An English eccentric and adventurer, Tom Harrisson (1911-1976) sought knowledge and renown in a dizzying number of fields, while breaking most of the rules of civilized society. He was a precursor in the field of modern market research; he won the DSO for his World War II service in Borneo; he led efforts to save the orangutan, the green sea turtle, and other endangered species; he discovered the oldest modern human skull known at the time. This hugely enjoyable story of Harrisson's extravagant, controversial ...
An English eccentric and adventurer, Tom Harrisson (1911-1976) sought knowledge and renown in a dizzying number of fields, while breaking most of the rules of civilized society. He was a precursor in the field of modern market research; he won the DSO for his World War II service in Borneo; he led efforts to save the orangutan, the green sea turtle, and other endangered species; he discovered the oldest modern human skull known at the time. This hugely enjoyable story of Harrisson's extravagant, controversial life offers a sympathetic and insightful look at a charismatic figure who offended as many people as he impressed at the twilight of colonialism on the fringes of the British empire.
The best biography I have read in years, thanks to Ms. Heimann's research, and her subject's larger-than-life life.
- Publisher's Weekly
English cultural anthropologist Tom Harrisson (1911-1976) was "a romantic polymath, a drunken bully, an original-thinking iconoclast, a dreadful husband and father, a fearless adventurer, a Richard Burton of his time," writes Heimann, a U.S. diplomat who first met Harrisson in Borneo. Harrisson's adventures living among cannibals in New Hebrides led to his 1937 bestseller, Savage Civilization, which portrayed the natives not as benighted primitives, but as full human beings exploited by white colonialists. In the late 1930s, Harrisson cofounded Mass-Observation, an opinion-gathering outfit that surveyed the everyday behavior and attitudes of ordinary British citizens and gave the British government vital feedback about public responses to the war against Nazi Germany. In 1945, British Army Major Harrisson commanded seven fellow Special Operations agents who parachuted into Borneo behind Japanese lines; he recruited guerrillas, set up an intelligence network before Allied landings and raised an army of blow-piping Dayak headhunters who killed or captured 1500 Japanese. Heimann's mesmerizing account of Harrisson's wartime exploits reads like an international thriller. As postwar curator of Borneo's Sarawak Museum, Harrisson pioneered conservation of the (still-endangered) green sea turtle, an edible creature found in all warm oceans, and founded the first orphanage for infant orangutans. Heimann squarely confronts Harrisson's dark side; hot-tempered, arrogant, hard drinking, with a lifelong penchant for making enemies, he "married once, probably twice for money" and virtually abandoned his schizophrenic son. But as a protector of, and advocate for, indigenous peoples, at odds with traditional anthropologists, Harrisson emerges in this engrossing bio as a forerunner of the contemporary movement to preserve local cultures and ecosystems. Photos. (Dec.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
"A legend in his own mind" is a coinage that aptly captures the essence of ornithologist, explorer, soldier, anthropologist, author, and museum curator Tom Harrisson (1911-76). Although he pursued a wide array of occupations with remarkable skill, Harrisson is best known as one of the creators of the "Mass Observation" studies that assessed, among other things, the effects of the wartime bombing of London on the city's population and also as a keen student of the social and cultural life of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Written by a career diplomat so taken with Harrisson's outrageous personality that she has devoted her retirement to chronicling his endeavors, this biography offers a sympathetic yet even-handed account of his life and work. A pleasure to read as pure biography, this text should also prove useful to anyone interested in the histories of opinion research or the ethnography of Southeast Asia.--Glenn Petersen, CUNY Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
This absorbing biography of a restless British polymath has done justice to Tom Harrisson, who had as many qualities as defects. As one colleague put it crossly, Harrisson loved to be at the centre of 'a turmoil of activity'. A pioneering ornithologist, ethnographer, sociologist, conservationist and museum curator, he was also a successful explorer, archaeologist, writer and film maker and he earned a DSO leading a guerrilla army in Borneo who fought with blow-pipes and collected the heads of Japanese soldiers. But he was boastful, exploitative, lecherous, pugnacious, druken and bullying and a rotten son, brother, father and husband. . . . Judith Heimann has done her subject a signal service.
This excellent biography by a former US diplomat sensitively balances (Harrisson's) reputation as a rogue elephant against his panache, courage and energy. It leaves us with the impression of a great British eccentric in the line of Burton and T. E. Lawrence-nearly.