Short Portrait: Beatrix Pfleiderer

Beatrix Pfleiderer
Beatrix Pfleiderer

On a day in July 2009, I went to see Beatrix Pfleiderer (* 29. Juli 1941 † 20. August 2011). Many years had passed since our last meeting. I first met her in the 1980s through my friend and former classmate, Dunja Moeller. Dunja and I had repeated a class together at secondary school.

We had not met often, but I was surprised how approachable and interested she was in a student who she hardly knew, let alone supervised. In the following years I lost sight of her. By coincidence I learned that she was teaching medical anthropology at the Institute of Transcultural Health Studies at Viadrina European University in Frankfurt/Oder . Beatrix immediately gave her consent, when I asked her whether she would be available for a conversation about her professional biography for my research project on “The History of Federal German Anthropology from 1945 to 1990” . And here we were, sitting with a nice cup of tea and some biscuits in the garden of her home in Rostock-Teschendorf, talking about her path through anthropology and about old times.

At the beginning of all things is a mother. And a mother she was! Beatrix was a Doktormutter, a ‘doctoral mother’! In every respect and more… Before coming from America to Hamburg University in Germany as a young medical anthropologist, my professor for medical anthropology in Tucson, Arizona said to me, “Oh, Beatrix! She is fabulous! If you are going to study with anyone in Europe you have to study with her! She is just an intellectual fireball!” When I finally met her at her home in Wilhelmsfeld near Heidelberg, a slim, red-headed, and empathetic woman was standing in front of me. ‘That’s just not possible!’, I thought, female professors have to appear a little plump, a little unworldly, and slightly outmoded. Beatrix, on the contrary, was outgoing, extremely curious, playful, sensual, and incredibly versatile.

“She was sitting on my couch! One fine morning, as I returned from a walk with the dog or from the bakery, I find a young lady sitting on my couch, right in the middle, she smiles from here to there and says, ‘Good morning! I am your new doctoral student!’” Beatrix recalls her story of this first encounter. “I was consternated by this directness, the more so since I did not know how she had gotten on my couch. I was about to explain to her that this wasn’t how things were run in Germany, when she said, ‘Mark Nichter sends me. He said, the only one worth studying with in Germany is Mrs. Pfleiderer.’ She flattered my vanity. She stayed and even moved in with me. We had a really good life over long periods, even though it was often demanding, this I have to say.”

Beatrix reassured me as a woman in my fieldwork and in my doctoral thesis on anthroposophic medicine in Herdecke and Dornach; she offered criticism and showed interest in all of her students’ topics. She often visited us doctoral students in the field in order to encourage us to critically question our own work, to collect experiences herself, or simply to rap us over the knuckles. When she visited me in Dornach, home of the anthroposophical society in Switzerland, I was flirting with the idea of going native. I wanted to start anthroposophical training in kinesiatrics/eurhythmy. Beatrix immediately revolted, “But Dunja, you will first finish your thesis, you can still train in eurhythmy afterwards. In any case, I will not pay back the research funds to the Robert Bosch Foundation because of you!”

Beatrix took up her work at the Hamburg Institut für Völkerkunde (Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology) in the early 1980s. She had applied for a newly announced C2-position for South Asia and Socialization Research. She received the professorship without submission of a professorial dissertation, since she had published two more books after her doctoral dissertation, which proved highly suitable to represent the discipline in its full breadth: a study of Tunisian guest-workers and a publication on film in India.

  • Beatrix Pfleiderer-Becker (1978) Tunesische Arbeitnehmer in Deutschland. Eine ethnologische Feldstudie über die Beziehungen zwischen sozialem Wandel in Tunesien und der Auslandstätigkeit tunesischer Arbeitnehmer. Verlag für Entwicklungspolitik, Saarbrücken
  • Beatrix Pfleiderer/Lothar Lutze, eds. (1985) The Hindi film: agent and re-agent of cultural change. New Delhi: Manohar

Before going to Hamburg she worked as a lecturer at the European Branch of the University of Maryland in Heidelberg, and as a research assistant at the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Heidelberg with Professor Hans-Jochen Diesfeld. Her first husband, Wolfgang Becker, was a renowned orthopaedist in Heidelberg-Schlierbach. “Medicine always interested me: how to you fall ill and how to you get well again? What are the culture-specific conditions and characteristics? This is what I wanted to specialize on. Because of my interest in cross-cultural socialization research I already worked in the area of culture and personality research. In the USA questions of psychiatry and the field of medical anthropology were already important topics. I wanted to bring these approaches to Germany – and I did. However, Ekkehard Schröder, Wulf Schiefenhövel and Joachim Sterly had already established and advanced Ethnomedizin in Germany.” 

