Franz Boas has been called "the father of American anthropology." Known for his extensive field work with the Kwakiutl Indians from Vancouver Island, Boas went on to establish a new concept of race that drew a distinction between biology and culture. A prolific author, his work influenced an entire generation of anthropologistsincluding Jacobs and other former students such as Margaret Mead. Typical of senior professors, Boas frequently dispatched graduate students to perform field work in support of his research, which is how Jacobs found himself in Eastern Washington in 1926. Later, describing Jacobs as "by far the best man I have had for many years," Boas recommended his protégé to the UW as an associate professor in anthropology. Thus began his 43-year career at the University.
Jacobs did all of his field work between 1926 and 1939, stopping primarily because "he had accumulated more stuff than he'd ever be able to publish," says Bill Seaburg, an associate professor of interdisciplinary arts and sciences at UW Bothell and an expert on Jacobs' research. During this timewhich coincided with the DepressionJacobs relied heavily on grants secured by Boas, whose public and private financial connections made him "a real power broker," says Seaburg. In addition, Jacobs also counted on the cooperation of the UW, which let him split his time between teaching and field research.
Without being able to ask Jacobs directly, it's hard for anyone to say why he devoted so much of his life to studying and preserving the languages of Pacific Northwest tribes. Some have speculated his own Jewish heritage sensitized him to the plight of maligned minority cultures. Seaburg suspects it was probably Boas who ignited his interest in documenting the region's disappearing native languages. "There were few people in the country, outside of anthropology, who believed in the intrinsic value of unrecorded languages and oral traditions when Jacobs was doing his field work and Boas and his many students led the way in championing these disparaged and threatened cultures," says Seaburg.
In some ways, Jacobs seemed unsuited for the rigors of traveling to remote reservations and spending long hours interviewing tribal elders. "Anyone who knew Melville Jacobs, fastidious in dress and grooming, cultivated and witty, always had difficulty imagining him coping with bad roads, seedy hotels and truck-stop food," wrote Seaburg in a book on the Jacobs collection.
Even so, Jacobs also possessed a number of traits that served him well in the field, says Seaburg. "I think he had a way with people that would help them feel at ease," he says. "He had a good sense of humor and a really good ear for the spoken word." Not only that, "he had beautiful handwriting," says Seaburg.