In late October an Inuit woman in Kekerten came to Boas with a fever, a cough, and congested lungs. From his supplies, he offered her a turpentine rub for her chest, quinine and opium for the fever and cough, and ammonia to inhale for some relief from the congestion. She took off her shirt, desperately trying to breathe more easily, and Boas placed his own shawl around her shoulders to protect her from the cold. The villagers asked him to check regularly on her condition. He was, after all, the person whom Weike always referred to, both in public and in private, as “Herr Doktor.” To the Inuit, he was Doktoraluk—big doctor—and the person to whom one would naturally turn for medical advice and a quick cure, despite the fact that he was a trained physicist, not a physician.

Two days later the woman was dead. The next month a young boy died as well. Boas had sat beside him and watched his breathing grow more and more labored. People had always died from exposure or on seal hunts. Sometimes whalers were lost at sea. But this kind of death had never been seen before. Something seemed to be causing healthy women, men, and children to drown on dry land.

Boas was no medical expert, but he knew the symptoms. It was diphtheria, previously unheard of on Cumberland Sound but now racing from settlement to settlement, leaving a string of shattered families in its wake. He saw Inuit rip off their clothes and run wildly among the shacks and tents, screaming, when they discovered a dead relative. He watched them pull down an entire tent if someone had died in it, for fear that the dead person’s spirit would infest the living world. “I keep telling myself that I was not to blame for the child’s death,” he wrote about one victim on November 18, “yet it weighs upon me like a reproach that I was unable to help.” Children were now sick in every Inuit household, and in the coming weeks, reports of deaths farther afield filtered back to Kekerten.

The epidemic coincided with the arrival of Boas and Weike, and people made the obvious connection. At best, Boas was a sham doctor. At worst, it was whispered, he had somehow caused the deaths. A native healer named Napekin, living on the western shore of the sound, announced that no Inuit should host him in their homes, work as guides, or offer their sled dogs for travel. In January, Boas traveled across the sound to pay a personal visit and ask to be invited into his igloo. He reminded Napekin that he was his major source for ammunition and other supplies. Boas said he would withhold these goods unless Napekin allowed him to step across his threshold. Napekin relented and, later that spring, paid a return visit with gifts of sealskins and an offer of service on further expeditions on the island.

There were plenty of such encounters—negotiations and cajolings, apologies and amends, gifts offered and rescinded, hurt feelings and mistakes piling up alongside moments of forgiveness, and then finally some peace. To Boas, the inhabitants of Baffin Island had originally been objects of research, a feature of the landscape to be charted and studied. They had never quite been people. But as he actually lived among them, he could feel a change in his own logic, his own outlook on life. “Do you know, I once believed that I myself did not have a heart, because there were many things that I did not feel very intensely, or so I still feel,” he wrote that December to Marie Krackowizer, a particular friend and, people might have suspected, even more.

I often ask myself what advantages our “good society” possesses over that of the “savages” and the more I see of their customs, I find that we really have no right to look down upon them contemptuously. Where among us is there such hospitality as here? Where are there people who carry out any task requested of them so willingly and without grumbling! We should not censure them for their conventions and superstitions, since we “highly educated” people are relatively much worse.

He had planned to uncover the general principles underlying the interaction of landscape, bad weather, and a hunting economy. He did manage to chart some of the movements of Inuit hunters and to reach stretches of Baffin Island previously unknown to outsiders. But he was also coming around to some realizations about himself. They came not only from listening to Inuit stories and sharing their meals but also from studying himself in interaction with them—perceiving his own perceptions, in a way. Real enlightenment, he began to see, came from owning his foibles and failures, seeing himself as inexpert and powerless, with the wind wailing outside a small hut or a shaman denouncing him as a bearer of evil and death. The environment seemed to demand self-reflection. The only way you could stave off frostbite before it took your nose, he now saw, was to have someone keep an eye on you and tell you when your skin started turning an unnatural shade of white. On long outings with Signa by dogsled, survival depended on using his Inuit guide as a human mirror—looking at him face-to-face—while he returned the favor. “I believe that in every person and every people, renouncing tradition in order to follow the trail of the truth involves a very severe struggle,” he wrote to Marie from Anarnitung, an Inuit encampment at the top of Cumberland Sound. The single greatest lesson he was learning, he said, was “my notion of the relativity of all education.”      

Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century