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Promising anthropologist from Bismarck died young

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One of the most promising anthropologists of the1930s died in the Brazilian jungles at the age of 27.

Buell Quain, born into a prominent family in Bismarck, became the protege of the most respected anthropologists in the country.  His genus, indefatigable work ethic, and tenacity led to groundbreaking research that resulted in the publication of three important books. Unfortunately, the books were all published posthumously.

Buell Halvor Quain was born May 31, 1912, in Bismarck to Eric and Fanny Dunn Quain.  Eric Quain, a physician, was the co-founder with Niles O. Ramstad of the largest hospital in North Dakota.

In 1912, he became the first doctor in the U.S. to use Novocain as a local anesthesia.  Quain's mother, Fanny Quain, a doctor,  opened the first baby clinic in the state and was a leader in the crusade to combat tuberculosis.

Quain graduated from school on his 16th birthday. He spent the summer of 1928 with Harry McLean, a Bismarck native who was building a railroad across Canada, and then traveled Europe, Africa, and Palestine for a year.

In the fall of 1929, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin.  He took time out of his studies in 1930, traveling to Shanghai, China, while working "as a common sailor on a steamer."  He also traveled overseas in 1931 and 1933.

Quain obtained his bachelor's degree in 1934, graduating Phi Beta Kappa.  He then enrolled at Columbia University to study anthropology. 

Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology, was chairman of the department and served as Quain's mentor.  Another instructor at Columbia who worked closely with Quain was Ruth Benedict.  Margaret Mead  enlisted him to write the section on the Iroquois for her book, "Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples."

After completing his master’s degree in 1935, Quain sailed to Fiji on July 13, 1935.  He spent a year there studying and recording "the culture, folk stories, songs, and legends of the islanders."

Following his return, he spent two months in Bismarck completing his dissertation.  In 1936, Quain received his Ph.D from Columbia.

In 1937, Quain went to Brazil on a research project.  While there, he learned about an Indian tribe who lived in the far north of the country and who had no contact with the whites.  In the fall, Quain returned to Bismarck to finish a draft of his book about Fiji and then made preparations to return to Brazil to study the remote Indian tribe.

After receiving a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation through Columbia University, Quain sailed to Brazil on Feb. 12, 1938.

Quain's return was filled with frustration. He was delayed for two months and was detained again when the Brazilian Indian Department insisted that he travel with an extensive caravan. They told him that the region into which he was journeying was extremely dangerous and would be unsafe for a single white traveler.

Eventually, he received permission to proceed on his journey. Quain's parents received a letter from their son dated June 29 stating that he was about to enter the swamps of the tropical rainforest.  As he traveled up the Amazon tributaries, he lost most of his supplies when his largest canoe capsized in the rapids.  Nevertheless, he continued on his sojourn until he reached the Trumai Indian village.

While with the tribe, Quain worked exhaustively filling journals and a diary with his findings.  After three months, his supplies and medicine began running out, and he was forced to return to a government outpost to get resupplied. 

When he arrived, Quain was detained because of a report that "White men in the area were there to hunt gold and oil."  Quain was prohibited from returning to the Trumai and instead was transferred to the Kraho Indians.

Although the Kraho were also in the dense Amazonian jungle, Quain found them less interesting because they "were mild and had frequent contact with civilization." Nevertheless, he saw in them an interesting challenge and "wanted to finish his work quickly lest the Indian language be lost to science forever" because their language was being contaminated.

While Quain worked with the Kraho, a disease was sweeping through the jungle tribes.  In time, he also became very ill.  Fearing that he was contagious, Quain tried to quarantine himself. 

When he believed that the illness was fatal, he sent a letter to a friend who was a Brazilian police official.  The letter stated, "I am dying of a contagious disease.  I request you to not investigate the conditions of my death.  I am going to commit suicide."

On Aug. 2, 1939, Quain hung himself to spare spreading the disease to members of the Kraho tribe. His last request was that all of his papers be sent to the National Museum.

When word reached Quain’s parents about his death, his father asked U.S. Sen. Gerald P. Nye to launch an investigation.  Nye contacted the State Department, who got in touch with the U.S. embassy in Brazil. 

The report that came back from the Brazilian government was that Quain had committed suicide.  In 1942, Quain's first book about Fiji was published, titled "The Flight of the Chiefs." His second book, "The Trumai Indians of Central Brazil," was released in 1955, and his third book, "Fijian Village," was published in 1970. 

In 2002, Brazilian author Bernardo Carvalho wrote the novel "Nine Nights" about the mysteries surrounding Quain's death.

(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at


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