Margaret Mead, an anthropologist who gained a world-wide reputations through her studies of primitive peoples and her views on society in the nuclear age, died of cancer yesterday at New York Hospital in New York City. She was 76.

Her first book. "Coming of Age in Samoa," was published in 1928, and won her wide acclaim among the public at large as well as within the professional community. It suggested that there were things that Americans could learn from the Samoans about raising children that might mitigate the anxieties and tensions of adolescence in this society.

It was a theme that she would expand on in infinite variations through the rest of her life. Shw saw mankind as a whole and she cherished the diviersity of its parts. She had an ability to go from the particular to the general and back again.

Whether she was studying Samoans, or the children of the Manus Villages in the Admiralty Islands, or relations between the sexes in New Guinea, or American Indians, she was able to impart a certain universal relevance to her work. Making anthropolgy poplar - "mass education of the very best kind," in the words of Robert Murphy, a former head of the department of anthropology at Columbia University - was among her major achievements.

Dr. mead's work led her into other fields and into many controversies.She deplored American suburbs because she felt that they separated families: an abiding concern of hers was what she regarded as the increasing separation in America of adults, children and older people. She deplored junior high schools because she felt they isolated students at a difficult age from older children and adults who could serve as models for them.

Dr. Mead felt that marriage should be a dissoluble relationship. She herself was married and divorced three times.

She advocated the repeal of marijuana laws on the grounds that the laws tended to lead marijuana users into the company of hard drug users. Moreover, she told a congressional committee, the prohibitions against marijuana were "damaging . . . relations between young and old."

Former Governor Claude Kirk of Florida, on hearing this testimony, described Dr. Mead as "this dirty old lady."

Although she had cancer for the past year. Dr. Mead remained active until a few days before her death. She had hoped to attend an international symposium on children in Athens, Greece, last July, but was unable to do so. A statement she prepared for the conference summarized many of her beliefs.

"In a darkened world beset by the fear of nuclear holocaust, degradation of our soil and air and imbalance of population growth that threatens to strangle our human settlements, the Year of the Child stands like a beacon of hope," she wrote. "We must see that its light guides us and gives us direction for preparing a livable, subtainable, beautiful world for our children - those who have been born, those who have been conceived but not yet born, and those children of the future not yet conceived. By keeping our eyes steadily on the pressing needs of children we can determine what nees to be done, and what can be prepared for but accomplished later. For babies cannot wait."

Dr. Mead frequently stated her belief that it takes about 25 years - the length of one human generation - for a new idea to he widely accepted. She felt that the explosion of knowledge and communications following World War II was one of the main factors in the widening generation gap.

"So many things have happened virtually at once," she said in a 1970 interview. "From the end of World War II and right afterwards, the entire world was able to be in touch. People learned things simultaneously and quickly, where beforehand they learned sequentially and slowly. Only when we recongnize that there is an unprecedented generation gap that is worldwide can we begin to communicate again."

She made it clear that communicating between generations was not the same as losing one's identity in another generation.

"I identify with my own generation," she said. "The most dangerous thing you can do is try to indentify with the young when you're no longer young yourself."

Dr. Mead was a supporter of women's liberation. She told a National Press Club audience in 1976 what one way to make housewives worthy of respect in America would be to make them part of "the Social Security system the pension system. Then if they're paid some money they'll be valued. It's the only thing men understand - weapons and money."

But in an interview that is part of a movie about her that was produced by the old U.S. Information Agency, she summed up her life in these words:

"When I think about what other people in the world might think about the work I've always enjoyed doing the kind of things that a woman would do. I'd like them to know that I fnd it very rewarding to be able to see three generations, that I wouldn't want to live at any other time in history, and I am glad I've been alive long enough to see so many changes and to look forward to so many new changes."

Dr. Mead's death brought tributes from President Carter and other leaders.

"Margaret Mead's life was impressively full and productive," the president said. "Interpid and independent, she was a model for several generations of young Americans, especially women."

Kurt Waldheim secretary general of the United Nations, said she had always lent "generous support" to the world organization and that she would be "greatly missed."

