Harry L. Shapiro was born on March 19, 1902 in Boston, Massachusetts, and died in New York in 1990. It is believed that Dr. Shapiro was the first person in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in physical anthropology.
He attended Boston Latin School where he received the prestigious Franklin Medal for outstanding academic achievement. He went on to do both his graduate and undergraduate work at Harvard University in Cambridge. With his sights set upon being a physician, he did not look into anthropology until his junior year. He then studied physical anthropology under his Ph.D. mentor, Dr. Ernest Hooton.
Dr. Shapiro's first research was at Massachusetts General Hospital studying nearsightedness and farsightedness in humans. In 1923, at the age of 21, he spend a year on Pitcairn Island studying the descendents of the Mutineers of the HMS Bounty, which resulted in his first publication.
He was offered his first professorship in 1932 at the University of Colorado, but turned it down because of his intense involvement with his field work (mostly in Hawaii and the South Pacific) at that time. He met Dr. Franz Boas after he came to the Museum of Natural History in New York, and worked with Dr. Boas on several research programs. It was not until 1938, at the request of Dr. Ralph Linton--Chair of the Columbia University Anthropology Department, that he became a Professor at Columbia. Says Dr. Shapiro, "I still feel that teaching is a better way than any other of learning." He remained a member of the teaching staff at Columbia until 1973.
His expertise in physical anthropology was often needed in various professional fields. He was consulted by lawyers in divorce cases, and by adoption agencies in the early 1920's and 1930's about racial questions. After World War II, when Congress passed a law requiring the return of all American war dead to the United States, Dr. Shapiro was called upon by the Quartermaster General's Office of American Graves Registration Command to identify unidentifed soldiers buried in Europe. The system he implemented then, is still used by the Armed Forces today to identify unknown soldiers.
One of Dr. Shapiro's major contributions to the anthropological community includes his search for the missing "Peking Man" fossil material. He received thousands of letter and telephone calls from people who thought they knew where the Peking Man was located. The closest, Dr. Shapiro believes, he ever got to finding the fossil was during a trip to Peking, China in 1978. He thinks he had found the very spot that Peking Man was buried--under a building destroyed by an earthquake. Unfortunately, he had a restricted visa, and he had to leave China before he could excavate the area. His twenty-year search is detailed in his book entitled Peking Man.
Dr. Shapiro taught at Columbia until 1973, and remained a respected and active member of the anthropology division at the American Museum of Natural History until his death in 1990.