Rebecca Huss-Ashmore, Associate Curator-in-Charge, Physical Anthropology Section

Meet the Curators

By: Deborah I. Olszewski

Originally Published in 2006

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Rebecca Huss-Ashmore (right) helps keep a patient’s airway open and observes while a surgeon performs a facial rejuvenation. The patient’s face has been blurred to protect her privacy.

Rebecca Huss-Ashmore, Associate Curator-in­Charge of Penn Mus­eum’s Physical Anthropology Section, has traveled nearly full circle in her career. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, she majored in German, with a minor in American Literature, but also took anthropol­ogy classes. These included a course taught by Oscar Lewis, who one day unexpectedly asked her to read aloud to the class a chapter from his manuscript for The Children of Sánchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family (Random House, 1961). Thus began Huss-Ashmore’s exposure to anthropologic, cultural relativism, and the intersection of language and culture.

Although intrigued by anthropologic, she entered the University of Maryland intending to pursue a Ph.D. in counseling, and she completed much of her course-work in this field. Percolating under the surface, however, was the worldview Huss-Ashmore had obtained from anthropologic, and this led her to switch fields during her graduate work. Studying anthropology at Maryland, she partici­pated in several archaeological projects, including the excavation of a Native American ossuary (a structure that houses the bones of the dead) at a site in southern Maryland. Her M.A. thesis grew out of her skeletal analyses of the ossuary remains.

Huss-Ashmore interviews farm women in a vegetable garden.

Huss-Ashmore continued her graduate work at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she obtained a Ph.D. with an emphasis in biological anthropology. Working initially with George Armelagos, she focused on juvenile osteo­porosis in African skeletal remains from Nubia and the Sudan. She quickly realized, however, that studying living populations would be tremendously insightful for health-related issues. This led to two and a half years of fieldwork in Lesotho (an independent kingdom surrounded by the Republic of South Africa), where she examined the impact of seasonal fluctua­tions in food availability on nutrition, particularly during the cold and dry season—“the season of starvation”—when agri­culture was constrained. During her fieldwork, the World Bank asked her to do a survey of the use and costs of biomedical and traditional medical care. This resulted in a medical anthropol­ogy Ph.D. thesis under the supervision of Brooke Thomas.

Currently Huss-Ashmore is in the fourth year of a National Institute of Mental Health-funded project where she collaborates with an interdisci­plinary team composed of family medicine staff, physicians, psychiatrists, medical anthropolo­gists, and students. The team interviews older people to obtain their descriptions and explana­tions of depression. These are then used to facili­tate the development of a cultural model of depression. For example, ideas about the meaning of “house” and “home” are studied to understand how these concepts are linked to depression by the eagerly. In general, Huss-Ashmore and her colleagues are examining how our culture creates “old age,” and they will seek additional funding to continue their work.

Immediately after finishing her Ph.D. in 1984, Huss-Ashmore accepted a position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Penn, becoming an Associate Professor in 1990. Between 1984 and 1996 her research focused on nutrition in Africa (Swaziland and Kenya), where she studied populations in areas vulnerable to droughts and famine. Topically, the impact of develop­ment on local groups is measured mainly with economic indicators. However, since these often mask important variables, Huss-Ashmore has created non-economic indi­cators, such as women’s body mass, muscle, and fat and children’s growth to study the impact of development on household food supply and consumption.

In Swaziland, Huss-Ashmore weighed mothers and babies as part of the Cropping Systems Project.

In 1997, her research interests shifted to the language used in interactions between patients and staff (includ­ing surgeons) during clinical time with patients under­going cosmetic surgery. These patients’ experiences incorporated not only outward physical changes but also fundamental transformations in how they thought about themselves. Huss-Ashmore’s research project, con­ducted over five summers, concentrated on interviewing patients as they underwent cosmetic surgery. Building on insight generated by linguistic anthropologists—i.e. that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ perception of reality and thus influences their thought patterns and world‑ views—she found that patients’ clinical experiences became therapeutic narratives in which the performance of healing was played out as a drama. Language thus helped create the social world in this process (see Expedition 42(3):26-37) and led to a major shift in her own research from studying how people get sick to studying how people get well.

Although Huss-Ashmore plans to retire in the near future, she anticipates continuing research after retirement. One of her major projects will be to write a book on the therapeutic narrative of cosmetic surgery, especially the role of identity and the changing perspectives of the self. She also expects to continue researching anthropological aspects of gerontology.

DEBORAH I. OLSZEWSKI is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Anthropology Department and a Research Associate at the Museum.

Cite This Article

Olszewski, Deborah I.. "Rebecca Huss-Ashmore, Associate Curator-in-Charge, Physical Anthropology Section." Expedition Magazine 48, no. 1 (March, 2006): -. Accessed June 17, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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