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Francis P. Conant

Francis P. Conant, Anthropologist who Used Satellite Data, Dies at 84

 

Picture of frances p conantFrancis P. Conant, a cultural anthropologist who pioneered the use of satellite-delivered remote sensing data to improve agriculture and health conditions in remote areas of Africa, died January 27, 2011, in New York at the age of 84.

In 1974, Conant had carried out more than a decade of fieldwork, chiefly in Nigeria, when a colleague at the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed him satellite images of his fieldwork area taken by the Earth Resources Technology Satellite Program. That program, soon renamed Landsat, was then in its infancy. Initially administered by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Landsat was an early application of space-program technology to global change research, providing not only images but data on water, soils and other resources. Conant became an enthusiast for the use of Landsat in anthropology, seeing in it the potential to provide social scientists with continuous information on ground conditions in remote areas—something that traditional fieldwork methods, based on data obtained during occasional visits, could not offer. With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, he convened experts representing anthropology, geography, electrical engineering and remote sensing and set up an area in Kenya’s West Pokot district, testing Landsat’s use to examine shifting cultivation patterns, livestock management, and settlement patterns.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, Conant continued to pair remote sensing data with geospatial information gathered on-the-ground to analyze problems such as desertification, famine, population growth, and the spread of communicable diseases, including AIDS. Issues of technical expertise and access had initially stalled the wider use of remote sensing technologies within anthropology, but by the 1990s these technologies—and their integration with ethnographic methods—were in wide use.

Francis Paine Conant was born to Margaret Paine and Melvin Conant on February 27, 1926, in Manhattan. Despite financial hardship during the Great Depression, his parents sent him to St. Bernard’s School and later to Phillips Exeter Academy. As a boy, Conant delighted in building model airplanes that proved good enough to hang from the ceiling of Polk’s, the famous emporium for model train and plane enthusiasts, which in return supplied him with their latest kits.

Admitted to Cornell University, he instead enlisted in the Army at age 17 and saw combat in the European theater as a field artillery observer for the 294th Field Artillery Battalion. After crossing the Rhine, his unit liberated two concentration camps.

As a student at Cornell after the war, he soon accepted an invitation from a Finnish fellow student to come to Finland and help relocate families, homesteads and livestock further from the Russian border in order to protect people and reduce the risk of another Russian invasion. After graduating from Cornell, he covered Africa as a reporter for United Press, traveling throughout the continent. He later worked at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, occasionally serving as Alger Hiss’s personal driver.

Conant entered graduate studies in anthropology at Columbia University, completing his PhD in 1960, while doing fieldwork in Nigeria. After stints assembling ethnographic collections for the Provincial Museum in Jos, Nigeria, and the American Museum of Natural History Museum, and teaching at the University of Massachusetts, he served as a research associate for the Culture and Ecology Project in East Africa organized by Walter Goldschmidt of the University of California, Los Angeles. Conant’s fieldwork in Kenya produced more collections for the American Museum of Natural History, including a diorama showing herders extracting blood from livestock for consumption of a blood-and-milk “shake” that remains on permanent display.

In 1962 Conant joined the faculty at Hunter College, where the following year he became a founding member of Hunter’s Department of Anthropology and later headed its Human Ecology and Remote Sensing Laboratory. In addition to his signal contributions to the development of remote sensing technologies in anthropology, Conant’s work included the application of anthropological methods to sex and gender studies and, towards the end of his career, the study of malaria and AIDS in Africa. He was a member of one of the first teams that found statistically significant differences in HIV rates between regions in which male circumcision was a prevailing practice and those in which it was not. In a 1995 article in the journal Health Transition Review, he also argued that the ethnographic data on circumcision rates in Africa that researchers used deserved greater scrutiny, since traditional customs were rapidly changing with the introduction of railways, roads, and markets, and the expansion of communications, healthcare and education, as well as from wars, famines, and epidemics.

Conant retired from Hunter in 1995 and remained an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology until his death.

Conant’s 1952 marriage to Miriam Bernheim, a political science student he met while at Columbia, ended in divorce in 1987.  In 1991 he married Veronika Redl a science librarian at Hunter.  He is survived by his two wives, two children from his first marriage, Oliver and Nora, both of New York, two step-daughters, Lillian and Juliette Redl, and two grandsons, Ben and Daniel.