Evan Pugh professor emeritus dies at age 80

November 29, 2007

Paul Thornell Baker, Evan Pugh professor emeritus of anthropology, died Nov. 29 at the age of 80 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Baker was a pioneer in the field of physical anthropology and human population biology and ecology.

In 1956, he joined the Penn State faculty and helped establish one of the most prominent departments of anthropology in the United States. He retired in June 1987 and lived in Hawaii and California before locating to North Carolina.

Baker pioneered a major field of anthropological research known as human adaptability and established the research paradigm of human population biology that viewed human diversity as a byproduct of adaptive responses to stressful environmental conditions. Within the framework of adaptation and human population biology he undertook several major research projects over the course of his career. His field research, done in close partnership with his wife, focused on the cultural, physiological and genetic aspects of adaptability around the globe. Baker’s major research projects centered on human biological adaptation to high altitude in the Peruvian Andes, migration and human population biology in Southern Peru, and the effects of modernization and acculturation on Samoans.

During the course of his career, Baker trained several generations of graduate students who continue his legacy; with their own graduate students, they constitute a sizeable fraction of all biological anthropologists in the United States. He instructed graduate students in every aspect of scientific research and publication. His work resulted in more than 200 publications, the majority of which were original research. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a recipient of the Huxley Memorial Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, the Charles R. Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the Franz Boas Distinguished Achievement Award from the Human Biology Association. Baker's personal interests were sailing and traveling. For many years, he maintained sailboats in the Chesapeake Bay, Florida Keys and Bahamian islands.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Thelma Shoher Baker of Chapel Hill, N.C.; his son, Joshua (Nancy) Baker of Hillsborough, N.C.; his daughters, Deborah (James Elkus) Baker of San Francisco, Calif.; Amy (Carlyle) Carter of Minneapolis, Minn; Felicia (Marc) LeClere of Granger, Ind. as well as nine grandchildren.

Born on Feb. 28, 1927, in Burlington, Iowa, he was the son of Palmer Ward Baker and Viola Isabelle Thornell. He served in the U.S. Army from June 1945 to November 1946 with the 34th Station Hospital and was stationed in Italy with the occupation forces. He entered the University of Miami as a veteran and completed his undergraduate education at the University of New Mexico. He subsequently completed his doctorate at Harvard University in 1956. During his years at Harvard, he spent five years with the Quartermaster Corp of the U.S. Army and conducted research in the Yuma desert, Arctic tundra, and the U.S. Army Identification Laboratory in Kokura, Japan.

Donations may be made in Baker's memory to the Alzheimer's Association of Eastern North Carolina, 400 Oberlin Road, Suite 220, Raleigh, N.C. 27605-1351 or The Paul T. Baker Research Travel Fund in Human Biology and Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, 409 Carpenter Hall, Penn State, University Park, Pa., 16802.

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Last Updated March 20, 2009