Columbia's Anthropology Department has the distinction of being the first modern such department in the United States, having produced the country's first anthropology PhDs. In the early 20th century, many of modern anthropology's most luminous names and most significant developments were centered on Columbia. Today, the department has lost much of this lustre, though it remains respectable. It is also one of the most politically active departments in the university, and houses many of the faculty's most voiciferous leftists.
The modern discipline of anthropology was pioneered at Columbia by Franz Boas. Boas, born in Germany, was appointed lecturer in physical anthropology at Columbia in the late 19th century. Noting that the university's anthropology professors were spread among numerous departments, he consolidated them under one roof, producing the Anthropology Department by 1901.
From then until 1911, the department produced only seven PhDs, but this was significant enough to make it the most important such departments in the United States. The first two students, Alfred L. Kroeber (1901) and Robert Lowie (1908), went on to found the anthro department at Berkeley, and become famous in their own right. Other Columbia anthropology PhDs in the first decades of the 20th century went on to found the anthro departments at Penn, UChicago, the New School, the University of Washington, and Northwestern.
Boas' department was unlike the department of today: it included a quartet of major disciplines, including cultural and physical anthropology as well as linguistics and archaeology. Accordingly, Boas would train many anthropologists who later became luminous, including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, but also the linguist Edward Sapir, who earned his doctorate in the department.