Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Anthropologist inspires students to embrace the world

“It kind of blows you away,” Peter Brown says of the many success stories of his students, who have gone on to careers in academia and health care.

By Carol Clark

Someone once videotaped Emory anthropologist Peter Brown teaching a class. One of his sons, who was around 4-years-old at the time, was shocked when he saw the video.

“He asked me, ‘Daddy, why are you yelling at all those people?’” Brown recalls, laughing. “Sometimes I can get really worked up while giving lectures.”

That passion netted Brown two major career awards in 2012: The American Anthropological Association (AAA)/Oxford University Press Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in Anthropology and the Society for Medical Anthropology Graduate Student Mentoring Award. Both awards – the first recognition by his peers, and the second by his students – were presented at the recent AAA annual meeting in San Francisco.

“I’ve been an anthropologist for half-a-century,” says George Armelagos, one of Brown’s colleagues at Emory, “and I’ve never seen anyone receive two teaching awards at one meeting. Peter has taught more than 3,000 students at Emory, but nationwide, he’s reached more than 180,000 through his books.”

When one of those former Emory students told Brown that she was headed to Malawi to apply her new skills as a medical doctor, Brown felt immensely proud, and asked her what useful knowledge she had retained from his anthropology courses.

She wrote back: “What I really remember is the story of how the town doctor (in Sardinia) came to your door after some fishermen saw you hanging out the laundry. They were worried because the only reason a man would do the laundry was if his wife was terribly sick! Your wife Betsy was fine, but you said that you learned an important lesson in appropriate sex-role behavior. It was a funny story for sure.”

The housewives of Sardinia. While researching the effects of malaria eradication in 1976, Peter Brown, at left, learned that Italian men rarely do laundry.

In nominating Brown for the awards, several of his students described how he cultivated their interest in medical anthropology by combining facts and personal stories.

“I try to draw on my experiences to help students better understand their own lives, and their own world,” Brown says.

Emory graduate student Kathryn Bouskill recalls how Brown commemorated World AIDS Day last year with a moving talk that wove in stories about his brother and brother-in-law, to whom he was very close, and who both lost their lives to AIDS. “Many students in the lecture hall had tears in their eyes, and many expressed to me afterwards that they had never heard a personal account of HIV/AIDS,” Bouskill wrote to the AAA awards committee. “They said it gave them a compassionate view of real-world issues that they will hold with them long after graduation.”

Brown grew up in Los Angeles where his early passions were ecology and the Boy Scouts. “They say anthropologists are sociologists who like to camp,” Brown says, adding that he knew fairly early that he wanted to be a teacher.

He attended Notre Dame, and then graduate school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he honed his interest in medical anthropology and disease ecology. Brown was finishing up his PhD when Emory offered him a job in 1978.

"I think it's important to teach with optimism and identify heroes," says Brown. He cites a Bangladesh campaign for simple, life-saving oral rehydration as a global health success story.

“I told my wife that I would go anywhere with a football team,” Brown recalls. “That was a joke, because pretty much every college had football.”

Emory, of course, did not. The small, private college had not been on Brown’s radar, but he accepted the offer to become one of the three founding faculty members of Emory’s new anthropology department. The next year, Emory received what was then the largest single gift to higher education in U.S. history: The $105 million Woodruff Fund.

“Who gets chances like that? I felt unbelievably lucky, to be part of a growing department at a growing university,” Brown recalls.

Brown was among the key faculty who helped Emory anthropology develop a strongly collaborative, bio-cultural niche, and gain a reputation as one of the leading graduate programs for anthropologists in the country. The students can draw on resources from throughout the University, including the Rollins School of Public Health (where Brown also teaches), and the adjacent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For undergraduates, Brown created a Global Health Minor. “No matter what their major, I want students to become international citizens and understand that the living conditions in most of the world are not nearly as luxurious as here,” Brown says. “In many places, what’s needed to improve health is not CAT scanners and other technology, but sewage systems and better nutrition.”

Brown has developed and taught some two-dozen different courses while at Emory, in addition to conducting research and writing books. During the course of his career, “international health” evolved into what is now called “global health,” encompassing scores of non-governmental agencies that brought more money and actors to the table.

“Incredible progress has been made,” Brown says, “things have been done that I wouldn’t have thought possible.”

After the cause of HIV/AIDS was found, he notes, anti-retroviral drugs were developed relatively fast, the price of the drugs soon came down, and wealthier nations began funding their widespread use in the developing world.

Brown shares a dinner with former students Sarah Willen, center, and Svea Closser, right, and Closser's 4-year-old son, Kaif.

Brown also cites the success of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, or BRAC, which he calls “the largest NGO you’ve never heard of.” BRAC helped spur a child-survival revolution by targeting the deadly effects of diarrheal disease. “They teach people how to use a Gatorade-like solution for oral rehydration,” Brown says. “They scaled up a liter of water, a handful of sugar and a pinch of salt into a major health-care intervention.”

Brown believes in focusing on the hopeful examples amid the complex problems facing global health. “I think it’s important to teach with optimism and identify heroes,” he says. “If you’re a pessimist, you’re not helping students at all.”

That affirming spirit made a big difference in the life of Aun Lor, who attended Emory after surviving the “killing fields” genocide of Cambodia, where he lost his father, his three older brothers and his sister. “These experiences could have set me on the wrong path to self-destruction, but among a few people who have helped me channel my frustration and energy into something positive was Peter Brown,” Lor wrote to the AAA awards committee. “I learned from Peter that among my best teaching and advocacy tools are my life experiences. These experiences give me a real voice.”

Lor, who was mentored by Brown both as an undergraduate at Emory and a graduate student at Rollins School of Public Health, now works at the CDC.

“It kind of blows you away,” Brown says of the many accomplishments of his students who have gone on to successful careers in academia and health care.

His mentoring often evolves into friendships that extend far beyond Emory.

Svea Closser, now an assistant professor at Middlebury College, wrote that one of her favorite memories of Brown occurred after she received her PhD and attended a conference in Mexico. “Peter rented a minivan to drive me and many other current and former grad students across Mexico, all the while tirelessly playing ‘Guess What Animal I Am’ with my four-year-old,” Closser wrote. “And, of course, he made time at the conference to give thoughtful, much-appreciated advice to an undergraduate student of mine.”

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Credits: Top photo by Carol Clark; Bangladesh photo by; other photos courtesy of Peter Brown. 


  1. Great article. Congratulations Peter.

  2. Well written & well deserved! Dr. Brown was the reason I chose to come to Emory as an undergrad. I knew he was a great thinker and exceptional teacher. What I discovered after taking my first course was that he was also a compassionate, involved global citizen and an incredible mentor with a proclivity to find the humor and hope in every circumstance. To say that Emory is lucky to have him as part of the community doesn't go quite far enough!