Besides her focus on South Asia and socialization research Beatrix thus also established medical anthropology in Hamburg since 1982. “I was working under high pressure, in sixth gear so to say. I used to teach medical anthropology on the side.”

Robert Bosch Foundation? Research funds?! Whoever has heard of a professor in the 1980s, who not only raised research funds for her doctoral candidates, but who toured from pillar to post bargaining like a Bazaar vendor? This certainly wasn’t the case in America! There you relied on your own initiative: “Find your own funding, I have more important things to do!” Beatrix Pfleiderer was absolutely exceptional in her commitment to her students and doctoral candidates. She was a dream of a Doktormutter!

Beatrix studied in Munich with Baumann and in College Park at the University of Maryland before enrolling in Heidelberg. Originally, she wanted to do her doctoral degree with Karl Jettmar, but the topic that he proposed – Robert von Heine-Geldern’s migration theories – did not meet her own interests. Furthermore, she imagined that she would need a long time for it, and in light of her family obligations she did not want to overburden herself. “Since I was raising a child at the time, I thought I would write about parenting. To me, this was the most fascinating topic: cross-cultural socialization research. It is a good entrance point into anthropology, as good as could be! Admittedly, I hadn’t conducted fieldwork on the topic; it was a literature-based thesis, but this was good, very good!

  • Beatrix Pfleiderer-Becker (1975) Sozialisationsforschung in der Ethnologie. Eine Analyse der Theorien und Methoden. Saarbrücken, Verlag der ssip Schriften


Moreover, a cross-cultural topic I could submit anywhere, because I wasn’t bound to a specific region. I didn’t have a region, which was a stigma in those days. Almost everyone had a region, except me. I had a husband, no region, but a husband – that is something very similar to a region!” Beatrix adds with a twinkle in her eye. Beatrix’ second husband, Professor Lothar Lutze, was an indologist at the South Asia Institute in Heidelberg and taught modern Hindi. But it was clear to her that she would pursue a career of her own.
She finally found a good supervisor for her doctorate in Karl Jettmar’s assistant Ulla Johansen, who had already lent her support during her Master’s thesis Sozialisation im ersten Lebensjahr in 1971. “Mrs. Johansen was a good collusion for me”, Beatrix points out. At the time of her viva voce examination, in 1973, Johansen was about to go to Cologne, where she was to become Helmut Petri’s successor. “I could rely on her: I told her what I was planning to do, and she gave her opinion. This offered clarity and a sense of orientation. This was a good thing. I mean, I also complained about her of course, as you do during a doctorate; but in hindsight I have to say that she was a formidable doctoral advisor. If you think about how often doctoral candidates get off the track and how you have to get them back onto track again! She also had to set me back onto track sometimes.” I surmise that Beatrix learned a lot from Ulla Johansen for her own dealings with students in later years.

Just imagine, all of Beatrix’ doctoral candidates completed their doctorate, and they did so with above-average results!! In her role as a doctoral advisor she obtained so many research funds that one could live well off them. However, the decisive point was her dedicated moral, intellectual and emotional supervision! For a long time, I did not realize just how demanding it must have been.

