Parallel to his work at the Peabody, Putnam was asked to organize the anthropological department in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. From 1894 to 1903, he worked as curator of the anthropological department, organizing the museum’s collection and conducting numerous field trips and studies.

Putnam remarried in 1882, to Esther Orne Clark.

In 1891, as preparation for the World's Columbian Exposition that took place in 1893 in Chicago, Putnam began the project of organizing the anthropological section for the exhibition. The collection that Putnam organized became the basis of Chicago's well-known Field Museum of Natural History.

In 1903, Putnam moved to California, becoming the first professor of anthropology and director of the Anthropological Museum of the University of California, Berkeley. Although already troubled by ill health, he dedicated himself to his new work. During his leadership, the anthropological department became one of the largest in the nation.

Putnam retired in 1909, at the age of 70. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1915.


As an archaeologist, Putnam relied mostly on his own explorations, the scope of which was rather limited. However, his pioneering work became a base for all future field work in this area. He conducted research on shell-heaps in Maine and Massachusetts, mound builders’ remains in Ohio, caves with aboriginal findings in Kentucky, the geological antiquity of man in New Jersey and California, and conventionalization in the ancient art of Panama. His major work was published in his report Archaeology, in which Putnam reviewed the pre-history of California. For a long time after its publication, the report remained the most fundamental treatment of the subject, and was used as a sourcebook in numerous subsequent studies performed in California.

During his lifetime, Putnam published more than 400 different articles, books, and reports, in the areas of zoology, anthropology, and archaeology. He was also a founder and the editor of the periodical American Naturalist.

Among the numerous positions that Putnam held during his lifetime, the two most important were: secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and curator of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology of Harvard University. Both positions required great organizational abilities, which Putnam did not lack. At the Peabody, he developed the anthropological department and reorganized the museum’s collection, making it one of the largest of its kind in the United States. Putnam’s organizational skills were also evident in his work at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, and later at the anthropological department of the University of California. Putnam is responsible for making both departments—at Harvard and at the University of California—two of the most respected in the nation.


Frederic Putnam was one of the first who recognized the value of American archaeological remains, and started several digs in North and Central America. He was followed by numerous archaeologists who were inspired by his work. Putnam’s report Archaeology served as a major sourcebook for all the subsequent excavations in California for decades after its publication.

Putnam's greatest legacy lies in developing two of the nation's most distinguished centers of anthropological research—Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. Under his leadership, anthropological departments proliferated and became more distinguished from other departments in the social sciences.

Putnam is regarded by many as the father of anthropological museums. Under his leadership, four of the nation’s most respected museums were developed: the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, and the Anthropological Museum of the University of California, Berkeley.


  • Putnam, Frederic W. 1973. The archaeological reports of Frederic Ward Putnam: Selected from the annual reports of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Harvard University, AMS Press. ISBN 0404573088
  • Putnam, Frederic W. 1973. The selected archaeological papers of Frederic Ward Putnam. AMS Press. ISBN 0404573053
  • Putnam, Frederic W. 1878. The manufacture of soapstone pots by the Indians of New England. Salem Press.
  • Putnam, Frederic W. 1883. Iron from the Ohio mounds; a review of the statements and misconceptions of two writers of over sixty years ago. Reprint Services Corp. ISBN 0781244765
  • Putnam, Frederic W. 1887. Conventionalism in ancient American art. Salem Press.
  • Putnam, Frederic W. 1899. Address by Frederic Ward Putnam, the retiring president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Reprint Services Corp. ISBN 0781244021
  • Putnam, Frederic W. 1902. Archaeological and ethnological research in the United States: a brief summary for 1901. Reprint Services Corp. ISBN 078124403X

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Boas, Franz. 1915. Frederic Ward Putnam. American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • Conn, Steven. 2000. Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876–1926. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226114937
  • Mead, Frances H. 1909. Bibliography of Frederic Ward Putnam. Torch Press.
  • Williams, Stephen. 1941. Putnam Anniversary Volume: Anthropological Essays Presented to Frederick Ward Putnam, in Honor of His Seventieth Birthday, April 16, 1909. AMS Press Inc. ISBN 0404106269

External links

All links retrieved April 11, 2024.


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