Obituary: Sir Jack Goody, Kt, anthropologist

Born: 27 July, 1919, in London. Died: 16 July, 2015, in Cambridge, aged 95

Sir Jack Goody Kt: Social anthropologist who spent two and a half years as a prisoner of war
Sir Jack Goody Kt: Social anthropologist who spent two and a half years as a prisoner of war
Sir Jack Goody Kt: Social anthropologist who spent two and a half years as a prisoner of war

Sir Jack Goody was an officer in the British Army fighting in North Africa, before going on to carve out an outstanding academic career at Cambridge University and becoming an internationally renowned anthropologist. He received a knighthood in 2005, in recognition of his services to social anthropology.

Having cut short university to volunteer for military service in 1939, Goody, a second lieutenant, quickly found himself en route to North Africa to fight alongside the Australians against General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, in what was often a brutally unforgiving campaign of attack, counter-attack and stalemate in unrelenting weather conditions – from searing heat during the day to freezing nights. However, after a number of successful operations and some resolute defending by Allied forces, he was captured by the Germans with the fall of Tobruk, Libya, on 21 June, 1942.

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Goody then spent the two and a half years in a variety of prisoner of war camps in the Middle East, Italy and, towards the end of the war, in Germany. While a prisoner, he managed to escape on a number of occasions but was always recaptured within a few days. At one camp in Italy, where he resided for almost a year, due to the lack of reading material, the prisoners were forced to put on plays and improvise teaching from memory. Goody eventually escaped again when being transported to another camp, leaping from a train and being hidden by local peasants in the Abruzzi Mountains in south-eastern Italy.

He made his way to Rome but after several months on the run, Goody was recaptured and transferred to a camp at Eichstätt, Bavaria, southern Germany, where he remained until the war ended. During his incarceration here, a well-stocked library helped him while away his time and he found himself reading JG Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Gordon Childe’s, What Happened in History? Both were to leave a profound impression.

Goody’s Italian adventures during the war and the account of his life during this extraordinary time in PoW camps was the stuff of film, and was published in Italian but, somewhat curiously, never in English.

Born in London in July 1919, shortly after the Treaty of Versailles, John “Jack” Rankine Goody was the son of an English father and Scottish mother, both of whom had left school at 16. He grew up in Welwyn Garden City and St Albans, Hertfordshire, where he attended St Albans School, an independent day school. With a penchant for English, Goody won a scholarship to read English at St John’s, Cambridge, in 1938, where he came to know left-wing intellectuals like Eric Hobsbawm.

His studies were, however, interrupted with the outbreak of the Second World War, when he volunteered for military service.

Upon completing officer training at Sandhurst, Berkshire, Goody was commissioned into the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment), on 23 March, 1940.

After being demobbed in 1946, Goody returned to Cambridge to complete his degree, but, inspired by his readings, switched and undertook a diploma in anthropology the following year.

After a short spell in educational administration and at Balliol College, Oxford, he returned to St John’s to study for a PhD in anthropology, which he completed in 1954. He officially relinquished his commission on 19 January, 1952.

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After earning a research scholarship and carrying out fieldwork in Gonja in northern Ghana, Goody increasingly turned to comparative study of Europe, Africa and Asia. Between 1954 and 1984, he taught social anthropology at Cambridge University, starting as an assistant lecturer and finally serving as the William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology from 1973 until 1984 – a post which he continued to hold in Emeritus.

His research interests included West African anthropology; kinship and family; modes of communication and production; and representations and iconoclasm – the destruction of religious icons and other images or monuments for religious or political motives. His work touched on themes as diverse as cooking, the family, feminism and the contrast between Eastern and Western cultures.

Goody went on to pioneer the comparative anthropology of literacy, attempting to gauge the causal pre-conditions and effects of writing as a technology. The author of more than 30 books and many research papers and articles, he wrote considerably on the history of the family and the anthropology of inheritance, and continued to write and lecture well into retirement. He gave the Luce Lectures at Yale University in autumn 1987.

With friend and colleague, Ian Watt, he co-wrote The Consequences of Literacy (1963), which was the first of many by Goody on writing, rationality and modes of communication; The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977) is perhaps the best known. In recent years, he wrote on the anthropology of flowers and food. His last book, Metals, Culture and Capitalism, was published in 2012.

He was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1976 and was an associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 2004. He played a significant role in the deliberations which led to the foundation of Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany, in 1999, and was a source of inspiration to many institute researchers.

In 2005, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor “for services to social anthropology”, and the following year the French Government bestowed their highest honour, Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

In his free time, Goody, a huge football fan, enjoyed watching Arsenal at the Cricketers pub when he lived in London, travelling to remote places and enjoyed meeting-up with his large network of colleagues, past students and friends.

He married Professor Juliet Mitchell in 2000 and they had a step-daughter; he had a son and four daughters from two previous marriages. Goody died peacefully in Cambridge.