Lambros Comitas Biography

Early years, Education and Career

Written by: Ellen Schnepel, PhD

Lambros Comitas was born on September 29, 1927, and raised in New York City in a Greek cultural and linguistic milieu. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from the island of Ithaca, and this image was to resonate throughout his life. 

He entered Columbia College in the wartime world of 1943 at the age of 16, but was drafted into the US Army in 1946, one semester shy of graduation; however, he did not see service. In 1948, he received his BA from Columbia. Four years later, he married Irene Mousouris, also of Greek descent, who had been a student at Barnard College. 

The GI Bill of Rights allowed Lambros to afford graduate studies. In 1962, he received his PhD in Anthropology from the Faculty of Political Sciences at Columbia University, submitting the dissertation Fishermen and Cooperation in Rural Jamaica. Many of his cohorts at Columbia remained lifelong friends, among them Marvin Harris, Morton Fried, Myron Cohen, Mort Klass, and Conrad Arensberg, one of Lambros’s most influential professors.

In 1965, after serving as a Teaching Assistant (1956-57), Instructor (1958-1961), and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University (1962-64), he was offered a position at Teachers College, the university’s educational arm, located on 120th Street— “the widest street in the world.” There he would cement his 77-year relationship with Morningside Heights. 

Comitas’s major contribution was the founding of the Joint Program in Applied Anthropology. He advanced quickly — from Associate Professor (1965-67) to Professor of Anthropology and Education (1967-87) while directing the PhD Program in Anthropology. In 1988, he was promoted to Gardner Cowles Professor of Anthropology and Education. His inaugural lecture, With Ithaca on My Mind: An Anthropologist’s Journey, delivered on March 8, 1989, was an inspiring address in which he visualized the Greek poem Ithaca by Constantine Kavafy as an exhortation to the call of anthropology, but also an evocation of his own personal Odyssey.

Turning to administrative work while teaching, Lambros held numerous positions at Teachers College: Associate Director, then Director of the Division of Philosophy, the Social Sciences, and Education (1972-74 & 1979-96, respectively); and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy and the Social Sciences (1979-96). He also directed the Institute for Latin American and Iberian Studies, SIPA (1977-84), Center for Urban Studies and Programs (1968-74), Center for Education in Latin America (1967-75), and Institute of International Studies. He was elected President of the Society for Applied Anthropology (1970-71).

In addition to his wide-ranging, ethnographic work, Lambros collaborated with Dr. Vera Rubin on multiple research projects, in particular the NIH Cannabis Project. He held positions at The Research Institute for the Study of Man (RISM) in New York City, founded by Dr. Rubin for the study of the Caribbean: Research Associate (1959-64), Associate Director (1965-85); and with Vera’s death, Director and President of the Board (1985-2001). In 2003, he founded the Comitas Institute for Anthropological Research (CIFAS). The Institute supports his passion for applied anthropology and, with his passing on March 5, 2020, it will appropriately sustain his anthropological legacy.