Comitas Phenomenon

100 Ph.d's in Applied Anthropology

Written by: Gerald F. Murray, PhD

The following pages are written as a tribute to one of the most unusual professional careers in the history of anthropology: the career of Prof. Lambros Comitas of Teachers College, Columbia University.Known to his students as “Lambros”, his research, publications, and professional awards have already been documented elsewhere. What is in danger of being overlooked is his extraordinary – arguably unique – productivity in terms of the mentoring of students to a Ph.D. in anthropology. The database underlying this report is a spreadsheet of the names, years, and dissertation titles of students who successfully completed the Ph.D. under Comitas’ guidance.

By coincidence the spreadsheet had exactly 100 students and their dissertation titles. The final Ph.D. on the list, produced in 2014, was Lambros’ 100th Ph.D. The number 100 is generally a milestone marker triggering a celebration (unless we are dealing with a serial killer). Though nobody currently on planet earth apparently has reached their 100th wedding anniversary, a handful of people do reach their 100th birthday, an achievement which is often celebrated in local town newspapers. Early in their careers, college professors (without realizing it) routinely assign their 100th grade, or grade their 100th paper.Later they will (also unbeknownst to themselves) teach their 100th class (most of them recycled, formerly through yellowing file cards, now through more easily upgradable Power Point presentations).

But how many anthropology professors have mentored 100 students to the Ph.D.? No data are available.A study was done in the 1990s of anthropology departments that had produced over 100 Ph.D’s. The number was 14 (5 of which had produced more than 200 Ph.D.’s); and the members of this elite group tended (and still tend) to hire each other’s students, who were labelled “stars” because of their graduate-degree origins and occupational destinations. (“Non-stars” are apparently those who never quite make it into these elite academic inner-circles. These “non-stars”” may understandably construct competitive and perhaps equally fictitious operational definitions of stardom.)

The mentoring of a student all the way to the Ph.D. can by no means be dismissed as a fictitious achievement. Senior professors may be proud of having produced 20 or 30 Ph.D’s. Lambros Comitas has produced 100; on that criterion, he may possibly belong to a star category with an N of 1. It is certainly worthy of documentation and proclamation via a trumpet which Lambros himself may feel disinclined to sound.

He started mentoring graduate students in Teachers College Columbia in the early 1960’s and reportedly still boards NYC buses and subways each day to his office in 2017, more than a half century later.Rounding it off, during that half century he has produced an average of two Ph.D.’s per year. Theaverage length of time from the B.A. to a Ph.D. in anthropology is a (horrendous) seven years. This means that at any given time during this half century Lambros has been the committee chair for 14students. Whether fellow academics react to this situation with admiration or horror (few would envythe associated workload) we are in the presence of a phenomenon – the Comitas phenomenon – that may be unique in the annals of anthropology. And what is astounding is that the Professor, nearing the age of 90, is still active as of this writing (2017).

Many of us who received our doctorates under him have long since retired; some of our classmates already have been honored with obituaries. Lambros, however, now in his 90th year of life, continues his commutes to his TC office. In terms of the number of Ph.D.’s he has mentored, the variety of countries and territories in which his students did their Ph.D. research, the direct in-situ guidance which many of them received, the variety of applied research projects in which Lambros himself has been involved, and Lambros’ own professional longevity still in progress, it is a unique saga, worthy of empirical documentation. The essential features are already available on-line. (E.g.;;

The following pages will summarize and supplement the material already publicly available with information on the worldwide research sites of his doctoral students and the variety of the research topics which they have pursued