Franz Boas was born at Minden, Westphalia, Germany, on July 9, 1858. After studying at the Universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel, he received a Ph.D. in physics with a minor in geography from the University of Kiel in 1881.
His first fieldwork experience was among the Eskimo in Baffinland, Canada, from 1883 to 1884. From 1885 to 1886, Boas conducted fieldwork under the auspices of several museums on the North Pacific Coast of North America. During this time he was also involved in an important project to bring the cultures of Native Americans to the general public as part of the Chicago World's Fair from 1892 to 1893.
Franz Boas pioneered the concept of life group displays, commonly known as dioramas, and exhibited skulls of various peoples to demonstrate the irrelevance of brain size and argue the diminished significance of theories of racial distinction between humans.
In 1896, Dr. Boas moved to New York and was appointed Assistant Curator of Ethnology and Somatology at the American Museum of Natural History, and Lecturer at Columbia University. Three years later, he became the first Professor of Anthropology at Columbia. While at the American Museum of Natural History, he created the Northwest Coast Indian exhibit which remains intact to this day. However, he found the bureaucracy of the museum constraining to his research and resigned in 1905. He then turned his full attention to educating new anthropologists and furthering research in every aspect of the field.
Dr. Boas studied and widely collected information on race, linguistics, art, dance, and archaeology--commanding all four subdisciplies of anthropology. From these studies he developed his theory of relativism, debunking the prevailing beliefs that Western Civilization is superior to less complex societies.
After guiding the Columbia Anthropology Department for forty-one years, Boas became Professor Emeritus in 1937. In 1942, Boas died, having established anthropology as a recognized and distinguished science.