Franz Boas (July 9, 1858 - December 22, 1942) was one of the pioneers of modern cultural anthropology and is often called the "Father of American Anthropology." Like many such pioneers, he trained in other disciplines; he received his doctorate in physics, and did post-doctoral work in geography. His original discipline was psychology.
Although born and educated in Germany, he moved to the United States of America in part to escape growing anti-semitism in Germany. After working for the American Museum of Natural History, and teaching at Clark University, he founded the first PhD program in anthropology in America, at Columbia University.
Boas was strongly committed to empiricism, and was skeptical and critical of attempts to formulate "scientific laws" of culture. He was also a strong advocate of ethnographic fieldwork. Boas argued that specific cultural traits — behaviors, beliefs, and symbols — had to be understood in terms of their local context. As such, he was a major contributor to the anthropological concept of cultural relativism.
Boas also encouraged the "four field" concept of anthropology, and contributed not only to cultural anthropology but to physical anthropology, linguistics, and archeology as well. In physical anthropology he challenged various uses of the notion of race, and argued that there was no necessary or strong connection between race and culture.
He was well known for studying the skull sizes of the children of immigrant parents. This work discovered that the bodies of the children of immigrant parents born in the home country and born in the US were different, perhaps due to environmental conditions. This allowed people to see that differences between races were not immutable.
His first doctoral student was Alfred L. Kroeber, another pioneer of American anthropology. He also trained Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. He was, via Kroeber, an influence on Claude Lévi-Strauss.
One of his students at Columbia also included, anthropologist, folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston.
His ambitious Jesup Expedition focused on human migration from Asia to the Americas. His most important work is perhaps The Mind of Primitive Man.