Fall 2012  

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Washington University in
St. Louis

Department of Anthropology

Arts & Sciences

College of Arts & Sciences

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences



A Memorial Tribute to Stephen Molnar
by Charles Hildebolt

Stephen Molnar in 1975, during his tenure as chair of Washington University's Department of Anthropology

Stephen Molnar, professor emeritus and past chair of Washington University's Department of Anthropology, passed away May 10, 2012, in Tucson, Arizona. Steve was born September 9, 1931. He was educated at the University of California Santa Barbara, earning his AB in anthropology and biology in 1964, his MA in 1966, and his PhD in 1968. He played a major role in Washington University's Department of Anthropology from the time he joined the faculty as an assistant professor of physical anthropology in 1968. He was promoted to associate professor in 1972 and professor in 1977. During a remarkable career in which he made major contributions to the study of human variation, human evolution, and dental biology, he also served twice as chair of the department—from 1972 to 1978 and again from 1989 to 1992. His leadership of the department was especially critical in providing stability during the formative years after the split from sociology. As a mentor to graduate students and junior faculty, he helped advance many careers.

On April 19, 1952, in San Diego, California, Steve and Iva were married and became partners in all phases of life and research. They traveled to Australia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia to collect material for their books (Human Variation: Races, Types, and Ethnic Groups and Environmental Change and Human Survival: Some Dimensions of Human Ecology) and the many articles they wrote together. They also spent a year at the University of Adelaide where they studied the indigenous community of Yuendumu. With an insatiable enthusiasm for their research, they typically worked six days a week. In New Zealand, they studied early tooth wear patterns of the native aboriginals; in Budapest, Hungary, and in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, they studied the teeth and jaws of early humans. Being consummate dental anthropologists, the data Steve and Iva collected resulted in numerous publications on tooth wear and enamel thickness patterns in Australian Aboriginal and Neandertal populations.

Steve served as president of the Dental Anthropology Association. More than 40 years ago, he published articles (still heavily referenced today) on how tooth microstructural patterns can be used to study mineral metabolism, growth tempos, dietary qualities, states of health, and past disease episodes of hominids in the fossil record. Among the structures he described are striae of Retzius, Hunter Shreger bands, incremental lines of von Ebner, contour lines of Owen, and inter-globular dentin. Steve demonstrated that microstructural patterns vary widely among species, that free-ranging cercopithecoids have fewer microstructural defects than contemporary humans, and that pongids more closely resemble humans than cercopithecoids in microstructural-defect patterns. He was also one of the first to publish on how variations in dental wear patterns differ with dental arch shape, diet, food preparation techniques, and tool usage and on how knowledge of wear patterns can be used to reconstruct behaviors of prehistoric populations.

Image of the CANIBAL machine constructed by Stephen Molnar to simulate the actions of human jaws and teeth during chewing for his investigations on the causes of tooth wear in modern and prehistoric humans. Published in "Experimental Studies in Human Tooth Wear: II," American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Vol. 28, No.3, May 1968.

Steve's research of human tooth wear became well-known through his construction of a machine called CANIBAL capable of simulating the actions of human jaws and teeth during chewing. Because variations in masticatory patterns are important in models of hominid differentiation, Steve used CANIBAL to reconstruct the biomechanics of early hominid mastication, and to augment the traditional morphological and computational approaches used to simulate the vector geometry of the masticatory force system. With his innovative system, Steve used photoelastic fringes in urethane alveolar processes and contributed to a better understanding of the masticatory processes of robust australopithecines. CANIBAL is now located at the University of Adelaide where Professor Lindsay Richards oversees its use.

Steve's and Iva's research culminated in six editions of Human Variation; Races, Types, and Ethnic Groups, their highly used and respected textbook Thousands of students (undergraduate and graduate) use this book, which often provides their first encounters with human genetics and biological diversity. In their book, Steve and Iva provide examples of simple and complex inheritance; present the biological basis for body form, size, and skin color; and debunk biological determinism and the antiquated concepts of race that continue to guide social practices and biological research. After retirement, Steve and Iva finished the sixth edition of their book and were encouraged by their editors to write a seventh edition.

In retirement, Steve and Iva divided their time between Tucson, Arizona, where they had their home, and San Diego, California, where they kept and lived on Galah, their 34-foot Catalina sailboat. Steve's primary retirement hobby and passion was sailing. He and Iva spent a lot of time sailing along the Southern California coast. Dana Point, Catalina Island, and Long Beach are some of the harbors they frequented.

Steve never lost his enthusiasm for learning and anthropology. In retirement, he was fond of chatting and challenging friends and colleagues with piercing questions about the latest anthropological discoveries and publications. Steve enjoyed discussing human ecology within the urban-industrial niche. In their 1999 book Environmental Change and Human Survival: Some Dimensions of Human Ecology, Steve and Iva describe and assess the new ecological niche that we have created for our species over the last 200 years. Steve was concerned, but optimistic, about the future of our species.

He is survived by Iva; three children [Sylvia Molnar (Kniest), Steve Molnar Jr., and Tracy Molnar]; and one grandchild (Jessica Kniest).

Steve contributed considerable time to KEYS, the University of Arizona high school summer internship program that funds students to study science and conduct research in the labs of university scientists. Memorials may be sent to KEYS.

Charles Hildebolt, professor of radiology at the Washington University School of Medicine and adjunct professor of anthropology, was a student and research colleague of Stephen Molnar's and lifelong friend of the Molnar family.