“I supervised 80 exam candidates and 25 doctoral students! Some of them had come to Hamburg from overseas. I can tell you, at the age of 49 I had such a burn-out, you could have buried me alive! After all, I always did this in addition to teaching and the other tasks. I simply could no longer do it! This was a case of complete overload, those masses of doctoral students, the projects… I could no longer write my own papers, nor produce something new, nothing was underway. At the time I thought I had no more to say! And then I came to Hawaii with only eight students in my class. Eight! This is when you finally come to yourself again!” Beatrix refers to two visiting professorships from 1989 to 1991 she had been invited to by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and Hilo. 
What I loved the most about Beatrix was her female way of doing science. She wanted to feel, smell and experience the field first-hand before she assessed or categorized anything. In Dornach, for instance, she immediately turned her attention to the arts therapies, painted, attended eurhythmy lessons, and shared my enthusiasm for organic farming, which probably inspired her for her later work with permaculture. Beatrix worked interdisciplinary and integrative. Where others worked specialized, she tried to establish connections and to interlink people and sciences. Beatrix could relate to medicine, to sociology, psychology, German language and literature, to philosophy, and of course to anthropology. It seemed to me as if, with her participative gifts and her sensual intellect, she completely stepped out of line. This was precisely why people were drawn to her: she could liquefy the boundaries between the disciplines and encourage people of diverse spheres of knowledge to share their findings with each other. She remained a sensual woman within a male-dominated academic system, and even with a good sense of humour!

She brought together scientists from North America and West Europe on the first medical anthropology congress in Hamburg (04.-08.12.1988).

  • Findings published in: Pfleiderer, Beatrix & Bibeau, Gilles (eds) 1991. Anthropologies of Medicine. A Colloquium on West European and North American Perspectives. (Curare-Special Volume 7). Braunschweig: Vieweg, 273 pp., ISBN 3-528-07820-0. The special volumes are a serial and not part of Curare journal.


American scientists of Jewish descent, who had felt rather ambivalent or were even opposed to their participation at a colloquium in Germany, succumbed to her hospitality. Naturally, Beatrix also secured the required funds for this conference from the Volkswagen Foundation. 
Her strong commitment took its toll. “During my time in Hamburg I was often depressive. Dunja taught me how to meditate and said, ‘If you can no longer bear with this place, you will simply leave one day.’ She meant well – and she was right because I had to leave… And then I had a powerful experience in Hawaii: every morning at 7am I went for a swim, and there was a group of dolphins who kind of adopted me over time. We really communicated with each other. I did this for almost a year… and then I thought with horror about having to return to the institute in Hamburg, which is located in the downstairs rooms of the museum in the Rothenbaum Chaussee: window grids and artificial light! A relapse into depression was to be expected.”
In 1992, Beatrix decided to give up her position in Hamburg and to start a new life with her new love and with a new project in Hawaii. “When my father died I could build up an education farm for permaculture on Hawaii with my inheritance (1992-2005). It wasn’t bad, it was nice and free. In the beginning, I hardly had any experience with practical things such as wiring, solar installations etc. Something always needed fixing! But I made it anyway and today the farm is very famous in the USA. Everyone dealing with permaculture knows La’akea Gardens. It is running wonderfully! Sometimes I wonder of course, whether it was right to turn the back on university. But whenever I hear from former colleagues the stories about intrigues in academia, I know that it was the right decision.
But I am still an anthropologist. Four years ago I was in Mexico in a Aztec exhibition and I remembered travelling through Mexico as a young woman with my husband at the time and how I realized that I wanted to become an anthropologist, at all costs. When I left that exhibition I realized: ‘Hey, I totally forgot, I am an anthropologist! Everything I do, write, make, is in fact anthropology.’”

Beatrix was not only a brilliant anthropologist and scientist who worked cross-culturally, first and foremost she was a human being! A humane human being! Even during the Hamburg times she had the awareness of a world citizen, who knew that this isn’t just about herself, but about our world. She had the ability to participate in the sufferings of others and she was aware that the world is a living organism. As a ‘doctoral mother’ she wove her motherly and participatory consciousness into the academic environment. Each radiating strand of this woven wonderwork of her life may serve as a leitmotif for future generations of integrative and sensual scientists.

We make our farewells in front of her house in Rostock with the promise to meet again, soon. Well then: see you!

Dieter Haller, Bochum/Berlin
In deep gratitude 
Dunja Moeller, Boston

This short portrait will be published in German language as an obituary in: curare 34, 2011, Iss. 4
Our thanks go to: Ekkehard Schröder/curare (editorial comments), Agnes Brandt (translation into English), Ulla Johansen (background information), Jutta Gruber and Dr. Vera Dreyer (photograph)


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