Reo Franklin Fortune

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R. F. FORTUNE 1903-1979

Reo Franklin Fortune died in Cambridge on 25 November 1979 aged 76. He was born in Coromandel, New Zealand, and graduated M.A. in Philosophy, specialising in Psychology, at Victoria University College, Wellington, in 1924. He took a Diploma in Anthropology at Cambridge in 1927, and then, with A. C. Haddon’s encouragement, did six months’ fieldwork on Dobu Island, New Guinea. He had met Margaret Mead on the ship to England, and they married in 1928. Together they undertook a strenuous programme of field research which lasted until 1933, working in the Admiralty Islands, in 1928-29, then on an Omaha Reservation in Nebraska in 1930, and in the Sepik River area, New Guinea, in 1932-33. Fortune took a Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1931. After his divorce from Margaret Mead in 1935 he returned to New Guinea, but in the following year he took a university teaching post at Canton. While there he married Eileen Pope, whom he had known in New Zealand. Due to the extension of the Sino-Japanese War, they had to leave China for North America in 1939, where Fortune taught first at Toledo University, Ohio (1940-41) and then at the University of Toronto (1942-44). After service with the Canadian Army he spent a year in Burma as Anthropologist to the Frontier Areas Administration. He was appointed a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at Cambridge in 1947 and retired in 1971.

Reo Fortune will be remembered primarily for his important contributions to the ethnography of New Guinea before the War. Sorcerers of Dobu (1932) remains his best known work, written with an impressive power of phrase and ‘quick’, as Malinowski said in his introduction, ‘with the reality of native life’. But Manus Religion (1935) and a lesser known publication on the Arapesh (1942) were also important works of scholarship. Fortune had fine descriptive skill, ethnographic insight, marked linguistic ability and a capacity for tellingly original comment on his richly presented material. Malinowski proclaimed that Sorcerers ‘may be regarded by the Functionalist Method as one of its triumphs in the field’. Fortune followed functionalist precepts in his fieldwork, but later in life, at least, did not regard himself as a Functionalist.

In middle age Reo became increasingly out of sympathy with his professional colleagues. Occasionally, as The Times obituary writer put it (7 December 1979) this became an ‘idiosyncratic antagonism’. When I first met him in 1964, he appeared preoccupied with, indeed inhibited by, his criticisms of Malinowski and by his interpretation of the academic paths taken by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. But to know him could take one into a private world of intellectual stimulation and witty affection, centred on a wide-ranging interest in the Pacific. Of course, along with others, I regret that he did not publish much more, especially on the Manus. But above anything else I regret the sudden stilling of that spirit which could be, with equal facility, brilliant or absurd, Perhaps we could not have one without the other. Perhaps the consequence of Sorcerers was silence.

Peter Gathercole

This obituary first appeared as: Gathercole, Peter. 1980. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 37, p. 9 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

GATHERCOLE, PETER. 1980. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 37, p. 9 (available on-line:


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