Alfred Cort Haddon (1855-1940)


Undergraduate at Christ’s 1875-9
Fellow of the College 1901-1940

The pioneering researcher Alfred Cort Haddon was one of modern anthropology’s founding fathers and a highly characteristic embodiment of the Christ’s traditions of intellectual integrity, independence of mind and free-thinking collegiality. The subject of a characterful 1925 portrait by P. A. de László which hangs in the College Hall, this academic trendsetter was a champion of once daringly radical social causes, most notably the campaign for full University membership for women at a time when this was still very much a minority cause in Cambridge . Haddon’s family circumstances were comparatively modest by the standards of Victorian Cambridge.  In granting him a place to read Natural Sciences in 1875, the College was already anticipating the kind of fair-minded and genuinely talent-spotting entrance policy for which the term “access” is now widely used. Following a stellar performance as a Christ’s undergraduate, Haddon began his career as a Fellow of the College specialising in zoology and marine biology, his work powerfully inspired by the Christ’s legacy of Charles Darwin and the support of his eminent mentor, the great Darwinian T. H. Huxley. Haddon’s conversion to the expanding field that was coming to be known as anthropology was already underway when he achieved renown as leader of a celebrated 1898 expedition to investigate culture and psychological phenomena in what at the time was one of the world’s most remote and unfamiliar places, the western Pacific island region known as Torres Strait. The expedition was a decisive landmark for anthropology and many other rapidly developing new human sciences.

A visionary and innovator, Haddon’s belief in hands-on field research is still a guiding principle for practitioners of what is now a diverse and flourishing field. Anthropology is strongly supported at Christ’s, not least by a prize endowed in Haddon’s memory and awarded to mark outstanding academic achievement on the part of undergraduates in either of the two fields which he served so brilliantly: anthropology and zoology. In 1998 a delegation from Torres Strait visited the College in conjunction with Cambridge's centenary commemoration of Haddon’s original expedition. The visitors included descendants of Haddon’s 1898 informants who stood beneath the de László portrait with one of the College’s current Fellows in anthropology and spoke with glowing affection of the esteem in which ‘the Doctor’ is still held in their homeland. Their spokeswoman said this was not only because Haddon had made their islands and the life of their forebears a subject of international scholarly interest, but because their families had passed down the generations their memories of a Christ’s man of learning who interacted with all, including Pacific people whose way of life was very different from his own, in a spirit of unpatronising warmth, respect and interest, and emphatically not as dehumanised curiosities or laboratory specimens. Throughout his career and particularly with the rise of Nazism in continental Europe, Haddon was an outspoken opponent of the misuse of the human sciences as tools of racist ideas and extremist political policies. In this too, as in his contributions to learning, teaching and research, he is a Christ’s alumnus and former Fellow in whom the College continues to take great pride. 

 by Dr Susan Bayly