From the UA News Center | Dr. William Dressler, professor emeritus at The University of Alabama, was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious honors in science.
Dressler retired in 2020 as a professor of anthropology after 42 years at the University where he had also been a tenured professor in the College of Community Health Sciences and the School of Social Work.
He is one of 120 new members and 23 international members elected in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Dressler is now part of 2,565 members and 526 international members of the NAS, which was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
“This honor ratifies Dr. Dressler’s influential career contributions and shines a light on how his work improved our understanding of humanity,” said Dr. James Dalton, UA executive vice president and provost. “We are proud Dr. Dressler called the University home, and grateful for his guidance for so many of UA’s students over the years.”
Dressler’s work defined and enabled objective study into the influence of cultural and societal expectations on individual health. In his work, he coined the term “cultural consonance” to describe the degree to which individuals, in their own beliefs and behaviors, approximate the prototypes for belief and behavior encoded in cultural models. The concept of cultural consonance and the associated measurement model have also shed new light on some basic theoretical questions in anthropology regarding culture.
He is the first professor to be elected to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine as a member of the UA faculty. He will be inducted at the 2024 NAS Annual Meeting. Dalton was elected into the 2019 class of the National Academy of Medicine before coming to UA and was inducted in 2022 for his prolific career in drug discovery and pharmaceutical sciences.
“I was stunned,” Dressler said of learning of his NAS election. “I never once thought my work would lead to a National Academy membership one day. It’s an independent evaluation of the importance of the work, and a venerable institution saying, ‘Yes, this matters.’ I am grateful for that recognition.”
NAS recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and — along with the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine — provides science, engineering, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.
After earning a liberal arts degree from Grinnell College in 1973 and his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Connecticut in 1978, Dressler came to UA as an assistant professor of behavioral sciences in CCHS. He became an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology in 1981 and advanced in both programs until earning a full professorship in 1990. In 1996, he also began an appointment in social work. In 2002, he focused exclusively on anthropology to help launch its doctoral program.
During his career, he researched the relationship between culture and the individual, bringing focus to an issue that has vexed anthropologists since the founding of the discipline in the late 19th century. Through his research, mostly carried out in Brazil, Dressler showed how potent the effect of a person’s ability to live in harmony with their society’s expectations of a normal life is on individual health including blood pressure, body composition, depression, immune response and other outcomes.
Dressler’s research provided a foundation for both resolving difficult conceptual issues and for collecting data that link culture to the individual and health.
“The concept of culture is a tough one because getting ahold of it, wrestling with it and getting it to work for you in research has been difficult, and my having been able to do that has enabled people in other areas outside anthropology to add to their own toolkit when studying behavioral health and society,” he said.
The University was critical in the success of his research, Dressler said. He put down roots in Tuscaloosa along with his wife and colleague, Dr. Kathryn Oths, professor emerita of anthropology, and enjoyed his work.
“My experience at The University of Alabama was if you do your work — keep your head down and work hard — you get the support you need. UA was good to me,” he said.
Along with his research, Dressler said working alongside students, mentoring them and seeing them find success after graduation, was part of what drove him over the years.
“My work would not be what it is without my students,” he said.