John Fee Embree

John Fee Embree

1908 - 1950

John Embree was born in New Haven on August 26, 1908. He was the descendent of Southern abolitionists, and was “the heir of a distinguished moral tradition which he, in his own way followed and developed.”

He received his A.B. at the University of Hawaii and his M.A. from the University of Toronto in 1934. While at the University of Chicago, from which he receive his PhD in 1937, Embree pursued an anthopological study of a Japanese community. From this work, he eventually published Suye Mura, which became an “immediate anthropological classic.”

After receiving his PhD, Embree returned to the University of Hawaii as an assistant professor, moving to the University of Toronto in 1941. During the war, he worked in a variety of public service capacities; such as preparing pocket guides for the Office of Strategic Services, improving the administration of the Japanese relocation centers as principal community analyst for the War Relocation Authority, and heading studies of the Civil Affiars Training School for the Far East for the War Department. With the end of the war, he joined the State Department as Cultural Attaché in Bangkok and Saigon, helping to develop their program of cultural relations.

When that program was reduced in scope, he returned to the U.S. and in 1948 joined the Southeast Asia Studies program at Yale University as associate professor of of Sociology. While at Yale he began to lay the foundations for a long-term program of research by preparing a comprehensive bibliography of the region. His published papers on Southeast Asia are brief, but in his article, “Thailand - A Loosely Structured Social System” (American Anthropologist, Vol. 52, No. 2, 1950), “…..the beginnings of a comparative analysis of social structure of great promise” could be seen.

In July 1950 he was made Director of Southeast Asia Studies following the sudden death of Raymond Kennedy.

“He was struck down by an automobile and instantly killed in Hamden, Connecticut on Friday afternoon, December 22, 1950. That day the anthropological profession lost a colleague it could ill afford to lose.”

From - Fred Eggan (1951), “John Fee Embree, 1908-1950,” American Anthropologist, Volume 53, Issue 3 (July- September 1951). View Article

“John Embree had less than two decades in which to work. Yet within that time he gained both some public name and the lasting regard of his fellow professionals. One of the most competent contemporary observers of social life and of the Far East, he was also one of the most versatile….at the time of his death he was a specialist in two areas of Asia; and as an anthropologist he was both scholar and actor in public affairs. The historians of his fields will no doubt remember him primarily for these acomplishments. His contemporaries, however, will recall him as readily for his personal attainments. Of sensitive moral fibre, he was by character and conviction animated by an extraordinary and classic sense of pity. This quality of course won him the respect and admiration of his colleagues. It also opened to him the hearts of those less fortunate than himself, and of the people among whom he worked.”

“John Embree’s best work has been deeply productive for his contemporaries. His restless curiosity and his belief that his work should be both faithful to fact and of service to ethical ends are the main tradition of his fields. It is with a deep sense of loss that we have to record his early death.

From - John Pelzel (1952), The Far Eastern Quarterly, volume 11, Issue 2 (February 1952) pp. 219-225.  View full article  

Embree papers

Manuscripts and Archives
Sterling Memorial Library
Miscellaneous papers of John Fee Embree, sociologist and director of Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University, 1950. Two journals of trips to the Far East, 1926 and 1947-1948, the latter accompanied by numerous photographs, postcards, wood cuts, and other illustrations are included. Also in the papers are correspondence and mimeographed memoranda of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council and the Far Eastern Association, 1948-1951, on the advancement of Asian studies in the United States. There are also documents, reports and lecture outlines from the School of Naval Administration, Hoover Institute, 1945-1946, on the Far East and countries in the South Pacific, and manuscripts by Embree on East Asia and the Japanese in America.