William W. Howells; Anthropologist Advanced Studies of Humans

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Dr. William White Howells, 97, a retired professor of anthropology at Harvard whose use of cranial measurements provided the first objective basis for the conclusion that modern humans are of one, little-varying species, died Dec. 20 at his home in Kittery Point, Maine, of cardiovascular complications.

In the mid-1960s, when questions about racial differences were being widely debated, Dr. Howells and his wife took and recorded 68 measurements on about 3,000 human skulls from sites in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Analysis by computer led him to conclude that variation within groups far exceeded variation between groups.

He also concluded that present-day humans are of one homogeneous species, although earlier humans, including such recent close relatives as Neanderthals, were significantly different. His findings were subsequently verified by DNA and other modern methods. Anthropologists still use his skull measurements to determine the lineal separation of human groups.

Dr. Howells, a descendant of the writer William Dean Howells, was born in New York City and received his doctorate from Harvard in 1934. He worked at the American Museum of Natural History before World War II and served as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve in Washington from 1943 to 1946. He was in the Office of Naval Intelligence.

He taught anthropology at the University of Wisconsin from 1937 to 1954 and at Harvard from 1954 until his retirement in 1974. He was the author of "Mankind So Far" (1944), an early book on human evolution designed for a general readership.

Dr. Howells's wife, Muriel Gurdon Seabury, died in 2002.

Survivors include two children, Gurdon Metz of New York City and William Dean Howells of the District; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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