Theodore Doney McCown, an American biological (physical) anthropologist, is best known for three major contributions he made to his science. First is his study of the Neanderthal skeletons from the Skhul and Tabun caves in Israel and the publication of his work in 1939 in collaboration with the British anatomist Sir Arthur Keith (1866-1955), The Stone Age of Mount Carmel: The Fossil Human Remains From the Levalloiso—Mousterian. Second is McCown’s pioneering program of research and teaching forensic anthropology as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during the mid-20th century when there were only a few other practitioners in this applied field of anthropology. At Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology, he supervised more than 45 graduate students, with a considerable number of these students constituting the first generation of practicing forensic anthropologists entering academic and institutional positions. Third, McCown led two expeditions to the Narmada Valley of India (in 1957 and 1965), where he established the stratagraphic contexts of the alluvial deposits containing prehistoric stone tools of the Middle Pleistocene epoch.
Born in Macomb, Illinois, McCown moved with his family to Berkeley in 1913 when his father, Chester Charlton McCown, took the position of dean of the Pacific School of Religion. Later, when his father moved to Transjordan to serve as director of the Palestine Exploration Fund and conducted archaeological excavations at the site of Jerash, Theodore participated in the excavations. Theodore shared this interest with his younger brother, Donald Eugene McCown (1910-1985), who became recognized as an authority on the archaeology of Persepolis and various ancient sites in Iran.
Theodore McCown’s academic life began with his receipt of a B.A. degree in anthropology in 1929 from the University of California, Berkeley. The following year, he was again in the Near East as a member of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, where he assisted Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968) in her ongoing excavations at the Mount Carmel caves. During his return visit to the caves in 1930, he was involved in the discovery of Neanderthal skeletons in the Skhul Cave. Additional skeletons were found there and at the adjacent Tabun Cave from 1932 to 1937. McCown and Keith undertook a collaborative study of the bones during this period after the fossils had been forwarded to the Royal College of Surgeons in London. McCown had entered his graduate program at Berkeley in 1930; hence, his studies toward the doctoral degree, awarded in 1939, coincided with repeated trips to the Mount Carmel region.
During the year he received his Ph.D. in anthropology, McCown joined the faculty of his alma mater, where the department was then under the chairmanship of Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960). McCown rose to the rank of full professor by 1951 and later served as chairman of his department, curator of physical anthropology at the Lowie/Hearts Museum, joint appointee to the Department of Criminology, and associate dean of the College of Letters and Science. During these years, he conducted archaeological excavations in Peru under the auspices of the Institute of Andean Research. But his academic career was interrupted by the military service from 1942 to 1945 when he was assigned duty in Graves Registration of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps at the San Francisco Presidio. His assignments included personal identification of war dead, certainly a stimulus to his postwar interest in practicing and teaching forensic anthropology at a time when the only academic instructors in this discipline were Earnest A. Hooton (1887-1954) at Harvard University and Wilton Marion Krogman (1903-1987) at the University of Chicago and later the University of Pennsylvania.
Among McCown’s forensic cases were the identification of Junipero Serra (1715-1784) at the Franciscan Mission in Carmel, California; the identification of Juan Bautista de Anza (1735-1788), founder of San Francisco, in Arizpe, Mexico; and the negative identification of remains reputed to be those of the American aviatrix Amelia Earhart (1898-1937) brought from a Pacific island to McCown’s Berkeley laboratory. Other forensic anthropologists have continued identification of the “eminent dead” since McCown’s death in 1969.
Theodore Doney McCown and Sir Arthur Keith, circa 1938 at Buxton Brown Farm, Downe, Kent, England.
McCown’s philosophy of teaching stressed the interface of biological anthropology and cultural anthropology, arguing that “man is a part of ‘brute creation’ [and] that the processes of organic evolution apply as well to man as other animals.” Sherwood L. Washburn (1911-2000) joined the Berkeley department in 1958, two decades after McCown had created the program in biological anthropology, and together they laid the foundations for the prominence of that field at their university.
- Brooks, S. T. (1970). Theodore D. McCown, 1908-1969. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 32, 165-166.
- Kennedy, K. A. R. (1997). McCown, Theodore D(oney) (1908-1969). In F. Spencer (Ed.), History of physical anthropology (2nd ed., pp. 627-629). New York: Garland.
- Kennedy, K. A. R., & Brooks, S. T. (1984). Theodore D. McCown: A perspective on a physical anthropologist. Current Anthropology, 25, 99-103.
- McCown, T. D. (1952). The training and education of the professional physical anthropologist. American Anthropologist, 54, 313-317.
- McCown, T. D., & Keith, A. (1939). The Stone Age of Mount Carmel: The fossil human remains from the Levalloiso-Mousterian (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Clarendon.
- McCown, T. D., & Kennedy, K. A. R. (1971). Climbing man’s family tree: A collection of writings on human phylogeny, 1699-1971. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.