On Dec. 27, 2013, Connecticut College Professor of Anthropology John W. Burton passed away, following a hard-fought battle with metastatic lung cancer. Burton joined the College in 1983. Over the course of his thirty-year career as professor, he taught courses on diverse subject matter as ritual, language, human evolution, ethnographic writing and ethnographic film.
Through his intense dedication to the discipline of anthropology, John Burton found success early in his career, publishing his first journal article while still an undergraduate. Reflecting on this initial anthropological prowess, Professor Jeffery Cole, current Chair of the Connecticut College Anthropology Department, deemed Burton “a precocious anthropological talent” – echoing the sentiments of Lawrence J. Taylor, who, now a Professor of Anthropology at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, received his Ph.D from SUNY Stony Brook at the same time as Burton. Taylor recalls Burton as being “a kind of wunderkind, a strikingly handsome and graceful young man with an intellectual maturity and intensity of focus that most graduate students only aspired to.”
Indeed, from a very young age, Burton understood his commitment to anthropology as being something beyond mere vocation. While still graduate students, he and Taylor developed the habit of selecting an ethnography to read each week (on top of their normal course load) and discussing these works during regular meetings at the Stony Brook Inn. It was by exploring the discipline of anthropology with fervor that extended well beyond institutional requirements that, Taylor recollects, he and Burton “went through nearly the entire corpus of then extant African and European ethnographies, helping one another to become anthropologists in a way that could not have happened in a classroom.”
Following his tenure at Stony Brook, John Burton travelled to Sudan – a nation in which such anthropological giants as E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Godfrey Lienhardt had conducted fieldwork – and commenced an extensive ethnographic study of the Atuot people (about whom, as Professor Burton would often reflect while teaching, “little was known”). This study would develop into the longest research project of Burton’s career. It also resulted in the publication of his first two books, God’s Ants: A Study of Atout Religion (1981) and A Nilotic World: The Atout-Speaking Peoples of the Southern Sudan (1987), both of which remain among the most comprehensive records of Atout culture to date.
During his time at Connecticut College, Burton went on to write two more books, An Introduction to Evans-Pritchard (1992) and Culture and the Human Body: An Anthropological Perspective (2001), as well as publish a host of articles in various academic journals.
What Professor Burton will be remembered for most at the College, at least by students and alumni, is his teaching ability. Even in declining health, Burton was consistently able to captivate younger members of the college community through his Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology course. Perfectly suited to Burton’s unique set of talents and experiences, this course inspired countless students to foster an interest in anthropology, if not declare an Anthropology major outright.
As Charles Barstow ’12 recalls, “During fall semester of my sophomore year, when I was taking Social and Cultural Anthropology, I spent an entire dinner with my family reciting stories that Professor Burton had told in class of his adventures and his misadventures in England with Godfrey Lienhardt, and then in southern Sudan.” Barstow, who graduated with a degree in Anthropology, credits Burton with alerting him to the merits of adopting an anthropological outlook on the world, a perspective that he shares with many other students.
Looking back on her freshman year at Conn, Sybil Bullock ’14 has come to appreciate the immense role that Professor Burton played in her education, asserting, “Professor Burton changed my life. Sitting in his introductory anthropology class on my first day of college, I was immediately captivated by his gift of storytelling… As he is known to have done to many students, Burton made me fall in love with anthropology.” In the same vein, Barstow is often reminded that “Professor Burton’s personal memories from a career that, in some senses, bridged classical and contemporary anthropology definitely helped get me hooked.” Were one to ask any of Professor Burton’s students, Anthropology major or otherwise, they would undoubtedly share a similar experience.
So successful was Professor Burton in attracting interest in anthropology that his reputation on campus as an impactful professor extended well beyond the student body. In the words of Robert Proctor, Connecticut College Professor of Italian, “I always heard that John Burton was a great teacher; his introductory anthropology classes were packed. He taught well not only Connecticut College students; we faculty learned from him.” Dean of Studies, Theresa Ammirati, has a similar story to share, reflecting, “I remember the first time I sat in on his lecture. I was blown away by his ability to make a world strange to me (and probably to the students in the class) come alive. His ability to make a lecture seem exciting, to draw us all in by the pictures he painted was so impressive that it’s vivid in my mind a decade or more later.”
Indeed, the lessons that Burton taught to both students and faculty were not only poignant but timeless as well. Even now, several decades after listening to Burton speak at a faculty seminar entitled “Tradition and Modernity,” Proctor remembers “being taken aback, and then drawn into a completely new idea – for me at least – that he shared with us, based in part on his study of the Nuer tribe in Africa, Sudan. It is idea that what we call a ‘tradition’ is often not a tradition at all, but can be something created quite recently.”
Particularly in a liberal arts college in which interdisciplinary scholarship is heavily encouraged, Professor Burton’s ability to share his scholarship in a manner which grabbed the attention of faculty members across departments was not only impressive but highly valuable.
John Burton’s passing forces us to contend with the absence of a skilled orator, stimulating instructor and, for many students, faculty members and others, a great friend. Undoubtedly, his teachings will live on in the minds of those who he inspired and challenged on a daily basis – a legacy, which from an early point in Burton’s career, seemed predictably fitting.
As Taylor reflects, “I was not surprised that John went on to a distinguished career…But I was even less surprised that John went on to be an inspirational teacher. I can still see his flashing eyes and hear his dry wit as he pondered aloud the significance of a term or argument over beers in the Inn, serious but ironic, engaged and engaging.” •