Campus anthropology professor emerita Elizabeth Colson dies at 99

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Elizabeth Colson, a campus professor emerita of anthropology best known for calling attention to the disruptive effects of displacement, died last month in the home she built in Zambia. She was 99.

Ed Liebow, executive director of the American Anthropological Association, said that Colson’s success in anthropology stemmed from her personal commitment to her subjects and research, which spanned a vast range of topics. Over the course of more than seven decades, Colson studied the impact of resettlement on the Tonga people, who were displaced from the Zambezi river valley in Zambia by the construction of the Kariba Dam.

“We went for a day to villages where she had worked since the 1940s,” said UC San Francisco associate professor of medical anthropology and health policy Judith Justice, who wrote her dissertation under Colson.  “That was very impressive — to see the relationships she had with people. She had known their fathers and their grandfathers.”

About six years ago, after Colson had retired from her position as a professor, she moved to Zambia permanently. According to Liebow, Colson’s 1971 book on her research there, “Social Consequences of Resettlement: The Impact of the Kariba Resettlement Upon the Gwembe Tonga,” was influential not only within the field of anthropology but also to the decision making of international organizations like the World Bank.

Liebow added that Colson’s research still informs how anthropologists understand the burdens and benefits of economic development today.

Colson earned her PhD in anthropology in 1945 from Radcliffe College at Harvard University and, in 1964, joined the UC Berkeley anthropology department as one of its first female professors. David Leonard, a campus professor emeritus of political science, said he admired the progress that Colson made for women in academia.

“She would sit quietly in a meeting and listen,” Leonard said. “And then finally when the men had become really silly in their bombastic observations, she would really quietly but plottingly say something that got to the core of what was being discussed.”

Leonard noted that when Colson first became a professor, the anthropology department held its faculty meetings in the men’s faculty club, which women were not permitted to enter. He said that the women in the department had to sneak in through the back door of the establishment, and if a waiter saw them, they would be kicked out.

“Young women at (UC) Berkeley need to know just how hard their predecessors worked to build a place for them,” Leonard said.

Colson taught both undergraduate and graduate courses on Africa, development and anthropological theory until she retired in 1984. Colson also played a key role throughout the 1980s and 1990s in establishing the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

In 2015, Colson was awarded the Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award, which honors outstanding scholarly work or educational service.

Colson published two research papers in 2016 and continued her research up until her death, said her colleague Laura Nader, campus professor of anthropology. Nader added that Colson had a four-and-a-half hour burial that included singing, drumming and dancing throughout.

“She moved to Zambia because that was really her home,” Nader said. “Her field site was her home.”

Jessica Lynn is an assistant news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jessicailynn.