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Edith “Edie” Turner (1921-2016)

Tuesday, June 21, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Shannon K. Larson
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Edith Lucy Brocklesby Turner (Edie), mother, anthropologist, poet and teacher, passed away peacefully on June 18, 2016, the day after her 95th birthday.

Edie was born in Ely, near Cambridge, England, the daughter of Reverend Dr. George Brocklesby Davis, and a teacher, Lucy Gertrude Davis (Howard).She was born on June 17, 1921, and attended school at the Perse School, Ely and Belstead House School in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. During World War II she worked as an agricultural labourer as a ‘land girl’ in the Land Army, at which time, through a shared love of poetry, she met and married Victor Witter Turner (Vic) (1920-1983), who later became a leading anthropologist. Once Vic had completed his B.A. degree at University College London, the family moved to Manchester. With their three children, Edie accompanied Vic as his research collaborator on two extended periods of anthropological fieldwork (1951-54) in the northwest of what is now Zambia, among the Ndembu peoples. She made extensive notes of her experiences among Ndembu women, and created an important photographic archive of Ndembu customs and rituals. Her fieldwork enabled her much later to write an ethnographic memoir of her life there, ‘The Spirit and the Drum’, published in 1987. Her work was also fundamental to Vic’s numerous anthropological books and research papers, and their joint publication, ‘Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture’ (1978) is regarded as a classic on this topic. In 1959, while still living near Manchester, England, the family became converted to the Catholic faith, and two more children were born. By this time, Vic’s anthropological work had become world-famous, and he was appointed as a professor at Cornell University, Ithaca NY, where the family moved in 1964. Edie continued to pursue joint anthropological research with Vic, with a trip to Uganda in 1966. In 1968 the family moved to Chicago, where Vic was professor in the Committee on Social Thought, and then to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1977 when Vic became the William R. Kenan Professor of Anthropology and Religion at the University of Virginia. In Charlottesville Edie found time to earn an M.A. in English, between extended research visits with Vic to India, Brazil, Japan and Israel.

After Vic’s death in 1983 Edie was offered a position as Lecturer in UVa’s anthropology department, a position which she held until her retirement on May 6, 2016 at the age of 94. Her fascinating courses on spirituality, shamanism, and ritual were often over-subscribed, and she was acknowledged as a major inspiration by many of her students. As editor for many years of the journal ‘Anthropology and Humanism’, she greatly advanced the discipline of humanistic anthropology, noted for its attention to ethnographic writing and a holistic view of human experience. Her profound insights into what matters most to us humans have changed many peoples’ lives. With the help of successive research grants, she made intensive studies of traditional healing and ritual, with a repeat visit to Zambia in 1985, and later fieldwork among native peoples in Arizona, Alaska, Korea, Northwest Russia, and western Ireland. This led to several well-received books: ‘Experiencing Ritual’, ‘The Hands Feel It’, ‘Among the Healers’, ‘Communitas’ and her autobiographical ‘Heart of Lightness’. In 2014 she was awarded the Lifetime Service Award of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

Edie was a committed social activist throughout her entire life, devoting herself to social justice. In the early years in Africa, she worked in the anti-apartheid movement, and in the 1950’s she was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Manchester, England. More recently she joined the ‘Democracy for America’ campaign. Besides this, she was a very active member of the congregation of the Church of the Incarnation, Charlottesville. Musically gifted, she sang alto for many years in the church choir, and took part in several parish discussion groups. A feisty researcher to the end, she was embarking on an anthropological study of the aging when she was struck down by a serious fall, with concussion, and a subsequent stroke.

Sorely missed by many lifelong friends and colleagues all over the world, Edie leaves behind her sons Fred, Bob, Alex and Rory, and her daughter Irene Wellman, together with grandchildren Daniel and Benjamin Turner; Paul, John and Lucy Turner; Rose Wellman ; Joshua Bergst and Catie Turner. Her great-grandchildren Rowan and Isobel live in Scotland. Edie is survived by her younger sister Jo Harding, of Cardiff, Wales, and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and by the offspring of her deceased brothers Bob and George and her sister Helen.

The family would like to thank the kind and compassionate medical staff at the UVa Hospital and Hospice of Piedmont for their care and support for Edie in her final days. The immediate family will receive friends and extended family on June 20, 2016 at 107 Carrsbrook Drive, Charlottesville. All who loved Edie are invited to pay their last respects in the chapel at the Church of the Incarnation, 1465 Incarnation Drive, Charlottesville VA, 22901, from 10:00 a.m to 12:00 noon, on June 21, 2016. This will be followed by a funeral Mass at 12:15 p.m. on June 21, 2016, at the Church of the Incarnation, with later cremation. The funeral Mass will be followed by a gathering of family and friends with refreshments at the Parish Hall, Church of the Incarnation.

In lieu of flowers and gifts, please donate to a charity of your choice, or to the Edie Turner Humanistic Anthropology Award, which recognizes students at the University of Virginia whose scholarship is inspired by Edie's legacy. Contributions can be made through

The obituary above was originally published on the Hill and Wood Funeral Service website. To view the original and for information about visitation and funeral services, go to

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