A remarkable intellectual odyssey came to a close on November 7, 1974 when Sherburne Cook died on the Monterey Peninsula. Although he had by then been formally retired for ten years, he was actively engaged in new research. One project was to apply to California mission records what he had learned in analyzing Mexican parish registers. Another envisaged further studies of population characteristics, morbidity, and aboriginal diet and nutrition in California and Mexico. For a third, he had spent years gathering notes on a century and a half of Mexican-American experience in Santa Clara County, California, using hitherto untapped sources.
Cook was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, December 31, 1896. His father was for many years editor of The Springfield Republican. The son, an only child, was given a careful education, including a year of study in Wilhelminian Germany that left him with deep, mixed feelings. Undergraduate years at Harvard began with a major in history but finished with a major in biology. College study was interrupted by two years with the American Expeditionary Force in the First World War. The young man earned his A. B. in 1919, went on to an A. M. in 1923, and finally a Ph. D. in 1925, with a thesis on “The Toxicity of the Heavy Metals in Relation to Respiration.” For a year the new doctor taught at Harvard as an instructor. From 1926 to 1928 he was National Research Fellow in the Biological Sciences, spending a year and a quarter at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut in Berlin-Dahlem and a half year at the University of Cambridge. In 1928 he came to the University of California, Berkeley, as assistant professor; it was to be his academic home for the rest of his life.
Until the middle 1930s, Cook’s professional career was that of a promising young physiologist. He was rather quickly promoted in 1931 to associate professor. His research concentrated upon the toxic effects of heavy metals, the functioning of the spleen, the effects of different kinds of feed upon poultry and upon the human beings who ate them, and the effects of inert gases in depressing cellular metabolism. This last topic has become a subject of renewed scientific interest in recent years.
An attempt to interfere with publication of Cook’s studies of poultry feeds led to a massive change of intellectual direction, stimulated further by delay in promotion to full professor until 1942. Cook continued substantial studies in physiology—rates of oxygen absorption by human beings, the effects of high altitudes, the fossilization of bone and the processes of aging; but his major interests increasingly moved into areas foreign to his colleagues in the life sciences. He found encouragement and new friends in Carl Sauer, Lesley Byrd Simpson, and Alfred L. Kroeber. The first sign of the new direction was “Diseases of the Indians of Lower California in the Eighteenth Century” (1935). There followed historical studies of epidemics, methods of treatment, and medical institutions in California and Mexico. A Guggenheim fellowship and sabbatical leave, spent in Mexico in 1939, led to a lifelong friendship with Robert Weitlaner and explorations in the Mixteca Alta and the Valley of El Mezquital. In 1940 the first essay in historical demography appeared, Population Trends among the California Mission Indians. A great deal of his future inquiry was prefigured in that essay and in an article published in 1945, “Demographic Consequences of European Contact with Primitive Peoples.” Upon the publication of the four volumes, The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization in 1943, Cook became a well-known name in California anthropology and history. For years thereafter any large scholarly gathering in either field was apt to have a heated debate upon the perceptive but astringent analyses of these volumes.
After the Second World War, Cook devoted his attention to working out in detail the ideas sketched in his essay of 1945, and to moving into new applications of techniques from the sciences to the study of man. His approach was always that of a social biologist, bringing to his research an unusual breadth and competence in the life sciences, geology, anthropology, and history. His training in science and statistics gave him uncanny facility in perceiving the nature of the problem and getting to the heart of it. His own intelligence provided remarkable ingenuity in locating new sources of data and in finding ways around barriers of apparent lack of direct evidence, in the end proving that under proper treatment the data did contain the evidence. All of this was capped by economy and clarity of exposition—what mathematicians call elegance. A deep self-reliance and courage led him to follow the data, when verified, wherever they led. He might have had greater tranquillity had he adhered to the ideas of established scholars.
The major anthropological and historical problems that interested Cook in these three decades basically arose from his interest in the Indian populations, the massive changes brought by European conquest and migration, and the application of quantitative methods. In 1949 he published two pioneering studies, The Historical Demography and Ecology of the Teotlalpan and Soil Erosion and Population in Central Mexico, both applying stratigraphic study that traced the deposition of erosion back to the parent strata and dated the process, both proving that, contrary to prevailing opinion, much of the worst erosion in Mexico took place before the coming of the Europeans and their livestock. The two monographs are models of the union of field examination and study of historical documents. Cook further proposed significant innovations in techniques of archaeology. He was a pioneer in estimating the size of Indian populations by determining the kinds and numbers of potsherds in ceramic cultural sites, on the theory that there must be a relation between human numbers and frequency, breakage, and disposal of cooking and storage pots. Another contribution lay in analysis of numbers and size of houses and the surface areas of archaeological sites as a basis for arriving at probable number of inhabitants. His interest in nutrition led to a series of studies based on examination of palpable residues of discarded organic trash in occupation sites in California, in order to learn about the diet of the people who left the wastes. He advocated the analysis of coprolites years before American archaeologists accepted the idea. For historians, perhaps his greatest contributions lay in showing the value of study of stratigraphy and erosion patterns; in devising methods of statistical analysis of historical records, especially tribute rolls; and in his fusion of techniques of historical demography with those of the study of present-day populations. Again, he gained inspiration from his knowledge of the life sciences and went where the data took him.
Throughout his scholarly life Cook engaged freely in joint research. For him there was no problem for he followed behavior customary in scientific laboratories. A study of the aboriginal population of central Mexico in the sixteenth century, in partnership with Lesley Byrd Simpson (1948), demonstrated the need for such partnership with a trained historian if he were to analyze historical records. A long and warm association with Robert F. Heizer, in study of problems in anthropology and archaeology, permitted easier access to the pertinent literature and pinpointed the cores of the problems more readily. Cook’s driving curiosity was fed from Heizer’s especially ample library. Another partner in archaeological studies was A. E. Treganza of San Francisco State University.
My own association with Cook came later, although I had known him as a graduate student in Berkeley and Mexico in the 1930s. In the middle 1950s I approached Cook with a proposal for a series of collaborative studies on the Mixteca Alta. A history of changes in numbers since the Conquest was to have been the first. Removing the obstacles to our knowledge of the sources for that first study led to many publications and opened wider the rich vein of historical demography, particularly as it related to Mexico. Some of my happiest memories are of sitting in Cook’s office with him four afternoons a week, reading, analyzing, tabulating historical records, or discussing drafts. When Cook retired to Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula, the form of collaboration necessarily changed to division of tasks, consultation by letter and telephone, less often by direct meeting, and writing by exchange of drafts; but the relationship remained cordial and generous. That between Cook and Heizer, and indeed that with all others, I know to have been of the same nature.
At the time of his death, Cook was moving energetically in new directions. He left a number of completed manuscripts, which are being published; some in process, to be completed if possible; and a substantial mass of field notes and other papers. They are being deposited either in the Bancroft Library or the Archaeological Research Facility of the University of California, Berkeley. The following bibliography of publications of interest for history and anthropology lists Cook’s works to date, but it does not include those yet to come.