Cornell anthropologist Bernd Lambert dies at 82

Bernd Lambert, professor of anthropology emeritus and a faculty member in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences since 1964, died Jan. 3 at home in Ithaca. The cultural anthropologist, an authority on kinship among the Pacific islanders of the Republic of Kiribas (formerly, the Gilbert Islands), was 82.


At Cornell, where he was promoted to full professor in 1979 and was a founding member of the American Indian Program, Lambert taught the Department of Anthropology’s anchor courses Myth, Ritual and Symbol; Kinship and Social Organization; and Contemporary Theory.

Adam T. Smith, professor and chair of anthropology, said Lambert was a dedicated scholar, a warm-hearted colleague, and a generous supporter of the anthropology department. “Although I only knew Bernd as an emeritus professor, I greatly admired his lasting commitment to research, his dedication to the discipline and his interest in the work of his colleagues. The breadth of his knowledge was rivaled only by the depth of his understanding. Anthropology has lost one of its most committed practitioners and effective supporters.”

Publications by Lambert include “Fosterage as a Model for the Aristocratic-Commoner Relationship in the Northern Gilbert Islands” (1965) and “The Uses of Kinship Terms and Personal Names in the Gilbert Islands” (1968).

Lambert retired in 2003 but maintained departmental ties, delivering the Oct. 10, 2014, Anthropology Colloquium Series address on the topic, “Mothers and Sons: The Female Side of Kiribati Culture Heroes.”

Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1932, the young Lambert and his Jewish parents fled Bulgaria when German troops marched into his mother’s homeland – traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia, and by steamship from Japan to San Francisco. He studied anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1954 and his doctorate in 1963. He began his Gilbert Islands fieldwork in 1959.

In a 2004 interview, Lambert revealed that he intended to study law before switching to anthropology and was really more interested in Africa than Pacific islands. But fieldwork funding at the time was available only for the Gilbert Islands, particularly the atolls of Butaritari and Makin. So he headed there with a case of corned beef (for sustenance) and textbooks about how to do fieldwork because, Lambert said, his Berkeley education neglected that part. He returned nine times to the Gilberts, most recently in 2012.

Kathryn March, Cornell professor of anthropology and a former Lambert student, remembers the advice her mentor liked to give first-year grad students: “’Give it time,’ he would say. ‘Once you get over the idea that other students are so much brighter and theoretically adept than you are – and just read those books for what’s in them – things will become much more straightforward.”