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Tom Harrisson (1911-1976) was a British polymath (although often described as an anthropologist his degree studies at Cambridge were in ecology before he left to live in Oxford). In the course of his life he was an ornithologist, explorer, mass-observer, journalist, broadcaster, soldier, ethnologist, museum curator, archaeologist, film-maker, conservationist, and writer.

He was born in Argentina, educated at Harrow School in England, conducted ornithological and anthropological research in the New Hebrides, spent much of his life in Borneo (mainly Sarawak), and finished up in the USA, the UK and France before dying in a road accident in Thailand.

He was involved in the British social research organization Mass-Observation, bringing the anthropological methods of social immersion that he had developed in Borneo to bear on the problem of investigating the British.

During the Second World War he put forward a project to use the native peoples of Borneo against the Japanese. He parachuted with 7 other "Z Special" (part of the Australian equivalent of Special_Operations_Executive) operatives on 25 March 1945 from a Consolidated Liberator onto the high plateau occupied by the Kelabit people. An autobiographical account of this operation (SEMUT) is given in "World Within" (Cresset Press, 1959).

Following the war, he was Curator of the Sarawak Museum 1947-1966.

Prof Asa Briggs was responsible for giving him a job in a British University after his job at Cornell University in America became difficult after he was prevented from returning to Sarawak where he was doing research, due to allegations of theft from the museum.

The title of his biography, The Most Offending Soul Alive, gives a flavour of the strong feelings he engendered, but he also had many admirers and is recognised as a pioneer in several areas.


As well as numerous papers and monographs in scientific journals, especially the Sarawak Museum Journal, books he authored include:

  • Harrisson, Tom. (1937). Savage Civilisation. Victor Gollancz: London.
  • Harrisson, Tom. (1943). Living Among Cannibals. George G. Harrap & Co: London.
  • Harrisson, Tom. (1959). World Within. A Borneo Story. Cresset Press: London.


  • Heimann, Judith M. (1999). The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life. University of Hawai'i Press: Honolulu. ISBN 0-8248-2149-1

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