pith helmet
Tales from the Field


Frightful fieldwork
Vulnerable to volcanoes
Hepatitis and blue berries
Antarctic anxiety
Human hazards









































Illustrations below and to right from:
What Mr. Darwin Saw in His Voyage Round the World in the Ship "Beagle"

1880, Harper & Brothers


Charles Darwin

    Heading for danger
26 APRIL 2000 The death of five ecologists on March 27 in a sudden storm in the Sea of Cortez reminds us that field science, like mining and farming, is a deadly profession.

An African man offers an orange bowl filled with beer toward the camera. Does danger lurk in this innocent calabash cup of millet beer, offered by a Dogon man in Mali?

© David Tenenbaum

Fieldwork biologists do it, and anthropologists, and geologists, too. They leave the laboratory to collect interviews, data, samples and other evidence of the natural and human world.

The Why Files got to wondering: What are the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in fieldwork?

If you're undaunted by crime, extortion and military thuggery, fieldwork's got that.

pith helmetIf you're unfazed by tropical disease, we might suggest a career in cultural anthropology?

If your life would be wasted if you never ever got to pay ransom for a human being, can we interest you in a career in archeology?

If you need to see a volcanic eruption up close and personal, remember that volcanologists can get burned or killed for the privilege of helping people live safely under the volcano.

Seriously, fieldwork is dangerous stuff. Between cars and criminals, diseases and disasters, you can get yourself maimed or murdered. About 10 years ago, sociologist Nancy Howell surveyed anthropologists. Her comprehensive report (see "Surviving Fieldwork" bibliography) should be required reading for anyone considering a career in a field science.

hazards anthropogists face (1990 survey)
Data from "Surviving Fieldwork" (see bibliography).

Mining and farming are considered the most dangerous occupations in the United States. But Howell, who's now at the University of Toronto, says anthropology "seems to be an order of magnitude more dangerous than mining or farming."

Getting there is half the fun!
The most hazardous part of fieldwork, Howell says, is getting to the field in the first place. Her survey, the only one of its kind we could locate, fingered car and truck accidents as the largest single killers of anthropologists. She credits the many accidents to busy, crowded roads, rotten tires, harried truck drivers and anthropologists who drive without realizing that trucks flip more easily than cars. (Indeed, Howell's son was killed when a truck rolled over in the Kalahari Desert in Africa.) Trucks become all The Beagle the more dangerous when scientists follow the local practice of riding in the back, often with heavy, sharp or explosive loads.

As more and more scientists spend their days gazing at computers or juggling test tubes, a brave minority continues to gather data in the field. They are following the path of giants: Before he developed the theory of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin spent years wandering the globe, collecting samples and observations.

Other field workers, though equally productive, bombed in the glory department. Alfred Russell Wallace, for example, traveled years longer than Darwin, but is almost forgotten despite having published a highly similar theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin.

At least Wallace survived. Other fieldworkers weren't so lucky. Two of the first 10 University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers in the Antarctic in the 1950s and '60s, for example, died in plane crashes.

If stability's your thing, we wouldn't suggest making a career of field science. But if you'd rather match wits with heavily armed teenagers than pour samples into a spectrometer, if you'd rather be stranded on a mountain with a larder containing kerosene-drenched oatmeal than guzzle diet soda at the keyboard, read on.

Can I get extra credit for climbing active volcanoes?


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