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Court Smith

A mechanical engineer who became a cultural anthropologist.

Smith received a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1961. He practiced as a Pratt & Whitney test engineer helping to develop the fan jet engine that has become the prototype for most commercial jet aircraft.

Arriving at Oregon State University in 1969 as a member of the newly created anthropology department and with help from 30 undergraduate students, he showed how building the Green Peter and Foster Dams led to a boom and bust cycle for the community of Sweet Home and questioned whether large dam projects were wise economic investments.

When Seattle anthropologist, Dr. Erna Gunther, noted some of his cultural biases, he changed career goals and earned a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Arizona in 1968. His dissertation on the Salt River Project resulted in a book that showed how hydropower revenues would be the funding source for dams in the West. He also showed that urbanization led to less water use than in agriculture.

At OSU, he taught undergraduate and graduate students about the diversity in world cultures and people’s experiences. He used visual approach to cultural anthropology. In research, he focused on contemporary Northwest environmental, community, and equity issues. His research showed how inequality results from hierarchy and cultural patterns that discriminate against people and cost the economy in lost innovative talent and lost productivity.

Pacific Northwest natural resource problems were a primary focus of his research. He wrote SALMON FISHERS OF THE COLUMBIA, published by the Oregon State University Press. This book is a history of the peoples who influenced the growth and decline of the Columbia River canned salmon industry showing how human values, culture, and history provide explanations for contemporary problems.

In the Oregon ground fishery, he showed with Dr. Robert McKelvey the adaptive value of having boats that specialized on certain fisheries while other boats were fishing generalists who moved between fisheries. Articles on resource management issues have appeared in scientific journals and general interest magazines.

Smith became an emeritus professor in 2003, and maintains interests in human interaction with natural resources. He focuses on contemporary domestic society and how to create more socially and environmentally just options for the future.

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