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While he was a senior at Harvard he was awarded a graduate fellowship from Yale in 1923 to pursue a genetic study of the descendants of the mutineers of HMS Bounty. Shapiro was a student of Earnest Hooton at Harvard University.
In 1926 he was appointed curator in the department of anthropology of the American Museum of Natural History and from 1942 was curator and chairman of the department. He was also professor of anthropology at Columbia University from 1943.
In his early years Shapiro’s main concern was problems of human identity, a field that developed into forensic anthropology. His method of identifying human remains was used by the American Graves Registration Command after World War II, when he traveled widely in Europe establishing the identity of bodies of unknown soldiers. He was often called upon to help identify murder victims in New York.
He pioneered in the genetics of small and mixed populations. In 1934 he was the first to study the effects of the intermarriage of the Bounty mutineers and the local Tahitian women through examining their descendants on Norfolk and Pitcairn islands. Later he studied the Japanese population of Hawaii.
He was also involved in the search for the fossil remains of Peking man, which were lost in World War II during the Japanese invasion of China. The Chinese accused the American authorities of stealing the fossils before the Japanese arrived. Shapiro was involved in a gripping, but unsuccessful, attempt to discover what happened to the remains.
He published a pioneering anthropological work on the biological history of the Jewish people commissioned by UNESCO. The book The Jewish People (1960) deals with the racial origins of the Jews, their changes over the ages, the effect of residence among and contact with a variety of people, and their present racial and biological status. He concluded that the Jews have contributed something of their genetic heritage to more different people than any other group and have, in return, absorbed an equal number of new genetic strains, enriching and diversifying themselves.
Assistant curator American Museum Natural History, New York City, 1926-1931, associate curator, 1931-1942, curator, 1942, chairman, 1942-1970, chairman emeritus, 1970-1990. Professor physical anthropology Columbia University, New York City, 1938-1973. Scientific resident Lehman College, New York City, from 1979.
Board directors consultant Louise Wise Services for Children, New York City, 1985-1990. Member American Anthropological Association (president 1948), American Ethnological Society (president 1942-1943), American Eugenics Society (president 1955-1962), National Academy of Sciences, American Academy Arts and Sciences, New York Academy of Sciences (anthropology chairman).
Dr. Shapiro married Janice Sandler in 1938 and together they had three children, Thomas, Harriet and James.