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Introducing: Professor Peter Benson

He wakes up in the morning in an old tenement house, gets up and joins the other workers. After taking it out of the curing barn, he packages the dark aromatic tobacco into bales. In the early afternoon, once the morning dew has dissipated, he harvests the green, freshly grown tobacco in the fields, and then moves it to the curing barn for the new batch to dry. For 16 months between 2004 and 2005, this was assistant professor in sociocultural anthropology Peter Benson’s daily routine, while doing tobacco research in Wilson, N.C.

“I worked on a handful of tobacco farms,” Benson said. “I had a little red pickup truck that I bought really cheap before I went there, and I used that and went around the countryside and interviewed various tobacco growers.”

Benson, who has been an assistant professor at Washington University since 2008, eventually incorporated his research in North Carolina into both a book and a class curriculum on tobacco capitalism. During his time in North Carolina, Benson interviewed tobacco workers as well as public health, anti-smoking and farm-labor-union advocates.

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“The project started because I was interested in understanding this unusual situation of there being a product that’s legal to grow, and indeed is found in every convenience store in the country,” Benson explained. “But at the same time [it] is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. and globally.”

One aspect of Benson’s research focused on understanding the process by which tobacco farmers reconcile their dependence on this harmful product. Benson explained that tobacco is part of the culture of North Carolina—the Wilson baseball team is named the Tobs, short for Tobacconists; locals have tobacco leaves on their bumper stickers and flags in front of their houses; people talk about how tobacco money is found in every house, school and hospital.

“It’s become a public symbol, kind of like cheese in Wisconsin,” Benson said. “But in this case, we’re talking about something where there’s really sustained public criticism, very serious kinds of regulation, and there are lots of different degrees of harm related to using tobacco. Yet, at the same time, thousands of people in North Carolina and suburb states rely on tobacco money.”

It is clear from the “Thank You For Smoking” movie poster that rests casually against the fireplace and the “Keep Tobacco Clean” signs that hang around his office that Benson’s interest in tobacco and public health has remained prominent even after completing his research in North Carolina.

“It is the only legal product, that when used as intended, is harmful,” Benson said.

Benson posits that if he polled undergraduates on the biggest threat to global health, most students would say HIV, maternal mortality, or nuclear or environmental catastrophe. However, in reality, he said, tobacco is the leading cause of disease and death around the world—and he believes it is only going to get worse as tobacco use continues.

“Unfortunately, we live at a time where tobacco use is actually being expanded and globalized around the world,” Benson said. “In the U.S., tobacco use has been kind of on the wane and it hovers around 20 percent of the population, but around the world it’s really exploding, and we’re going to see a lot more of tobacco mortality in the current century than in the last one.”

In the future, Benson would like to see increased awareness of the tobacco industry’s role in creating what he calls “the leading health epidemic of our time.”

Benson grew up north of where he did his tobacco research, in southwest Connecticut. He was the oldest of three children. Before he ever pursued anthropology, Benson was an avid sports fan. He played golf in high school and wrote sports articles about his high school’s teams for a local newspaper in his hometown.

Prior to attending Vanderbilt as an undergraduate, Benson thought he wanted to be a journalist, specifically a sports writer. However, soon after entering the university, he realized his love of history and became increasingly interested in the anthropology courses that Vanderbilt had to offer.

“That breadth of anthropology really drew me in because it was capable of encompassing a whole set of interests I had related to history, diversity and globalization.”

In fact, Benson wrote his senior thesis about a minor league baseball team in southwest Connecticut that initially formed as part of an urban revitalization project in neighborhoods of lower socioeconomic status. The thesis linked Benson’s interests in sports and anthropology, and served as a jumping off point for his later research in Guatemala and North Carolina.

The summer after graduating from Vanderbilt, Benson started delving deeper into his anthropological research, traveling to Guatemala as a research assistant to Vanderbilt anthropology Professor Edward Fischer.

The research Benson worked on in Tecpan, Guatemala, between 2001 and 2003 differed greatly from the research he would do a few years later in North Carolina. Although the structure was similar—he conducted multiple interviews in order to compile ethnographic research—the focus was less on public health issues and more on the changing agricultural practices in the area, and how those changes affected the indigenous Mayans who live there.

Benson visits Guatemala regularly and has recently begun investigating public health issues in the region, similar to his tobacco research in North Carolina. He has teamed up with researchers at the Siteman Cancer Center to look into public health problems related to cancer and tobacco in Guatemala.

Wash. U. has been a great place for Benson beyond expanding his research. Despite his brief time at the University, Benson has made a lasting impact on his students.

“Professor Benson’s lectures really tie in a lot of themes together that we see in today’s society,” junior anthropology major Shanet Stefanos said. After taking two of Professor Benson’s courses, she said she has reevaluated her views and opinions on various topics. “His courses tackle big concepts, but he breaks it down into simple terms, which makes it easy to learn something new with no previous knowledge,” she added.

Benson enjoys working with students at Wash. U., whom he considers to be of exceptional caliber.

“I’m inspired by what the students do, their passion, their projects,” Benson said. “And for many students, this keen interest in learning beyond the classroom is a transformative kind of learning where the classroom is just one context for becoming a part of a dynamic global community.”