Carol Laderman was a medical anthropologist best known for her research on Malay traditional medicine. Her work focused on beliefs and practices regarding childbirth and nutrition as well as shamanic healing practices in rural Malaysia.
Laderman (née Cohen) was born on October 25, 1932 in Brooklyn, New York. When she was 6, her father changed their family's surname to Ciavati due to his difficulty as a Jew finding an engineering job. Laderman grew up with musical aspirations, intending to become a concert pianist. She attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan and majored in music at Brooklyn College. In 1953, she married Gabriel Laderman, a painter and later an art professor. She took a leave from college to follow her husband after he was drafted into the U.S. Army five months following their wedding. Her hiatus from college spanned fifteen years, during which time she had two sons (1958, 1965). She also worked as a legal secretary in Ithaca, New York, and as a social secretary and translator for an opera singer when she and her family lived in Italy.
After returning to New York City, she enrolled in evening classes at Hunter College. Although she planned to resume her studies in music, her academic focus changed after taking an anthropology course taught by medical anthropologist Rena Gropper. In 1972, she earned her B.A. in Anthropology, and with the assistance of a Danforth Foundation Fellowship, she attended graduate school at Columbia University, where she earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1979.
As an undergraduate student, Laderman conducted fieldwork at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City (1972-1973), assisting in a project on pregnant teenagers and nutritional health. She was assigned to collect data on Puerto Rican adolescent mothers, which exposed her to humoral beliefs in food, medicine, and people. This experience would later inspire her to conduct her graduate fieldwork on nutrition and childbirth in Malaysia, where humoral beliefs were also held but not well-explored by researchers.
From 1975 to 1977, Laderman and her family lived in Merchang, in Trengganu (now Terengganu), Malaysia. Working under the auspices of the Malaysian Ministry of Health of the Institute for Medical Research, Laderman studied both traditional and hospital-based medicine. As part of her fieldwork, she received training from a hospital to collect blood samples to study the effects of birthing and dietary practices on women's health. She also apprenticed herself to a traditional midwife (bidan kampung), whom she assisted in a number of births. By comparing food ideologies and actual food intake of pregnant and postpartum women, Laderman was able to refute the prevailing view of scholars that malnutrition among rural Malays was largely due to dietary restrictions based on the humoral system. In her dissertation, "Conceptions and Preconceptions: Childbirth and Nutrition in Rural Malaysia," Laderman describes how Malay women adapt their diets to their needs and that their customs allow for interpretation and manipulation. In 1983, a revised version of her dissertation was published as Wives and Midwives: Childbirth and Nutrition in Rural Malaysia.
While seeking to gain an understanding of traditional Malay medicine in its entirety, Laderman also became exposed to theatrical spirit séances known as Main Peteri (also Puteri or Teri). At that time Main Peteri was no longer performed in most Malaysian states but was still thriving in Trengganu and nearby Kelantan. Performed primarily as healing ceremonies by shamans (bomoh), Main Peteri was a last resort for the afflicted. These performances were characterized by entranced patients, spirit possessions, singing, music, dancing, and an audience. Laderman attended and participated in a number of these ceremonies and became a student and adopted daughter to a shaman. She recorded and transcribed several Main Peteri performances and received an NEH grant (1981-1985) to translate the texts. She also returned to Merchang in 1982 to conduct further research on traditional healing ceremonies. In her monograph Taming the Wind of Desire (1991), she discusses Main Peteri and its relationship to the Malay concept of Inner Winds (angin), which determine a person's personality, talents, and drives. In 1987 to 1990, she returned to her musical roots to collaborate with ethnomusicologist Marina Roseman to transcribe, analyze, and interpret the music of Main Peteri. Together, she and Roseman also edited The Performance of Healing (1996). In addition, Laderman became interested in the effects of urbanization and globalization on traditional Malay healing practices, a topic which she addressed in a collection of her writings, The Life and Death of Traditional Malay Medicine (in press).
Laderman was a professor at the Department of Anthropology at City University of New York City College (1990-2010). She was also an associate professor at Fordham University (1982-1990) and taught briefly at Hunter College (1978-1980), Brooklyn College (1979-1980), and Yale University (1980-1982).
She died on July 6, 2010 at the age of 77.
[Autobiographical statement], Series 2. Writings, Carol Laderman Papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
1972. Carol Laderman, SGS Student, Wins Danforth Fellowship. SGS Newsletter 2(7): 1.
Laderman, Carol. 1983. Wives and Midwives: Childbirth and Nutrition in Rural Malaysia. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
Laderman, Carol. 1991. Taming the Wind of Desire: Psychology, Medicine, and Aesthetics in Malay Shamanistic Performance. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
Maizura, Intan. 2003, September 28. A bidan, a bomoh & a New Yorker. Nuance: 16-18.
Roseman, Marina, Laurel Kendall and Robert Knox Dentan. 2011. Obituaries: Carol Laderman (1932-2010). American Anthropologist 113(2): 375-377.
Born October 25 in Brooklyn, New York
Marries Gabriel Laderman and takes a leave from Brooklyn College
Earns B.A. in Anthropology from Hunter College
Conducts research at Mt. Sinai Hospital on ethnic eating patterns, food beliefs, and anemia in adolescent Puerto Rican mothers
Conducts fieldwork in Merchang in Trengganu, Malaysia
Earns Ph.D. in Anthropology from Columbia University
Returns to Malaysia to conduct fieldwork on shamanism and trance healing
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Fordham University
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Fordham University
Professor, Department of Anthropology, City University of New York City College