August 20, 2021

The Long View

Caltech has a new professorship in the social sciences, courtesy of retired anthropology professor Thayer “Ted” Scudder and his wife, Eliza Scudder.

Ted Scudder, who today is regarded as a leading expert on dams and their long-term effects on communities and global ecosystems, joined the Caltech faculty in 1964, one year before the Division of the Humanities became the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences. His social anthropology fieldwork was emblematic of the name change.

Scudder conducted the first multi-generational study of the wide-ranging impacts of communities displaced by dams and river basin development. This work has helped preserve the lands and livelihoods of millions of people across Africa as well as in India, Nepal, Jordan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and the United States.

Treasured Teacher

Until his retirement in 2000, Scudder enthralled hundreds of students with his research findings. “My initial routine courses in anthropology evolved into courses that reflected my own research,” he explains. “I thought it would be relevant to the interests of Caltech students.”

Students did find relevance in Scudder’s classes, where they learned about long-term studies of the world’s low-income majority and the adverse effects of globalization on non-Western societies. They also found inspiration in their professor.

“I think one reason why students liked the courses, other than me being absent fairly often,” Scudder jokes, “was that during the two-and-a-half-hour period I would show about a hundred slides. Students were seeing science as it was being done.”

Since the 1970s, undergraduates have bestowed the Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology (ASCIT) Teaching Award on instructors who demonstrate exceptional ability to inspire and motivate. Scudder was the first to be honored with this distinction three times.

“Ted spent decades balancing his passion for field research in anthropology and his dedication to sharing that passion with Caltech students,” says Jean-Laurent Rosenthal (PhD ’88), the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and holder of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Leadership Chair for the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Altruistic Anthropologist

Scudder initiated his seminal investigations in present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe, where he began documenting the resettlement of Gwembe Tonga people for construction of the Kariba Dam in 1956. When he returned in 1962 to observe how the communities coped with resettlement, he encountered myriad stresses, including higher rates of illness and mortality as well as increased levels of financial hardship and impediments to observing local leadership traditions. Eventually, he turned what originally was envisioned as a before-and-after study into a long-term project that continues today.

He went on to conduct numerous studies worldwide, each spanning multiple generations. Through this research, he formulated a theory to help predict the environmental, economic, and sociocultural effects of relocating populations for river basin development.

In 1976, Scudder cofounded the nonprofit Institute for Development Anthropology to help defend the human rights of low-income populations through projects that promoted growth and a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources. Over the course of his career, he has served as a consultant and in dam advisory positions with the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other institutions.

“I’m gratified to know that my research has benefited, and continues to benefit, millions of people around the world,” Scudder says.



“In endowing this professorship, Ted and Eliza champion excellence in the social sciences at Caltech.”
- Jean-Laurent Rosenthal

Throughout his tenure at Caltech, Scudder appreciated the Institute’s trust in him. As a researcher who has always focused on longitudinal impact, he says he can’t imagine any other institution that would have afforded him the freedom to embark on projects nearly 50 years in scope.

By endowing the Eliza and Thayer Scudder Professorship in the Social Sciences, Scudder and his wife continue to set their sights on long-term impact. They view their gift as an investment that will enable scholars to undertake ambitious, yet-to-be-defined inquiries for generations to come.

“Ted Scudder’s arrival at Caltech helped launch a new era, where the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences joined the rest of the Institute in putting research on equal footing with teaching,” Rosenthal says. “In endowing this professorship, Ted and Eliza champion excellence in the social sciences at Caltech.”

To learn how you can support the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences, please contact Joe Shea at or (626) 395-4643.