In Memoriam
George N. Appell
August 8, 1926 - May 2, 2020

George N. Appell.George N. Appell died on May 2, 2020, at the age of 93, at his home in Phillips, Maine, and is buried in a cemetery on family land.


The son of an entrepreneur in York, Pennsylvania, he grew up on a dairy farm where he came to love the natural world. He graduated early from Phillips Exeter Academy in order to enlist in the Army Air Force, and following his military service he graduated from Harvard University as a member of the class of 1948 with a degree in General Studies. Initially planning to join the family businesses in York, Pennsylvania, George went on to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1952.


While he had an extraordinarily keen mind for financial and business matters his intellectual curiosity always lay more firmly with the social sciences, particularly anthropology. This interest led him to return to Harvard to earn his Masters Degree in Anthropology. It was while he was studying anthropology at Harvard that George met his wife Laura W. Reynolds. They were married on May 25, 1957, right after George completed his master’s degree, and they immediately left for a canoe exploration of the Mackenzie River Basin in the Northwest Territories of Canada to find a site for fieldwork. George, whose passion for the outdoors, nature, and adventure were matched by Laura’s, spent that summer with the Dogrib Indians of Fort Rae, where, in addition to living in the village, George participated in caribou hunting expeditions to Winter Lake. This love of indigenous communities in Canada would continue throughout their life and was reflected in their annual summer travels in the remote Arctic regions of Canada, where they would enjoy extended canoeing and camping trips.


George and Laura in New Brunswick during a summer trip.
July 30, 1997. Photo Credit, Teresa Wood.

George and Laura in New Brunswick during a summer trip.
July 30, 1997. Photo Credit, Teresa Wood


That summer of 1957 was integral in the creation of a dedicated husband-and-wife research team that continued until Laura’s death in 2015. In 1958 George was appointed a Research Scholar in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, the Australian National University, in Canberra, and his extensive research on the Rungus Momogun began.


George N. Appell in the field in Sabah in 1963 with daughter Laura P.

George N. Appell in the field in Sabah in 1963 with daughter Laura P.

Their first daughter, Laura P. Appell (now Laura P. Appell-Warren), was born while they were in Canberra, and in 1959 Laura and George took 6-month-old Laura P. to live with the Rungus Momogun in the Colony of North Borneo. Their first field session ended in 1960 and a second field session took place in 1961-1963. From then on Laura and George spent at least part of every day, whether in the field or not, actively engaged in their research on the Rungus Momogun spiritual, domestic, and legal traditions.


Their second daughter, Amity (now Amity Appell Doolittle) was born in Canberra in 1964 and their third daughter, Charity (now Charity Appell McNabb) was born in Maine in 1965. All three of their daughters experienced life in the field at various times and as a result have all entered fields related to anthropology.


In 1968 George co-founded, with a small group of anthropologists who had done fieldwork in Borneo, the Borneo Research Council. Shortly thereafter the Borneo Research Bulletin was started and has been in continuous publication since 1969. In 1991 the Borneo Research Council Monograph Series was started, and with more than 60 titles published, the Monograph Series and the Bulletin represents a comprehensive body of knowledge.


George had planned to return to continue studying Rungus society on completion of his Ph.D. dissertation in 1966. However, following the withdrawal of the British from North Borneo, and possibly based on his deposition in support of the Rungus before the Cobbold Commission, the government of Sabah, Malaysia, declared him persona non grata. In attempting to return to the Rungus in 1980 he, his wife Laura, and their three daughters were refused entry. As a result, the Appell family research team regrouped and shifted to work among the Bulusu’ of what was then known as East Kalimantan.


George’s dedication to both indigenous rights and human rights in general was yet another through line in his life. From his work with the Cobbold Commission to his work with Cultural Survival and with Survival International to his work with the ACLU he remained a passionate supporter, both intellectually and financially, of peoples who were becoming disenfranchised.


George N. Appell in the field in Sabah
with Marajun, his primary field assistant.

George N. Appell in the field in Sabah
with Marajun, his primary field assistant


It was not until 1986 when there was a change in the Sabah government that George and Laura were permitted to return to the Rungus. They found major social changes had occurred. But the extraordinary oral literature of the Rungus religion remained in the knowledge reservoirs of the older generation. Therefore, following up on his previous work, he co-founded the Sabah Oral Literature Project with Laura to record and preserve this oral literature. This project is currently managed by the Rungus people themselves after being trained by the Appells. The Sabah Oral Literature Project has produced a significant and extensive archive of historical accounts, epic narratives, myths and legends, agricultural ritual and prayers, and most importantly, the complex ritual poetry that was sung by priestesses at all major ceremonies for the various gods and spirits.


