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Philip Singer Papers

A description of his papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: SM
Date: 10 May 2018

Biographical History

Philip Singer (1925-2016) was a medical anthropologist and documentary filmmaker.

Singer was born in Ohio on April 16, 1925. Not much is known about his early and personal life, but he received his doctorate from Syracuse University in 1961. His dissertation, Hindu Holy Men: A Study in Charisma, was based on fieldwork among Indian ascetics (sadhus). At Syracuse, Singer was closely associated with Ernest Becker (1924-1974), the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Denial of Death (1973), and with Swami Agehananda Bharati (1923-1991), a Sanskrit scholar and Hindu monk who taught at Syracuse for more than three decades.

Singer went on to conduct long-term research among Hindus in British Guiana (now Guyana), on the northern coast of South America. While serving on the faculty at Albany Medical College (1961-67), he studied Kali Mai, a Hindu mother-goddess cult in rural Guyana. In 1963, he began to work intimately with Jamsie Naidoo (1913-1997), the leading figure in the revival of the Kali Mai tradition, which has now taken root in Indo-Guyanese communities in several North American cities, including New York, Orlando, Tampa, and Toronto. From 1967 until his retirement in 2002, Singer was Professor of Anthropology and Behavioral Sciences at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

In 1974, Singer used 16mm film to document field work that he had been conducting in Guyana. He later used that footage to make his first film, Divine Madness: Trance, Dance and Healing in Guyana (1978). Over his career, he directed and produced more than 60 ethnographic films and other documentaries, including Medicine Woman, Medicine Man: Traditional Holistic Medicine in Middle America (1985), The Haitians, the Healers, and the Anthropologist (1997), The Last Interview of Thomas Szasz, M.D. (2013), and Final Participant Observation: Senior Cultural Anthropologists Confront Their Mortality (2016). Singer was also the founding partner of Traditional Healing Productions, a film production company. Philip Singer died in New York City in 2016 at the age of 91.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Philip Singer Papers contains correspondence, journal articles, interviews, notes, research files, and audiovisual materials relating to Singer's research and films. The collection includes more than 400 audio recordings, 600 videotapes and recordings, and 550 DVDs. The collection has been divided into seven series.

Correspondence contains Singer's correspondence with a handful of recipients. The correspondence mostly pertains to Singer's work as an anthropologist and his films.

The Films contains material relating to Singer's films. Films with a significant amount of material are: Circo Rois (2005), Complementary Health Therapies in England (1993), Conventional and Unconventional Practitioners of Alternative Medicine in the USA (1996), Final Participant Observation: Senior Cultural Anthropologists Confront Their Mortality (2016), The Last Interview of Thomas Szasz (2013), The Last Mattanza (1999), One of the Mad Ones (2011), Sicilian Women Orgasm -- Vaginal or Clitoral? (2001), and Traditional Healing Nigeria (1979). For each film, manuscript material is listed first and any recordings related to that film last. Manuscript material may include correspondence, interview transcripts, notes, research, reviews, and scripts. Recordings may include raw footage, trailers, promos, audio recordings, VHS commercial tapes, and DVD transfers.

Note that when [Copy 1] or [Copy 2] appears after a title it is an indication that the items are identical copies. Other items may appear to be identical based on title and format, but either there are small physical differences (in the DVD artwork, for example) or we are unable to verify that they are truly identical.

Memorabilia contains clippings about Singer, and a few photographs of conference events and oversized commercial photographs.

Research files contains Singer's research material on topics related to non-traditional medicine practiced in cultures all over the world. Topics include alternative medicine, bee sting therapy, depression, dowsing, folk medicine, hypnosis, phenylketonuria (PKU), schizophrenia, shamanism, and suicide. Medical practices in Africa, Cuba, Guyana, Italy, and Russia are also explored within his research files. Singer also researched and worked with non-traditional medical practitioners such as Native American healer Wanita Windwalker, unorthodox psychologist Daniel DeSole, Guyana healer Jamsie Naidoo, and Nigerian Chief Lambo. Additionally, in this series you can find Singer's research material relating to depression, right-to-die, and suicide. Because of Singer's interest in the topics of depression and suicide, there are files regarding Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her supposed suicide after suffering from serious health conditions that resulted in the loss of her leg. Singer also studied difficult and graphic subject matter: there are files relating to clitoridectomy (female circumcision) and subincision (the manipulation of male genitalia found in Australian native cultures). These folders contain graphic content which researchers may find disturbing.

The series is arranged alphabetically by research topic. Within each topic, manuscript material is listed first followed by any recordings – not all topics have corresponding recordings. Recordings may include television recordings, audio recordings, filmed lectures or conferences, and commercial films.

Teaching files consists of Singer's lecture notes and research.

Writings is comprised of drafts, notes, and published items. Most of the writings are journal articles; there are a few book and film reviews that Singer wrote for academic journals.

Finally, Miscellaneous media contains audiovisual materials that did not fit within the Films or Research files series. These materials cover a wide variety of subjects and genres. There are personal recordings of conferences and lectures; home recordings; television recordings; commercial recordings; and raw footage that is not clearly linked to a particular film. Formats range from audio cassettes, CDs, DVDs, VHS, Hi8 tapes, MiniDVs, and USBs. There is also a single U-matic tape.

Arrangement of the Collection

The collection is arranged alphabetically, except for the Miscellaneous media, which is listed at the end. Within the Films and Research files series manuscript material is listed first followed by any recordings. Recordings are arranged physically by ID#, but are listed in the inventory in their logical location, and as a result, related recordings may be in several different boxes.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Access to audiovisual material requires advance notice to produce a use copy.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


DeSole, Daniel E.
Kahlo, Frida.
Singer, Philip, 1925-
Stephanides, Stephanos.
Szasz, Thomas Stephen, 1920-2012.
Windwalker, Wanita, 1929-1979.


Alternative medicine.
Anthropology of religion.
Bee stings.
Medical anthropology.
Mental health.
Sex -- Anthropological aspects.
Traditional medicine.
Women -- Health and hygiene.


South America.

Genres and Forms

Clippings (information artifacts)
Documentary films.
Research notes.
Sound recordings.
Video recordings (physical artifacts)

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Philip Singer Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Gift of Paula Singer, 2018.

Table of Contents




Research files

Teaching files


Miscellaneous media