Irven DeVore, celebrated Harvard anthropologist, dies at 79

Professor engaged and nurtured his students

Legend has it that students scalped spots in line to sign up for Dr. DeVore’s class, Science B-29, nicknamed “Sex.”
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File
Legend has it that students scalped spots in line to sign up for Dr. DeVore’s class, Science B-29, nicknamed “Sex.”

“Sex” was never quite the same at Harvard after Irven DeVore stopped teaching his famous class.

As a pioneering researcher of baboons and Bushmen, and a mentor to groundbreaking academic offspring, he helped shape modern anthropology and its spinoffs. But for the thousands of Harvard students Dr. DeVore taught during decades as a professor, he was unforgettable: part scholar, part showman.

Dr. DeVore died at 79 in Mount Auburn Hospital last Tuesday of heart failure.


During a class, he might swivel his hips and jump as he mimicked the mating of buffaloes or lions. The latter, he told students, copulate about 3,500 times per conception, a number that could impress even the most amorously minded undergraduate.

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“I teach by humor and shock,” he said in a 1997 Globe interview about Science B-29, the class that students nicknamed “Sex.” “There is no excuse for boring students when you’re talking about human nature,” he added. “It’s too interesting.”

Officially, the course was a study of human behavioral biology that incorporated evolutionary theory, social behavior, and language acquisition. Undergraduates always overbooked the 500 or so slots available annually, and legend has it that students scalped spots in line to sign up.

“It was good for us,” a headline in The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, said of “Sex” when Dr. DeVore announced in 2000 that he would retire.

His reputation in anthropology, however, was well established before he began teaching one of Harvard’s most-remembered classes.


As a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, he was among the first to focus a dissertation on primatology, when that discipline was less welcome in anthropology. Dr. DeVore went on to conduct important research on baboons in Africa, and he challenged conventional beliefs about gender divisions among the !Kung San hunting and gathering people in the Kalahari Desert. On average, he found, women brought in more food as gatherers than men did hunting.

Those studies in primatology and of hunter-gatherers “made major contributions to both of those fields,” said Robert Trivers, a professor of ecology and evolution at Rutgers University, who added that Dr. DeVore’s findings about the !Kung San people “replaced real ignorance and fantasies about what it was like to be hunter-gatherers.”

A noted evolutionary biologist, Trivers was one of several of Dr. DeVore’s former students who went on to forge new academic disciplines and expand the boundaries of anthropology. Among the others are the primatologist Sarah Hrdy, and Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, a couple who codirect the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“Irv made it possible for all kinds of different views to flourish,” Cosmides said. “I stayed at Harvard because of the community he created.”

The nurturing community that Dr. DeVore created spilled from classrooms into his Victorian home on Hurlbut Street, several blocks north of Harvard Square, where each week he and his wife, Nancy Skiles DeVore, hosted what was known as the Simian Seminar, a sort of highbrow greenhouse where ideas took root. Many of Dr. DeVore’s intellectual progeny worked on their own innovations while sitting at the DeVores’ kitchen table.


“Some of the most famous papers in the study of evolution and behavior were launched at that table,” Cosmides said.

‘Teaching undergraduates is not a top priority for most professors at Harvard, but for him it was a major priority.’

As a mentor to graduate students, and to those who were his teaching fellows, Dr. DeVore went far beyond what professors usually offer. “Supportive is a weak word,” said Tooby.

Dr. DeVore brought a similar intensity to his work with undergraduates, including those he taught in the “Sex” course.

“You could not ask him a question before class started because he was concentrating, he was focusing and pulling everything together,” Cosmides said. “Teaching undergraduates is not a top priority for most professors at Harvard, but for him it was a major priority.”

Born in Joy, Texas (population 8, he liked to say), Boyd Irven DeVore Jr. was the oldest child of a Methodist minister. Preaching a little as a teenager, he seemed he might follow his father. Instead, he became “a devout atheist,” said his daughter, Claire of Belmont.

“I swapped the Bible for Darwin,” Dr. DeVore told the Globe in 1997.

Ultimately, his mother, the former Clara Hurt, led the way. “She was an intellectual trapped in a dirt-poor town and was very influential in his writing and his love of art,” Claire said.

In school, she added, her father “was so far ahead of the class that he had an agreement with the teachers that he’d sit in the back of the room and not cause any trouble. He’d sit at the back and read.”

At the University of Texas, Dr. DeVore received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and anthropology, and met Nancy Skiles. He had been a debate champion in high school, and at a program one day she heard him speak forcefully about how the United States should recognize China, an opinion she supported. He had asked her out before, but after that she said yes, not learning until much later that his stirring words were due partly to the toss of a coin: He was assigned at the debate to advocate for the side she happened to favor.

During graduate studies at the University of Chicago, Dr. DeVore studied under Sherwood Washburn, one of the country’s most eminent anthropologists. Graduating with a master’s and doctorate in anthropology, in 1959 and 1962 respectively, Dr. DeVore was on his way abroad for research, taking his young family along.

He had no typing skills, so his wife prepared his papers and shaped his prose. In a Land Rover riding through Africa, “I took all the notes,” she recalled. “My life was a notebook in front of me,” with their toddler son, Gregory, in the back, hoping to feed the baboons his father studied.

“It was a very, very interesting life,” she said.

A service will be announced for Dr. DeVore, who in addition to his wife and daughter, leaves two brothers, Paul of Bar Harbor, Maine, and David of Prince George, British Columbia; a sister, Jewell Weber of Dallas; and four grandchildren. Dr. DeVore’s son died several years ago.

Dr. DeVore, who outside of teaching was known for turning a hollow stump a couple of doors down from his Hurlbut Street home into a Winnie the Pooh house, sidestepped a potential abrupt end to his adventures on more than one occasion.

While in Zaire he was infected by parasites. In Botswana he was struck by lightning, and a giant jellyfish stung him in New Guinea. Lest anyone think he had to cross an ocean to wander into harm’s way, Dr. DeVore also was almost gnawed to death in Wyoming by a wild stallion.

“The doctors at MGH used to rub their hands together when they knew I was coming back,” he told Harvard Magazine in 2001. “They’d see things they hadn’t seen before.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at