Blackwood, Beatrice Mary
- Chantal Knowles
Blackwood, Beatrice Mary (1889–1975), anthropologist, was born on 3 May 1889 at her parents' home at 3 Marlborough Hill, Marylebone, London, the eldest of the three children of James Blackwood (1822–1911), publisher, and his wife, Mary (1859–1953), a nurse, daughter of John Carter Chamberlayne. She was educated in London at Wycombe House School, and Paddington and Maida Vale high school. In 1908 she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was awarded a second-class honours degree in English language and literature in 1912.
In 1918 Blackwood took the Oxford diploma in anthropology with distinction and started work as research assistant to Professor Arthur Thomson in the department of human anatomy, then based in the University Museum, Oxford. After two years she was promoted to departmental demonstrator, and then took a BSc degree with a thesis on embryology in 1923. In 1924, as a Laura Spelman Rockefeller scholar, she embarked on a three-year anthropological investigation into the relationship between intelligence and physical type in North America. On her return to Oxford she became university demonstrator in ethnology, a post that was transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1935, where she remained until retirement.
Blackwood began fieldwork in 1929 in Buka and Bougainville, later part of Papua New Guinea, funded by the American National Research Council. The resulting publication, Both Sides of Buka Passage (1935), combined social anthropology, material culture, and technology, reflecting her ability to combine methodological approaches. In 1936, under the aegis of the Pitt Rivers Museum, she worked among the stone tool-using communities in the interior of New Guinea. The hallmark of all Blackwood's fieldwork was her adoption of a cat as companion. In the Upper Watut region, where few locals spoke the lingua franca of pidgin, the cat's antics proved essential in breaking down the barriers of communication between her and the warriors. After nine months her pioneering fieldwork was cut short when the area was declared ‘uncontrolled’ by the government. Rather than return home she spent the rest of her leave collecting in other, more accessible regions of Papua New Guinea. It is for this fieldwork, published as The Technology of a Modern Stone Age People in New Guinea (1950), that she is most fondly remembered as the diminutive woman who braved ‘cannibal country’ with only a kitten as companion.
After returning to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1938 Blackwood made a collecting trip to New Mexico, returning early owing to the outbreak of war in 1939. In 1943, as an acknowledgement of her professional achievements as an expert fieldworker, she was awarded the Rivers memorial medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. During the Second World War the museum closed and Blackwood and the curator, T. K. Penniman, devoted their time to creating a regional and typological card index for all the objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum. After requests from visiting researchers, who realized the value of Blackwood's comprehensive classification system, it was published in 1970 for use in other museums. She was made lecturer in ethnology at Oxford University in 1946. After her retirement in 1959, at the age of seventy, she continued to work at the Pitt Rivers Museum daily and was made an honorary curator in 1965.
Blackwood never married, having reportedly chosen at an early age between marriage and a career. An occasional poet, she wrote humorous verse for family and friends, often making light of arduous conditions in the field. She was made a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1921 and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1943. She died of pneumonia on 29 November 1975 at her home, 11 Wyndham House, Plantation Road, Oxford, within days of her final visit to the museum. She was cremated at Oxford crematorium and her ashes spread in the garden of remembrance there on 4 December.
- [H. Bryant], ed., Somerville College register, 1879–1959 (1961)
- The Times (2 Dec 1975)
- Oceania, 46 (1975–6), 234–7
- American Anthropologist, 78/2 (June 1976), 321–2
- Folklore, 87 (1976), 113–14
- Oxford Mail (1 Dec 1975)
- private information (2004)
- B. Blackwood, curriculum vitae, U. Oxf.
- N. Lutkehaus, ‘Beatrice Mary Blackwood (1889–1975)’, Woman anthropologists: selected biographies, ed. U. Gacs, A. Khan, J. McIntyre, and R. Weinberg (1989), 17–22
- b. cert.
- d. cert.
- U. Oxf., Pitt Rivers Museum, collections
- U. Oxf., Pitt Rivers Museum, diaries, field notes, letters, papers
- U. Oxf., Pitt Rivers Museum, 2 reels of cine film
- photograph, 1925, U. Oxf., Pitt Rivers Museum
- photograph, 1927, U. Oxf., Pitt Rivers Museum
- photograph, 1946, U. Oxf., Pitt Rivers Museum