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Professor Dame Mary Douglas was born Margaret Mary Tew in San Remo, Italy in 1921, to Gilbert Tew and Phyllis Twomey. Gilbert Tew was from a working-class background, and had gained a scholarship to study at Cambridge. From there he went on to serve twenty-five years in the Indian Civil Service, a post he said he chose for the mahseer fishing it would offer.

Mary studied at St Anne's College, Oxford, graduating in 1943. She went on to work in the British Colonial Office until 1947, when she returned to Oxford to study under the influential anthropologists, M. N. Srinvas and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. In 1949, Mary began field work for her doctorate, studying the Lele people in what was then the Belgian Congo. In the early years of the 1950s Mary completed her doctorate, married James Douglas and started a family of three children. She taught anthropology at University College, London, remaining there for twenty-five years.

Mary wrote extensively, analysing such subjects as risk analysis, social structures and cosmology, and wrote several books, including the widely acclaimed Purity and Danger - An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, a work that has impact even outside the field of anthropology.

In 1977, with her children grown up, Mary left Britain to take up a post at the Russell Sage Institute in New York, then on to Northwestern University as Avalon Professor of the Humanities. She stayed in the USA for eleven years, and during that time collaborated with the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, publishing Risk and Culture, which expanded on her earlier work and views concerning risk perception.

In her later years Mary began editing her father's extensive angling writings, which culminated in the book Being Fair to Trout. Age did not slow down her considerable output of work and her inexhaustable energy, she gave lectures and hosted gatherings until her death at the age of eighty-six in May 2007. 

She was appointed CBE in 1992 and DBE in 1996.

Other titles by Mary Douglas:
* Man In Africa
* Religion and America: Spiritual Life in a Secular Age
* The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption
* The Lele of the Kasai (1963)
* Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966)
* Pollution (1968)
* Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (1970)
* Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (1975)
* “Jokes” Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies
    (1975); edited by Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson
* The World of Goods (1979) with Baron Isherwood
* Evans-Pritchard (1980)
* Risk and Culture (1980) with Aaron Wildavsky
* In the Active Voice (1982)
* How Institutions Think (1986)
* Missing persons: a critique of the social sciences (1988) with Steven Ney
* Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory (1992)
* Thought styles: Critical essays on good taste (1996)
* Leviticus as Literature (1999)
* In the Wilderness: The Doctrine of Defilement in the Book of Numbers (2001)
* Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology (2002)
* Jacob's Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation (2004)
* Thinking in Circles (2007)