Biographical / Historical
Dr. Mary Slusser (1918-2017) was born as Mary Shepherd in Welland, Ontario to George Percy and Ethel Mary Shepherd. Her family moved to Michigan the following year and Slusser became a naturalized US citizen in 1934. Slusser followed her sister, Dorothy Shepherd (1916-1992), to the University of Michigan, where Mary graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1942. During her studies at Michigan, she met Robert Slusser, whom she would marry in 1944. Slusser moved to New York City in 1942, again following the path of her sister, Dorothy, who had enrolled in graduate school at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Slusser undertook some coursework at NYU as a part-time student. Slusser would eventually complete her graduate studies at Columbia University, earning a PhD in anthropology in 1950. She completed some of her coursework at Harvard University, while her husband studied at nearby Tufts University. Her dissertation was titled "Preliminary archeological studies of northern Central Chile."
Next, Slusser worked as a research analyst at the US State Department. Her husband also worked at the agency and spent much of his career completing foreign service appointments as an economist with USAID. Slusser accompanied her husband to his various overseas posts, beginning in 1954 in Vietnam. The Slussers would live and work abroad in Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Guinea, Nepal, and Tunisia. Slusser continued to work for the State Department as a field anthropologist. Mary received funding from the Smithsonian to acquire a small collection of Nepalese artifacts. She immediately took to learning about the art and culture of the region. She found a dearth of English-language information on the area and did her own field work and engaged with local scholars to fill in the gaps. She remained in Nepal for five years, contracted by the Smithsonian to write a guide to Nepal. Her research would lead to
Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of Kathmandu Valley
, a two-volume set of text and images, predominantly her own photographs, which was published in 1982.
Robert Slusser retired in 1980, and he and Mary permanently settled in Washington, DC. Her scholarly work took her to museums, first at the Museum of African Art as a curatorial assistant from 1975 to 1978, and then a post-doctoral fellowship at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 1989. After her fellowship, Slusser was asked to remain at the museum as a research associate, an unpaid position she held for the rest of her career. Slusser continued to publish works on Nepalese art, including the 2010 book,
The Antiquity of Nepalese Wood Carving: a Reassessment
, co-authored with Paul Jett, a conservator at the museum. Slusser used carbon dating tests to show that many Nepalese wood sculptures were much older than originally thought. Slusser also contributed to the establishment of the Patan Museum in Nepal, which opened in 1997. She served as the museum's cultural advisor and curator and wrote the museum guide and many of the exhibition materials.
Slusser continued to travel to Nepal and other parts of central Asia well into her eighties, often visiting remote sites on foot with the aid of local guides. Slusser stayed active at home, continuing her research work despite declining eyesight and hearing. She died in 2017 at age 98.