This podcast explores the life and impact of Maria Antonina Czaplicka, a Polish anthropologist based at Oxford University at the start of the twentieth century.
Maria was born to a family of impoverished nobility in Poland, where she received a wide-ranging but fragmented education. She attended a girls’ school and underground learning initiatives, which operated secretly, away from the eyes of the Russian Empire. In 1910 she moved to England with the help of a Mianowski scholarship, which supported her while she worked on a book entitled Peoples of the Globe. She attended lectures at the London School of Economics and, in 1911, began the Oxford Diploma in Anthropology.
Though women had been able to study at Oxford since the founding of Somerville College and Lady Margaret Hall in 1879, they did not become full members of the University until 1920. When Maria arrived, most of the female students were undergraduates and all had to abide by strict college regulations. At 26 years old, Maria was older than many of her female peers but she seems to have enjoyed the setting and become actively involved in College life.
After completing the year-long Diploma, Maria carried out an independent study of Siberia’s indigenous people that was to become her book, Aboriginal Siberia: a study in social anthropology.
Her tutor Robert Ranulph Marett was fascinated by ethnographic material from the Russian North, but it remained inaccessible to him and his colleagues due to the language barrier. He proposed that Maria write a compendium handbook, based on ethnographic literature of Russia, Poland, and Germany. She would later recall how, “in the shady gardens of Oxford, in the midst of the splendid wealth of British libraries, and under the influence of British methods of research […] a new side of [her] interests in Siberia was awakened”.
Despite an initial struggle to find funding, money was eventually provided by Somerville and the Reid Trust of Bedford College. As was common at this time, the support came from sources intended for women.
Maria’s book was well-received; though not based on original research, it presented an overview of the indigenous people of Siberia and would remain the leading source of information on the subject until the 1960s.
In 1914, Maria led an anthropological research expedition to Siberia, for which she received the Mary Ewart Travelling Scholarship from Somerville College. Although she was initially joined by two other women, after the outbreak of WWI she remained out there with only Henry Usher Hall, an American anthropologist. Her tutor, Robert Marrett, was concerned about her travelling alone with a man, but Maria played this aspect down in her own writing.
During the trip Maria and Henry recorded tales and legends, collected material objects, took photographs, and explored the religious and social structures of the communities they encountered. This was all carried out in remarkably harsh conditions.
On her return, Maria’s achievement in leading the expedition was reported in numerous press articles where she was described as an ‘Intrepid Lady Explorer’ and ‘Lady Scientist’. She also wrote a book entitled My Siberian Year and gave numerous lectures in scientific societies across the country.The First World War has often been presented as a period of stagnation in anthropology. However, for Maria it was a time of opportunity – she was made lecturer in ethnology for three years between 1916 and 1919, becoming the first appointed female lecturer in Oxford. Once again, she relied on support from a network of influential women; her stay at Lady Margaret Hall was funded by the principal Henrietta Jex Blake.
Although Oxford has been described as something of a ghost town during the war, Maria’s tutor Marrett fondly remembered the contributions of female academics during this time. However, with the end of the war came the end of Maria’s job: she had to resign her position when the incumbent postholder (Dudley Buxton) returned from fighting.
She sought opportunities in America, but was unsuccessful. In 1920, she was offered the position of lecturer in anthropology at Bristol and was also awarded the Murichson Grant from the Royal Geographical Society, a rare feat for a woman. But after a term at Bristol her circumstances worsened. She found herself in serious debt, her old expedition partner Harry got married, and an important travel scholarship was awarded to Dudley Buxton, the man who had taken back his Oxford job from Maria after the war. In 1921, Maria committed suicide by taking mercury. Despite being in a foreign land, without support or a job, her friends and colleagues clubbed together to pay off all her debts.
Maria wished to be buried at Wolvercote cemetery, just north of Oxford, which indicates the strength of her attachment to the city. Her most visible legacy can be found at the Pitt Rivers Museum, which continues to house the objects she collected from the Russian North.
Further information about Maria’s life can be found in a recently published biography by the Polish scholar Grazyna Kubica-Heller, Maria Czaplicka – płeć, szamanizm, rasa (Krakow: Jagiellonian University, 2015).
Eccles, Kathryn, “Women students at the University of Oxford, 1914-39: Image, Identity and Experience”, St Hilda’s College (2007), unpublished DPhil thesis.
With thanks to the Somerville College Archives and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Archives.
Jaanika Vider is a DPhil student at the School of Ethnography and Museum Anthropology at the University of Oxford.