"Margaret's death is a loss not only to anthropology, but to science in general; not only to U.S. society, but to the world," said Edward J. Lehman, executive director of the American Anthropology and U.S. science.

S. Dillon Ripley, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said Dr. Mead's "professional achievements in the human science permeate all firlds of scholarly endeavor, and her powers of communication remain models in carrying out our aims to both increase and diffuse knowledge."

Ripley said one of the areas in which Dr. Mead had been a leader was the recording on film of "vanishing ways of life around the world." Her efforts, he said, helped create the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Film Center.

Margaret Mead was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 16, 1901. Her father, Edward S. Mead was a teacher of finance at the University of Pennsylvania. Her mother, Emily Fogg Mead, was a sociologist. Margaret was the oldest in a family of four girls and one boy.

Until about the eighth grade, she was educated at home, mostly by her paternal grandmother, Martha Ramsey Mead, one of the early child psychologists. After attending Doylestown (Pa.) High School and the New Hope (Pa.) School for Girls, she spent a year at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.

At one time she had wanted to be a painter and she studied English at DePauw. But after a year in Indiana she enrolled in Barnard College, of Columbia University in New York.

In her senior year at Barnard, from which she graduated with a Phi Beta Kappa key in 1923, Dr. Mead took a course in anthropology from Prof. Franz Boas, who was widely renowned in the field. She also was a student of Dr. Ruth Benedict, with whom she collaborated on many later projects, and decided to become an anthropologist. In 1924, she earned a master's degree in psychology from Columbia.

A year later, she obtained a National Research Council fellowship and became an associate at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. This enabled her to make her first field trip to Samoa for the work that led to "Coming of Age in Samoa." She returned to the United States in 1926 and became an assistant curator of ethnology at the American Museumof Natural History in New York.

This was the beginning of an association with museum that lasted more than 50 years. She became an associate curator in 1942 in 1964. She became curator emeritus upon her formal retirement in 1969, but kept her office in a tower of the museum until her death.

In 1923 and 1929, she studied the people on Manus in the Admiralty Islands, a part of New Guinea. The out-come was "Growing up in New Guinea," which she wrote with Dr. Reo Fortune a new Zealander who was her second husband. (Her first marriage was to Luther Cressman).

In 1930, when the book was published, she studied a tribe of American Indians whom she called "the Anthlers" to conceal its true identity. A year later, she was back in New Guinea, beginning a two-year study of three more tribes there. From 1936 to 1939, she made extensive investigations on the island of Bali and returned again to New Guinea.

In 1953, she returned to the Admiralty Islands to see how its inhabitants were coping with the civilization that had been thrust upon them by World War II. She met members of tribes who used to cannibalize their enimies and whose sons now were going to universities.

In 1957 and 1953, she revisited Bali and in 1965 and 1966 she returned to the Admiralty Islands for the last time.

In all, Dr. Mead was the author or coauthor of about 25 books. Among them were "Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies." "Social Organization in Manua." "Kinship in the Admiralty Islands." "Balinese Character." "Mountain Arapesh." "People and Places," a book for youngsters. "Family," and "Anthropology A Human Science." One of her last magazine articles is scheduled for publication next month.

Dr. Mead was short, rather round and wore her hair in bangs that became famous through so many television appearances that she became a member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. She often wore capes and in later years walked with the assistance of a shoulder-high stick. She once was described as "everybody's grandmother."

Wilton S. Dillon of the Smithsonian Institution a colleague of Dr. Mead. was asked how she managed to survive the rigors of her extended field trips. He replied. "She always reserved some hour of the day for the maintenance of her own traditions.She never denied her own roots or tried to abandon them. It was her way of keeping her own identity in faraway places. And she often said that she always had angels overhead.

Dr. Mead's third husband was Gregory Bateson, an anthropologist. They had one child, Catherine Bateson KassarJian, who survives her and who is dean of social sciences and humanities at Raza Shah Cabir University in Babolsar, Iran. Also surviving is a granddaugher, Sevanne.