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Obituary – Paul T. Baker

Paul Thornell Baker, Emeritus Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University, died on Thursday, November 29, 2007, at the age of 80 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Baker was a pioneer in the field of physical anthropology and human population biology and ecology. He is survived by his wife of fifty-eight years, Thelma Shoher Baker of Chapel Hill, NC; his son, Joshua (Nancy) Baker of Hillsborough, NC; his daughters, Deborah (James Elkus) Baker of San Francisco, CA; Amy (Carlyle) Carter of Minneapolis, MN; Felicia (Marc) LeClere of Granger, IN; as well as nine grandchildren.

Born on February 28, 1927 in Burlington, Iowa, he was the son of Palmer Ward Baker and Viola Isabelle Thornell. He served in the US 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 youthful veteran and completed his undergraduate education at the University of New Mexico. He subsequently completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1956. During his years at Harvard, he spent five years with the Quartermaster Corp of the US Army and conducted research in the Yuma desert, Arctic tundra, and the United States Army Identification Laboratory in Kokura, Japan. In 1956, he joined the faculty at The Pennsylvania State University 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.

Dr. 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. Dr. 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, Dr. 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 was unfailingly enthusiastic about science and research, and generous with his time and attention, instructing graduate students in every aspect of scientific research and publication. His productivity and thoughtful approach to research was legendary, amounting to 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. Dr. Baker’s personal interests over the course of his life were sailing and traveling. For many years, he maintained sailboats in the Chesapeake Bay, Florida Keys and Bahamian islands.

The family expresses their special thanks and praise to the doctors, nurses and staff at the Dubose Health Center at The Cedars of Chapel Hill for the compassion and special care that Paul received over the past three years. Donations may be made in Dr. Baker’s memory to the Alzheimer’s Association of Eastern North Carolina, 400 Oberlin Road, Suite 220, Raleigh, NC 27605-1351 or The Paul T. Baker Research Travel Fund in Human Biology and Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, 409 Carpenter Hall, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, 16802.

Arrangements are being handled by the Cremation Society of the Carolinas. Online condolences can be made at www.cremnc.com.

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  1. Nancy Gonlin

    Dear Thelma and Family,
    I remember Paul with fondness. As a new graduate student at Penn State in 1982, Paul was then serving as chair. He was an inspiration to me to become a professional anthropologist.
    Please accept my sincere condolences.
    Nancy Gonlin

  2. Rick Quiroga

    Senora Baker y familia.lo siento mucho por el Dr. Baker, estaba pensando en usted y decidi ir al internet y me entere que el Dr. Baker ya no esta con nosotros…parte de mi vida fue con ustedes y una parte se fue pero tengo mis recuerdos que fueron muy algres con mucha aventura.Rick

  3. Lily Baker

    I’m Paul’s granddaughter; I don’t know my grandfather well, but from what I hear and read, he was a great, successful man. My earliest memory was him in the early stages of Alzheimers. He was loving, warm, and tender. My family tells fond stories of him; I would love to hear more. Really, I think I know more about him then I gained from meeting him. My father, and myself, I find, have a lot in common. We are silent, but vigurous. I try and find as much as I can on Paul, and love to read about his accomplishments. My grandmother, Thelma Baker, had the greatest compassion for him and I know he is looking over her thanking her dearly for all her help and kindness.
    I miss him, I know we all do. He was a great asset to our society and the study of anthropology.
    We love you, Paul.

    His loving granddaughter,
    Lily Baker

  4. Tony Corman

    Paul and Thelma were friends of my parents in Ashland MA. We exchanged visits, and they were responsible from bringing Ricardo to us. We managed to visit with them in Brentwood in 2003 and found them both as dear as I remember them. I’m so sorry to hear of Paul’s passing, and remember all you Bakers fondly.