r_23 r_21 r_21

Barbara Pillsbury Obituary

NAPA Presidents Linda Bennett, Shirley Fiske, and Barbara Pillsbury at a AAA meeting in Chicago, 1991. (Photo by Ralph Bishop)

The first elected president of NAPA, Dr. Barbara Pillsbury, 69, of Malibu, CA and Washington, DC, passed away on September 27, 2012, surrounded by her family.  Dr. Pillsbury was a cultural and medical anthropologist who worked for more than 25 years in international development, women’s health and public health, specializing most recently in reproductive and sexual health and rights.

 Born and raised in Bemidji, MN, she attended the U of MN, receiving a B.S. in home economics with a journalism minor. She then earned an M.A. in applied linguistics and a Ph.D. in 1973 in cultural anthropology, both from Columbia University, where she studied with renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead. Her doctoral dissertation on Muslim Chinese populations was a pioneering study that remains the basis for the work of later scholars in the field. Dr. Pillsbury learned to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese and combined that skill with her knowledge of Muslim societies and cultures, gleaned from her days at the American University in Cairo.

She subsequently taught cultural anthropology and received tenure at San Diego State University. Realizing that her heart was in applying anthropology to addressing the problems of poverty and inequity in the world, she left to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where she became Chief for Research and Evaluation for Asia. She took the theoretical and practical knowledge and skills out of the university setting and applied them to efforts to improve the welfare of peoples around the globe. She continued to contribute to the world of scholarship through numerous research papers and conference presentations, as well as mentoring students seeking to follow her in addressing complex human issues. Dr. Pillsbury showed many young scholars an alternative career path in anthropology from traditional academia. 

 She was one of the founders of NAPA, starting in 1983 as the co-coordinator of the interim steering committee tasked with establishing a practicing anthropology unit within the AAA. In 1984 she was elected to a two-year term as NAPA’s first president. She also served various leadership positions with the AAA. Dr. Pillsbury was also a member of the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists (WAPA). In 2009

Receiving the 2009 Praxis Award at a ceremony in 2010 from Praxis Award Chair Charlie Cheney.

she was the winner of WAPA’s Praxis Award, given for “excellence in the application of anthropology to solving real-world problems.”  

During 2008, she led a team of Chinese colleagues for an evaluation of the Government of China-United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 6th Country Programme (2006-2010), which was the subject of her Praxis Award application. 

 Dr. Pillsbury helped found a total of six organizations (most notably the Pacific Institute for Women’s Health) and has served on numerous boards of directors, including the American Anthropological Association, the Global Health Council, and the International Women’s Health Coalition.

She held positions with many governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), UNFPA, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), USAID, the World Bank, International Planned Parenthood Federation, and the Rockefeller, Hewlett, Ford, Gates and Compton foundations. All told, her career in cultural and medical anthropology took her to 100 countries, where she worked to make the world a better place through groundbreaking research and policy recommendations on women’s health and family planning issues. 

Along with her ongoing international consulting work, she was most recently employed fulltime by Social & Scientific Systems in Washington D.C., where she directed the

DRC Congo: In a cargo plane on a flight from Goma to Kinshasa

 USAID-funded Synergy Project, supporting U.S. efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in developing countries.  Dr. Pillsbury left a profound contribution as a visionary leader in the areas of international development, reproductive and sexual health, HIV/AIDS education, child survival, and global gender issues. Never one to be left out of a conversation, Barbara learned thirteen languages, with a particular love for Chinese and Swedish.

She leaves behind two daughters, Heather Milne (David) Cristman of Cincinnati, OH, and Kristina Milne of New York City, NY, as well as two sisters, Connie Kroll Skildum of Eagan, MN and Anne Kroll (Doug) Dahlen of Burnsville, MN, and many other relatives, friends and professional colleagues.

It is preferred that memorials be made to The Molly Gingerich Fund (301-670-0994) or the SHARE Institute (www.theshareinstitute.org), two organizations that help young women around the globe.


On a cliff rock at KwaZuluNatal

Tributes to Barbara from past NAPA Presidents

Marietta Baba
Dean, College of Social Science, and Professor of Anthropology, Michigan State University
NAPA President 1986-1988

“Barbara and Helen Schwartzman called an open meeting at AAA during the re-organization in 1983 to start NAPA. A very large group of people showed up to talk about practice; it packed one of those sub-ballrooms. Barbara and Helen called for volunteers to help them form a provisional steering committee. People had to stand up from the floor and talk about why they would be a good committee member. That’s how I got involved in NAPA.

“Barbara was a terrific team leader. She mentored our small committee through the stages of forming a section in the newly reorganized AAA, where we all learned new skills for a lifetime. It changed my life, even though I didn’t know it at the time (I became the President-elect and took over for Barbara after her term as she went on to the other parts of her incredible career.). I will never forget how Barbara would take our committee out to dinner at Chinese restaurants in Washington, DC and order in Chinese, causing most of the staff from the kitchen to come out to our table and talk to her in amazement. At that point she “only” spoke seven languages! She was a phenomenal polyglot with a passion for people, truly a person whose life we should all celebrate.”

Niel Tashima
Managing Partner, LTG Associates
NAPA President 1996-1998

“I had the opportunity to follow in Barbara’s path, first as a graduate student at San Diego State and later as President of NAPA.  In both cases, Barbara was consistent in her focus on what professional anthropology could be and that it was a first choice as a career, not an also ran to an academic position.  Even as a graduate student sorting out what that meant, the message was clear about the importance of anthropology in the world and for people who did not have a voice in the policies and practices targeting them.  Barbara was also clear about the need for a professional component of AAA to keep the association grounded in the importance of anthropology to the larger world.”


2 Responses to Barbara Pillsbury Obituary

  • Connie Kroll Skildum says:

    Hello Alan,

    Barbara was my older sister, and there is not a day that goes by without a sense of profound loss of her in my life; it is still difficult to comprehend.

    I am sorry to have missed your kind and thoughtful tribute earlier. I recall hearing of you from Barb and know that she held you in high regard. Best wishes for carrying on your work, knowing she lives on in all that she loved and influenced. It’s a big circle of generous, wonderful people.



  • Alan Landers says:

    Barbara was my thesis advisor at San Diego State and a friend. Her dedication to anthropology, enthusiasm for cultural studies, and desire to help that shaped my intellectual curiosity and career. We talked for hours and hours outside of class and informally about people, cultures, and the role of anthropologists. Barbara was an inspiration and significantly influenced my career. Thanks to her, I entered the emerging field of organizational development in 1978 and was able to apply much of what she taught me about people, groups, and cultures to businesses in the U.S. and abroad. It’s work I’ve been doing ever since. She was a very important person in my life. I am truly saddened to hear of her passing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve : *
21 − 2 =