Ted Scudder

Year of Graduation: 
Ted Scudder and Bill Rawson

“What Exeter was able to do for me was prove I was a natural leader — the exact opposite of what I thought I was.”

When Ted Scudder ’48 joined a benchmark field study of the Kariba Dam in Zambia in 1956, he believed the dam would build prosperity and improve the lives of people in developing nations. 

He later came to think differently. 

Over more than 50 years as a professor and social anthropologist at the California Institute of Technology, Scudder emerged as one of the world’s leading experts on large dams — and an outspoken critic of their human and environmental effects.

In October 2005, he returned to Exeter to accept the John Phillips Award — which recognized the positive impact his life’s work has had on millions of people — and delivered a powerful call to action to the students gathered in Assembly Hall. “Increasingly, I believe yours is the key generation,” he declared, urging them to do their utmost to confront the world’s problems, including the degradation of the planet’s resources and rising income inequality. 

To ensure young Exonians would have opportunities to engage in this weighty work, Scudder and his wife established the Eliza D. and Thayer Scudder ’48 Global Awareness Fund. To date, the fund has enabled more than 170 students to travel to more than 13 nations, including Cuba, China, India, South Africa and Martinique, through Exeter’s Global Initiatives program. 

By immersing themselves in the languages, cultures, economics, politics and religions of different countries, students gain firsthand exposure to the social sciences, an area of study Scudder believes “should be a major broadening aspect of a secondary school education.” 

Among those who have benefited from the Scudders’ generosity is Olivia Reed ’16. Reed vividly remembers dancing with local villagers outside Calcutta during her trip to India back in the spring of 2015. “I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about a different culture and the way people interact with the space around them,” she says. Reed was struck by the different expectations and social customs for women, and later drew on her travels for a multimedia project about how women were portrayed in Indian literature. 

For Bryce Morales ’19, a spring-break trip to Cuba his senior year helped him better understand what he learned in a course in environmental history. “I had some of that in mind when we were looking at [Cuba’s] land and resource use ... or even just driving through the countryside looking at some of the farms and factories.” 

Eimer Page P’22, instructor in English and director of Global Initiatives, adds that the Scudder Fund has opened programs to a broad range of Exonians by allowing the school to subsidize travel for all participants, not only those who receive financial aid during the school year. 

As for his own time at Exeter, Scudder admits to focusing more on extracurricular activities than on his studies. He fondly recounts bicycling to nearby beaches for bird-watching excursions and climbing Mount Washington with the Mountaineering Club, which he co-founded with the support of English Instructor Bob Bates ’29. Scudder was also president of the Outing Club and captained the cross-country team to a New England championship. “What Exeter was able to do for me was prove I was a natural leader — the exact opposite of what I thought I was,” Scudder says. 

Scudder went on to study biology and anthropology at Harvard with the intent of becoming a naturalist. There he met his future wife, Eliza, and they married while still undergrads. Eliza encouraged her husband to pursue his doctorate and served as a constant source of support for his work, while also pursuing her own career in early childhood education. 

Scudder returned to Harvard for graduate studies in anthropology with an interest in learning more about Africa. Finding that the university didn’t offer a course in African Studies, he enrolled in one at Boston University, taught by social anthropologist Elizabeth Colson, who would invite him on that first field study of the Kariba Dam and become his longtime mentor. 

He had hoped to complete his Ph.D. scaling snow-capped peaks in Uganda, perfecting his climbing (and yodeling) skills while studying the Bakonjo people. Instead, he found himself joining Colson in a parched rift valley, with temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, living with the Gwembe Tonga, who would soon be forced from their ancestral homelands along the Zambezi River onto resettlement sites. 

Scudder returned again and again to Zambia, and by the mid-1970s had come to realize the dam had increased poverty and caused other long-lasting problems for the Tonga. “If you study [large dams] over an extended period of time ... you find out how destructive they are,” he explains. “About 40 million people have been adversely affected.” 

In the 1990s, Scudder’s research helped convince the government of Botswana to halt a dam project in the Okavango Delta. He views it as one of the biggest impacts he made in his career, calling the delta a “beautiful oasis in the middle of the desert,” where recent archaeological research has suggested modern humans originated. 

Scudder’s non sibi spirit continues to make a difference at Exeter as well. While the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down travel for the foreseeable future, the fund has supported a number of virtual experiences, including a Russian language immersion and a remote learning program dedicated to the history and legacy of the sugar industry. 

At 90, Ted Scudder remains engaged in and committed to the work he began more than six decades ago. The research he and Colson began in Zambia’s Gwembe Valley is now one of the longest-running anthropological studies in the world. Scudder still communicates weekly with his former research assistants and he and Eliza have funded the higher education of more than 70 Tonga women. 

Meanwhile, his formative experiences at Exeter loom large in his mind. More than 70 years later, he proudly recounts what Dean Wells Kerr told him and a friend when they checked in after returning from one of their excursions: “He thought we had more fun at Exeter than any other students.”

— Sarah Pruitt '95

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2020 issue of The Exeter Bulletin