Born on Staten Island in New York in 1909, Allen Spitzer was the son of Henry and Mary Spitzer. His father may have been a salesman. Judging from early academic and military records, Allen's original full name was Jesse Allen Spitzer. He later dropped Jesse and used Allen alone. As he explained wryly, "N. M. I. means no middle initial. The Army made quite a fuss about it."
He attended New York Military Academy (1923-27) and received the bachelor's degree in sociology from Rollins College in 1934. Between 1931 and 1933 he had studied in Austria and in Germany, where he dared to criticize the Nazi regime. "Luckily," he explained later, "one of my best student friends was a nephew of the Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels, who tipped him off that 1was about to be arrested. 1 caught the next train for Paris."
After graduation Spitzer labored as an investigative social worker at The Sheltering Arms in New York city (1936-37) and as a teacher of English in the Puerto Rico public schools (1937-39). In 1939 he traveled to China as both a Presbyterian missionary (he had been born Jewish) and an English instructor at the University of Nanjing. He accompanied the students and teachers of this institution as they made their heroic trek across country to escape the invading Japanese. On December 25, 1939 in Chengdu, Sichuan province, where many refugee schools had come to rest, he married fellow missionary Mary Lillian Robison. The couple left for Hong Kong, where Spitzer taught social studies at La Salle College and later did research for the American consulate general.
In the spring of 1940 both Spitzers converted to Catholicism; Allen's godfather was John Wu, then Chinese ambassador to the Vatican. In November of that year, when British authorities recommended the evacuation of women and children from the colony, the Spitzers returned to the United States on the _S. S. President Coolidge_. "We landed in San Francisco with ten dollars between us to begin life all over again," Spitzer reminisced later. "I worked in a foundry for two years to get started." In 1942 he took a job as a janitor and package wrapper at Stanford University, where he also studied from 1942 to 1949, earning his master's and doctoral degrees in sociology. Here he also resumed his professional career, serving as a teaching assistant in sociology and as an instructor in the social sciences and humanities.
Between 1947 and 1953 he was professor of sociology and chairman of the department at San Francisco College for Women. In 1953 and 1954 he was a research professor of sociology at College of the Holy Names in San Francisco and at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1954 Spitzer came to Saint Louis University as assistant professor of sociology and consultant in anthropology to the Human Relations Center for Training and Research, founded two years before. The following year he was made associate professor, and in 1962, full professor of anthropology, the first such appointment in anthropology at the school. The development of this discipline at the University kept pace with Spitzer's own rise. In 1958 the administration sanctioned the first degrees (B. A. and M. A.) in anthropology, and the department of sociology was renamed the department of sociology and anthropology, with Spitzer in charge of the sociological aspects of the anthropology program. By 1962 the Ph. D. was also offered at Saint Louis University, which became the first Catholic institution in America to cover the full sequence of study in anthropology.
During his career Spitzer was also research professor at Mexico City College and the National University ofthe Southeast (Universidad Nacional del Sureste) in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. In 1963 he was Senior Fulbright Lecturer in anthropology at the University of Western Australia. He conducted summer fieldwork among the Blackfeet Indians of Montana (periodically between 1945 and 1962), in Merida (1951,1952,1957), in Tepoztlan in Mexico (1955 and 1956), among the Florida Seminoles (1964), in Vienna, Austria (1965 and 1967), and in American Samoa (1966). He served in the Officers' Reserve Corps (1930-40) and in the California National Guard Reserve.
Spitzer was a member of many professional organizations, serving as president of the American Catholic Sociological Society and the Catholic Anthropological Conference. He was a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and a member of the permanent program committee of the Religious Research Association. He was advisory editor for Social Anthropology for Sociological Abstracts and the director of two institutes held at Saint Louis University: the Institute on the Teaching of Sociology; and the Institute on Social Anthropology, which looked at the problem of human nature as studied by anthropologists (June 1958).
Spitzer was greatly interested in the social anthropology theories of Robert Redfield, whom he described as his "advisor in research" between 1950 and 1958. Spitzer himself stood in somewhat the same mentor-like relation to many of his students, who became lifelong friends of their former professor. He explained part of the reason for their affection when he said, "My whole heart and soul is in the classroom, and my writing is incidental to the teaching." When, after a lifetime history of poor health, Spitzer died of a stroke on August 30, 1967 at the early age of 58, students, friends, and relatives established a fund in his honor to purchase books on anthropology for Pius XII Memorial Library.