Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation


New York Foundation Records: Franz Boas' Project 26


Franz Boas (1858-1942) , often referred to as the "Father of Modern Anthropology," was a prominent German scholar who emigrated to the United States in 1885 and taught at Columbia University from 1896 until his retirement in 1936. It was under his influence that Columbia established its Department of Anthropology in 1902 and that the four fields concept of anthropology — integrating the disciplines of cultural/social anthropology, linguistics, biological anthropology, and archaeology — became widely accepted within American academia. Boas championed the concept of cultural relativism through his teaching and research, distancing himself from many of his contemporaries' focus on evolution and race and instead emphasizing the impact of culture and environment on human development and behavior.

In the 1930s Boas became increasingly alarmed by the use of pseudo-scientific claims to support anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, particularly in his native Germany by the National Socialist party. In 1933, he wrote numerous letters to Felix Warburg, a prominent German Jewish banker at Kuhn, Loeb & Company in New York and a Trustee of the New York Foundation, about his plans for "meeting the anti-Semitic agitation in this country" with scientific research. Warburg in turn recommended to his fellow Foundation trustees that they support Boas' work on what came to be known as Project 26. Correspondence about this project is in the New York Foundation records, recently donated to the Manuscripts and Archives division of the New York Public Library and now open for research.

In this October 9, 1933 letter, Boas explained his concerns to Warburg: "In Germany as well as in England and America, there is a whole group of scientists who are of the opinion that racial descent and character are closely related. I know this literature quite well and the number of scientists who defend this position is quite numerous." He named Sir Arthur Keith, Hans Günther, and Otto Reche in Europe, and Americans Lothrop Stoddard and Charles Davenport, as examples of those whose unsupported pseudo-science had gained traction.

Although Boas knew their claims were without scientific foundation, he also knew that scientific research was the only possible means "of actually proving that individual heredity and racial heredity are entirely different things and that while we may find certain characteristic traits are inherited in a family, the race is altogether too complex to infer that racial characteristics as such are inherited." He advised that "the only way to final success lies in undermining the pseudo-scientific basis on which the claims of racial superiority are based."

To do this, he needed funding, and Warburg encouraged the New York Foundation to support Boas' research. Following his advice, the Foundation awarded Boas $2,000 in 1934 and the same amount again in 1935 and 1936, towards his study of the "supposed importance of race in mental and social behavior," as well as physical build. In a 1935 progress report submitted to his funders, Boas summarized his findings on the subjects of "Bodily Build," "Gestures," "Criminality," "Intelligence," "Personality," and "Insanity" as they related to groups often derided for their alleged inferiority: Jews, Italians, and Negroes. As expected, Boas found that common assumptions and assertions about supposed racial heredity were scientifically untenable.

In an August 8, 1935 letter accompanying this progress report, Boas stressed the importance of showing "the general applicability of the results to all races both from the scientific point of view and in order to avoid the impression that this is a purely Jewish undertaking." Many of his supporters, including most of the trustees of the New York Foundation at that time, were Jewish, and he was aware that the sources of funding for his research might be used against him.

Boas continued investigations similar to Project 26 for the duration of his life. An excerpt of his farewell address on retirement from Columbia was published in The New York Times on July 5, 1936 and reads:

The race question is so acute at this time that you can't speak about it too often. People confuse individual heredity with race heredity. Individual heredity is a scientific reality, but to speak of "race heredity" is nonsense. What we know as "race" is largely a matter of environment. There is no such thing as a "pure" race. All European races are mixtures of many stocks [...] Germany is one of the most mixed stocks in Europe, and it is pure nonsense to speak of a "Germanic race."

Although Boas' research was unable to change the course of history, it was nonetheless tremendously significant.  As Thomas Gossett wrote in his 1963 book, Race: The History of an Idea in America: "It is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history."


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Post new comment