For a period, Laura and George returned to their field site every couple of years in the summer. They also hosted Rungus visitors several times at their home in Maine at which time they continued sharing their methodologies used in the collection of oral literature with their Rungus guests. In addition, they inquired further into various aspects of Rungus culture as they worked to complete their Cultural Dictionary.


In 1993 Laura and George founded the Anthropologists Fund for Urgent Anthropology Research. The contributions to this effort are used to fund the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Fellowships in Urgent Anthropology. George was also cofounder in 1999 with Laura of the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research and served as President until his death. Together they developed the Fellowship program for the collection of the oral literature and traditional ecology of indigenous people.


George published extensive ethnographic material on Rungus Momogun culture, on Bulusu’ culture, and also published on ethics in anthropology, on oral literature, and on ethnography as fundamental to anthropology. His theoretical interests lay in the fields of cognatic societies, social change, land tenure and property systems, scientific methodology, and emergent structuralism. At the time of his death, George was working on the Rungus Cultural Dictionary, which includes extensive cultural descriptions. The Cultural Dictionary will be completed under the guidance of Hamzah Malajun of the Sabah Oral Literature Project and Charity Appell McNabb of the Firebird Foundation. He had also just finished a significant paper on the Rungus Longhouse, which will be published posthumously in the Borneo Research Bulletin.


In addition to his work with the Borneo Research Council and the Firebird Foundation, George held academic positions at Peabody Museum at Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institute, Bowdoin College, the Australian National University, and the Ethnographic Institute, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark as part of the Fulbright-Hays program. His position as Senior Research Associate at Brandeis University was his longest held position at over 25 years.


In 1994 George was awarded The Patron’s Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute by Princess Diana, Patron of the Institute, who wrote:


"The Patron's Medal was instituted in 1962 and is awarded from time to time for distinguished services to anthropology and the Institute. The Council wishes to recognize you both for your work as an anthropologist and for your generous sponsorship of the Fund for Urgent Anthropological Research. This well-deserved honour comes with my warmest congratulations."


Among his many interests, George had a fascination with biodiversity conservation which was spurred on by his chronicling of the annual hawk migrations over his family summer home in Harpswell, Maine. Noting a decline in the number of migrating hawks between 1952 and 2019, he searched for explanations, eventually concluding that climate change and the loss of biodiversity—particularly the decline in insect populations—lay at the root of the dwindling numbers. As a philanthropist George had a tremendous impact on conservation efforts in the Western Mountains of Maine through his formation of the Maine Mountain Collaborative and through his work on the Maine Appalachian Land trust, among other land conservation organizations. The Maine Mountain Collaborative has established an award for the conservation of biodiversity in Maine’s Mountains in honor of both George and Laura Appell.


No summation of the life of George Appell would be complete without mention of his impact on the many scholars who visited him. Borneo scholars frequently consulted with him in preparation for their fieldwork, and one such researcher once quipped that the road to Borneo leads through Phillips, Maine. The welcoming home created by the Appells, both in the field and in Maine, became a harbor for wandering academics from around the world as well as their families. Conversations were always exciting and flowed easily, often starting at breakfast and continuing through until after lunch, with eggs, toast, and cereal being replaced by soup, sandwiches, and sherry.


His kindness, generosity, and love of beauty in both the arts and the natural world will be a lasting legacy, and his passing was marked with the lighting of thousands of butter lamps in both Bhutan and Tibet as well as by an almost instantaneous obituary in Sabah.


George is survived by his three daughters, their husbands, John C. Warren, Michael J. Doolittle, Alan C. McNabb, five grandchildren, Ethan R.A. Warren, Amanda P.A. Warren, Eliza C. Doolittle, Georgia A. Doolittle, and Hawxhurst D. A. McNabb, and five great-grandchildren, Nora G. Warren, Liam M. Warren, Harriet A. Dolginow, and identical twins Rosemary C. Dolginow, and Beatrice M. Dolginow, born just 2 days before he died.


Gifts in memory of George N. Appell can be directed to The Borneo Research Council, The Firebird Foundation, The Maine Mountain Collaborative, The Maine ACLU.



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