Richard (Dick) I. Ford received his B.A. (1963) from Oberlin College and his M.A. (1965) and Ph.D. (1968) from the University of Michigan. He joined the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology and Department of Anthropology in 1969 as Assistant Curator of Ethnology and Director of the Ethnobotany Laboratory and Assistant Professor of Anthropology. He progressed through the ranks, becoming Curator of Ethnology and Professor of Anthropology in 1977. Ford served as Director of the Museum of Anthropology from 1972 to 1983 and again from 2002 to 2005. He also served as Chair of the Department of Anthropology (1989–1996) and as Associate Dean for Research and Computing in the College of LSA (1987–1989). Dick Ford retired from the University in 2007 and is now Curator and Professor Emeritus, residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he maintains his active commitment to teaching, research and public service.
Dick Ford is one of the world’s preeminent ethnobotanists. Over his career as ethnologist, archaeologist, cultural ecologist, and botanist, he has made immense contributions to our understanding of the ways in which Native peoples of North America managed and utilized plants as foods, medicines, and cultural symbols. He began his research career in the American Southwest in 1962, while a junior at Oberlin College, excavating at an archaeological site in New Mexico and studying the ethnobotany and farming practices of the modern-day inhabitants of nearby San Juan Pueblo. This work laid the foundation for his later dissertation research at San Juan, which remains a seminal study in cultural ecology. A hallmark of Professor Ford’s work is his concern for the interplay between traditional beliefs and practices and the opportunities and constraints presented by the environment. Over the years he has produced a corpus of studies documenting patterns of plant use by prehistoric Native Americans. Informed by his knowledge of botany and his ethnographic experience, Professor Ford published a series of landmark theoretical papers that have had a major and lasting impact on the practice of ethnobotany. In addition, Richard Ford has always believed that anthropologists working with Native Americans should give back to communities, not just take from them. In that vein, he has devoted many years to working with contemporary Pueblo communities, including serving as an expert witness in land claims cases, and working with high schools.
As Museum curator and Director, Richard Ford also played a key role in enhancing the curatorial and research potential of anthropology museums nationwide. He helped to establish a National Science Foundation program on systematic research collections that supports upgrading the curation and accessibility of museum collections. As Director of the Laboratory of Ethnobotany, Ford trained legions of undergraduate and graduate students in ethnobotanical methods and analytical techniques, using the laboratory’s unparalleled collections. Students in his undergraduate Museums Techniques class gained practical experience in curation and exhibit design, as they explored the history and social contexts of Museums. As curator, he worked to expand and document the Museum’s ethnographic and ethnobotanical collections and developed the Museum’s on-line Historical Plant Use Database.
In addition to being named a University of Michigan Thurnau Professor for his contributions to undergraduate education and many other University of Michigan honors, Ford was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996. Other honors include the Society for American Archaeology’s Fryxell Award for Interdisciplinary Research (1987) and the American Anthropological Association’s Boas Award for Service (2006), and the Distinguished Ethnobiologist Award from the Society of Ethnobiology (2011).