Franz Boas was born in Minden, Germany, on 9th July, 1858. His Jewish parents had been supporters of the 1848 German Revolution and he was brought up with progressive political views. Boas studied physics at the universities of Heidelberg and Bonn before completing his doctorate at Kiel in 1881.
Boas developed an interest in anthropology and took part in expeditions to Baffin Land (1883-84) and British Columbia (1885). Boas worked at the University of Berlin but resigned in 1887 after a new law required all staff to make a declaration concerning their religious beliefs.
In 1887 Boas decided to emigrate to the United States. He settled in New York and found work as assistant editor of Science Magazine. The following year he began teaching anthropology at Clark University. He was also the chief assistant for anthropology at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1892-93).
Boas joined Columbia University as a lecturer in physical anthropology in 1896. Promoted to professor in 1899, Boas became the world's most important anthropologist. It has been claimed that his work "changed the understanding of human nature by eliminating the predeterminism of instinct and heredity and making human institutions cultural, subject to human control for human ends."
Boas argued that it was necessary to study ethnology, linguistics, physical anthropology and archaeology before generalizations might be made about any one culture or comparisons about any number of cultures.
As well as teaching at Columbia Boas worked as curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York (1901-05). He also established the American Anthropological Association and the journals, Anthropologist and the International Journal of American Linguistics.
Boas applied his knowledge of anthropology to social and political issues. In articles and books such as Anthropology and Modern Life (1928) and Race and Democratic Society (1945), Boas exposed the fallacies of racial prejudice. He completely rejected chauvinistic nationalism and was a life-long internationalist.
In his final years Boas spent much of his time battling against unscientific theories of racial inequality being used against African Americans in the United States and the Jews in Nazi Germany. Appalled by the emergence of fascism in Europe during the 1930s, Boas established the Committee for Intellectual Freedom, an organisation that gained the support of 10,000 American scientists.
Franz Boas died on 21st December, 1942.