Ernest Beaglehole was born in Wellington on 25 August 1906 to David Ernest Beaglehole and his wife, Jane Butler. His father was an accountant for a pharmaceutical firm. A sickly baby, he was delivered at the family home by Dr Agnes Bennett. Ernest attended Mount Cook School and Wellington College. More vital to his education were the intense literary interests of his family. At Victoria University College he initially showed no great promise until Professor Thomas Hunter encouraged him to continue his studies in mental and moral philosophy. He graduated with a first-class MA in 1928. His thesis on propaganda already revealed his distinctive blend of applied social psychology and showed his intense concern with threats to human liberty.
After graduating, Beaglehole travelled to England to study at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). There he pursued his PhD research on acquisitiveness and the psychological basis of property. His thesis was published as Property in 1931 and became a classic for its tabulation of data from 30 cultures and its anticipation of later research techniques. Beaglehole plunged deeply into the rich cultural life of London – films, concerts, plays, lectures, country excursions. He also met Pearl Malsin, a vivacious and adventurous graduate from Wisconsin studying at the LSE.
After being awarded a Commonwealth Fund fellowship, he journeyed to Yale University to join the founders of psychological anthropology: Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and others. Mead remained a friend of the family throughout her life. Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa), the professor in anthropology at Yale, became a close friend and invited Ernest and Pearl to join his research team in Hawaii. First, Ernest had to fulfil his obligations as a Commonwealth fellow. He became a consultant to the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs and with Pearl researched aspects of the daily life of the Hopi of the Second Mesa in Arizona. With the scholarship work completed, they married at New Haven, Connecticut, on 24 May 1933. They were to have two daughters and two sons, all of whom achieved academic or professional distinction.
In 1934 Buck arranged for the Beagleholes to go to Pukapuka, a remote northern Cook Islands atoll, as part of his comprehensive Pacific island ethnographic survey. This visionary enterprise in what was termed ‘salvage anthropology’ sought to provide a baseline ethnography for every Pacific culture. The Beagleholes completed their research in 1935 and returned to Honolulu to write up their notes, still the most comprehensive of any Bernice P. Bishop Museum expedition, and published in 1938 as Ethnology of Pukapuka. They also continued their series of studies of contemporary Polynesian life with the fieldwork that resulted in the publication of Some modern Hawaiians in 1939.
In 1937 Ernest Beaglehole returned to Victoria University College as a senior lecturer in mental and moral philosophy. John Cawte Beaglehole, one of three other brothers, was already a lecturer in history there. When Professor Thomas Hunter became principal of the college in 1948, Ernest was appointed to the chair of psychology and philosophy; he was the first professor of psychology in New Zealand. Throughout this time he published from fieldwork and wrote important studies on the concept of character structure in the rapidly developing area of culture and personality. He was awarded a LittD from the University of London in 1940.
Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole continued their ethnographic work in Tonga, and then in Ōtaki they applied the concept of character structure to contemporary Māori life. The resulting book, Some modern Māoris (1946), with a powerful foreword by Peter Buck, became controversial because of its frank revelations about Māori life and its Freudian interpretations. It also drew Ernest into an informal advisory role on contemporary Māori affairs.
The anthropological record was completed with the publication in 1957 of Social change in the South Pacific, a study of Rarotonga and Aitutaki and the supervision of research on social change in Murupara. In these studies, Beaglehole’s attention was focused on the phenomenon of the disappearance of traditional indigenous lifestyles. This expertise was drawn upon by the International Labour Organisation when he was appointed chief of a mission to Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru in 1952–53 and chairman of the ILO Committee of Experts on Indigenous Labour in 1954.
Although internationally known as an anthropologist, Ernest Beaglehole viewed himself as a psychologist. As a teacher he mixed clear, factual presentation with anecdote, wit, reminiscence and illustration. He was especially fond of his weekly sessions at the New Zealand Post-graduate School for Nurses; he loved to draw out the nurses’ combination of a matter-of-fact view of the nursing task with the strong elements of human care in their craft.
After 1948 Beaglehole’s department grew and flourished and his students spread out into industry, adult education, educational research, child and family guidance, social work and clinical psychology; six of his students became professors of psychology in New Zealand universities. The department became known internationally for its blend of academic and applied social psychology as well as for its ethnopsychology, now more commonly known as cross-cultural psychology. Beaglehole himself became part of a group at Victoria who set out to shape government policy through the application of social science.
Throughout Ernest’s professional life, Pearl continued to collaborate in his work and to be his sharpest editor and a challenging critic and commentator. Her knowledge of Pacific languages enabled their fieldwork to penetrate areas of understanding inaccessible to him. The lists of words for parts of the anatomy in Pukapukan are in her handwriting: she, not he, recorded the chants, myths and love poetry, so explicit the Bishop Museum did not dare publish them. Her vivacity and charm complemented his rather shy, dry, introverted style.
Beaglehole was a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand, winning its Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1950. He was a council member of the Polynesian Society and belonged to the British Psychological Society and the American Anthropological Association. His premature death in Wellington on 23 October 1965, at the age of 59, cheated him of the life he had planned as a retired gentleman scholar at his cottage at Waikanae, enjoying the classical music he loved so much. He was survived by Pearl and their children.