Frederica de Laguna Northern Books

The Life of Frederica de Laguna - Part 2


Freddy's story begins with her father, Theodore Lopez de Leo de Laguna and mother, Grace Mead Andrus, who had both received Doctorates from Cornell. In 1907, they came to Bryn Mawr College, where both were to teach philosophy. Freddy, born in Ann Arbor (Michigan) 1906, was then one year old. Freddy was home-schooled until she was 9. In 1914-15, she went with her parents and her baby brother to France where she witnessed the start of the First World War. She would go back in 1921-22 and spend 6 months in a French “lycée de jeunes filles” at Versailles. Her parents actively supported her work, and her mother, a renowned scholar herself, was to accompany Freddy during several of her field work experiences.


After graduation,Summa Cum Laude, in 1927 from Bryn Mawr College, Freddy studied at Columbia under Franz Boas, and took classes with Ruth Benedict and Gladys Reichard at Barnard (1927-31). In 1928, she also studied prehistory in a summer field school in France under George Grant McCurdy of Yale. She visited prehistoric sites such as the cave paintings at Altamira in Spain. She met the Abbé Breuil in the cavern of the Trois Frères where he was sketching the remarkable frieze of horses below the “sorcerer” on the rock walls of the cavern.  She wrote that bare foot prints and hand marks of prehistoric adults and children were still fresh in the mud. That fall in Paris, she studied Palaeolithic art with the Abbé Breuil and took lessons with Marcellin Boule at the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine and Paul Rivet, curator of the Musée d’Ethnologie, in the old Trocadero building.

Then she went to London to read at the British Museum, and in 1929, she matriculated at the London School of Economics where she signed up for, among other courses, a seminar on “Magic, Science, and Religion” given by Bronislaw Malinowski. She then went on to study Palaeolithic and Eskimo collections in European and Scandinavian museums. In Denmark, she met Kaj Birket Smith and Therkel Mathiassen. The later asked her to be his research assistant on digs of Eskimo archaeological sites in Arctic Greenland (the Inuksuk site contained Norse artifacts as well).  Instead of staying for the projected six weeks, she served a six month apprenticeship (1929). While there, she met Knud Rasmussen and other polar explorers. This first fieldwork experience marked a decisive moment in her career: she decided to devote her life to anthropological research and she maintained an interest in the Arctic and especially in Greenland to the end of her career. In 1979, she returned there for fieldwork after having taken lessons in Danish and  renewing her friendship with colleagues in Denmark.

In 1930, before even completing her PhD, she had began her career in Alaskan archaeology with a survey of potential archaeological sites in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. Kaj Birket-Smith who was supposed to head the expedition fell sick and Freddy persuaded the Museum to let her go by herself. She received her PhD in Anthropology (Columbia 1933) in absentia while doing fieldwork in Alaska for the University of Pennsylvania Museum, WPA.  Her excavations in 1931-32 established the basic sequence of prehistoric Pacific Eskimo (Alutiiq) cultures, including that now known as the “Kachemak Tradition”. During this period, she encountered, then identified, the Eyak Indians as a separate linguistic community.

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