Anthropology professor Deborah Nichols ‘inspired generations,’ remembered for kindness

Nichols, who was the first female tenured anthropology professor at Dartmouth, died at age 70 in July.

by Farah Lindsey-Almadani | 8/19/22 5:15am

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Source: Courtesy of Julie Gilman

Anthropology professor Deborah Nichols was known for her willingness to help others. As a trailblazing scholar and top archaeologist, her kindness shone throughout all of her pursuits.

For Sarah Klassen ’10, Nichols dropped everything to help Klassen decide on possible career paths — despite not knowing Klassen at the time. 

“It is funny to think about, now, these pivotal moments in a person’s life,” Klassen said. “For me, it turns out my career was [because of Nichols] putting everything down to speak to a random student for an hour who might be interested in archaeology,” Klassen said.

Nichols died on July 27 at age 70 from cancer, according to an announcement from the Society for American Archaeology. Nichols — often referred to as Deb — served as president of the Society for American Archaeology starting in 2021.  

Nichols was born in Flushing, N.Y., and completed her bachelors, masters and Ph.D. at Penn State University. Nichols joined the College in 1985 and became the College’s first tenured female professor of anthropology in 1990. She taught courses in anthropology, Latin American, Latin and Caribbean Studies and Native American and Indigenous Studies. 

Fellow anthropology professor Sienna Craig said she remembers Nichols as someone who offered “incredibly valued and skillful advice.” 

Craig said that it was Nichols who hired her back in 2005. According to Craig, Nichols supported the inclusion of minorities and women in anthropology, but also Nichols’s field of choice, archaeology. She also said that thanks to Nichols’s efforts to achieve inclusivity in the field, the department has become more diverse. 

“She has not only been an incredibly strong person and leader, but she has lived through many profound transformations at Dartmouth and in our department and in the discipline as a whole … with grace, clarity and compassion,” Craig said. 

Religion and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Susan Ackerman echoed Craig, noting that Nichols particularly strove to introduce archaeology to Native American and Mexican students.

“We think about how important it is to think about diversity in our community and how important it is to create mentoring opportunities for all of our students, including students from underrepresented, ethnic and racial minorities,” Ackerman said. “She thought about [this] before Dartmouth was thinking about it very hard.”  

Native American studies and history professor Colin Calloway added that her advocacy extended into her scholarship. 

“I think that Deb perhaps represented or showed a different face of archaeology – one that could be collaborative, one that would involve working with Native communities, to find out things Native communities wanted to find, other than the kind of intrusive, top-down [approach],” Calloway said.

Anthropology professor Jesse Casana noted that Nichols had a uniquely “expansive view of the discipline” and embraced a wide range of perspectives. Nichols helped to recruit and supervise one of Casana’s former Ph.D. students as a postdoc at Dartmouth, despite his research falling beyond her immediate area of expertise, Casana said. 

“I was just so impressed by her willingness to embrace archaeological questions,” he said. “A lot of other people would tend to be much more narrowly focused on just their own specific little thing.”

In an email statement to The Dartmouth, anthropology department chair and professor Jeremy DeSilva added that Nichols was always willing to provide guidance and mentorship. 

“Her wisdom, humor, knowledge and kindness will be sorely missed on the fourth floor of Silsby Hall,” DeSilva wrote. “...Her anthropological scholarship was transformative and inspired generations of Dartmouth students.”

In addition to Klassen, who is now an archaeologist, Bridget Alex ’08 was another such student. Inspired by an online article she read that discussed using nuclear energy to analyze artifacts, Alex said she realized that she wanted to engage in similar research. Alex then sent an email to Nichols — despite not knowing her very well — who advised Alex to focus on earth sciences and chemistry based on Alex’s research interests, which Alex took to heart. Today, Alex is a lecturer at Harvard University. Alex said that it was Nichols who introduced her to the world of academia and graduate school opportunities.  

“I’m currently so happy with how my life has turned out professionally and personally, [and] I would not have gone down this path had I not met her,” Alex said. “Even if I knew I wanted it, I would have had no idea how to pursue it.” 

Members outside of the Dartmouth community also commemorated Nichols’s accomplishments as a dedicated archaeologist. Dan Sandweiss, president of the Society for American Anthropologists, said that he first met Nichols years ago when he was a board member and she was president. 

“She was a great leader, very centered, and she understood the discipline well,” Sandweiss said.

According to Sandweiss, in the months leading up to her passing, Nichols was advising and mentoring him before he would take on his presidency in March 2023. 

Sandweiss also released a statement honoring Nichols on behalf of the Society for American Anthropologists. He wrote, “[Nichols] has been a guiding light and fierce advocate for the SAA, her students at Dartmouth and the field of archaeology,” as well as “a wonderful mentor.” 

Along with mentoring individual students, Ackerman expressed how Nichols cared immensely about leadership and administration at Dartmouth. Nichols participated on several executive committees, including serving as vice-president of the Committee Advisory to the President.

“We were both deeply, deeply, deeply committed to the work that faculty does in terms of helping govern Dartmouth,” Ackerman said. “I can’t tell you how many committees we were on together.”

Calloway and Ackerman added they were close friends with Nichols outside of work. Calloway  lived in Norwich, Vt., the same town as Nichols, and said that their sons grew up together. Ackerman attended Christmas Eve dinners hosted by Nichols. Ackerman emphasized that Nichols brought people closer, both among her fellow researchers in the field and her friends.

“She was just great at that sense of bringing people together again, whether it was for her archaeological work or her governance work, or just because it was a group of people [that] she thought … should hang out together and have a nice evening together,” Ackerman said. 

According to an obituary by the Valley News, Nichols is survived by her husband and fellow anthropology professor, John Watanabe, her son Aaron and her brother-in-law Daniel Wilson. 

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