In Memoriam: Robert McCormick Adams

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Robert McCormick Adams, a founding member of SFI’s Science Board and the ninth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, passed away January 27 at the age of 91.

An eminent archaeologist and anthropologist, Adams studied the rise of agriculture, the history of technology, and sequences of demographic change and settlement patterns in Mesopotamia. He embraced SFI’s signature ‘macroscopic’ approach to understanding complex societies, searching for unifying trends across millennia of human experience, rather than focusing in on a specific period. He also took a maximalist approach to data, drawing from a variety of sources such as excavations, historical documents, aerial photographs, and even declassified satellite images. “It made no sense to me at all not to take a contextual view,” he told archaeologist Thomas Levy in an interview for the University of California “…not to look at the whole pattern as it changes through time.”

Bob was one of the most important and influential archaeologists of his generation throughout the world, and a pioneering scholar in the study of ancient complex societies,” says SFI External Professor and Past President Jeremy Sabloff. “He also was a stimulating conversationalist and quite kind and generous with younger colleagues. I always enjoyed talking to him. Moreover, he maintained a warm spot in his heart for the Institute. He will be greatly missed.”

Adams was one of the formative figures in SFI’s history, having served on both the Board of Trustees and the Science Board since the Institute's founding in 1984. He maintained an active role at SFI through the early 2000s, and inspired ongoing SFI research into the emergence of complex socities and urban centers.

He directed the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, his alma mater, from 1962-1968 and again from 1981-1983, and also served as the university's provost. In 1984, he left the University of Chicago to become the ninth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.

During his ten years stewarding the Smithsonian, Adams oversaw many successful and novel outreach efforts. He said he was most proud of his role in initiating the National Museum of the American Indian, which was completed after his departure. The Washington Post reports that Adams “sought to make ‘confrontation, experimentation and debate’ part of the Smithsonian’s mandate.”

At the time of his passing, Adams lived in Chula Vista, CA, where he had spent the latter part of his career as an adjunct professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Adams is preceded in death by his wife Ruth Salzman Adams, who edited the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He is survived by his daughter, Megan Adams, and by two stepdaughters and three grandchildren, according to The Washington Post.

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