Mary Douglas was born Margaret Mary Tew in San Remo Italy on 25 March 1921. Her father Gilbert Tew was in the British colonial service. Her mother Phyllis Twomy Tew raised Mary and her sister Patricia in the Roman Catholic faith. After their mother's death when Mary was 12 she and her sister were raised by her maternal grandparents. She attended Sacred Heart School in Roehampton.
After graduating from Oxford in 1943 she served in the Colonial Office until 1947 where she met a number of anthropologists. She then enrolled at the Oxford Institute of Social Anthropology headed by the influential Africanist E. E. Evans-Pritchard. In 1949 she began fieldwork for her D.Phil. with the Lele in what was then the Belgian Congo.
Mary Tew married James Douglas in 1951 and accepted an anthropology lectureship at University College London the same year. In 1953 she completed her doctorate. She taught at University College London until 1977 by which time her children were grown and her husband retired. For the next 11 years Dr. Douglas lived in the United States first as Foundation Research Professor of Cultural Studies at Russell Sage Institute (1977-81) and later at Northwestern University as Avalon Professor of the Humanities with a remit to link the studies of anthropology and theology.
Her most influential book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo was published in 1966 and has been translated into at least 15 languages. The book explores the relationship between dirt holiness impurity and hygiene. This work and her 1970 book Natural Symbols are regarded as seminal works for anthropologists.
Douglas was appointed CBE in 1992 and was appointed DBE in 2007 New Year's Honours List.
Dame Mary Douglas died 16 May 2007 at the age of 86 and is survived by her two sons James and Phillip and a daughter Janet.
Among her many writings were a monograph The Lele of Kasai (1963) Risk and Culture (with political scientist Aaron Wildavsky 1983) How Institutions Think (1987) Risk and Blame (1992) In the Wilderness (1993) Leviticus as Literature (1999) and Jacob's Tears (2004).