Erna Gunther was born in Brooklyn, New York. In 1919, she graduated from Barnard College and immediately began studying anthropology at Columbia University as a student of Franz Boas. In 1920, she earned her MA degree and married fellow anthropologist Leslie Spier, with whom she had two children. The couple moved to Seattle, where they formed the initial core of the newly-created Anthropology Department at the University of Washington. Her husband left in 1930, but Erna stayed at the University; at that time their marriage ended. That same year, she was named director of the Washington State Museum. In 1966, she moved to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, becoming chair of the Anthropology Department in 1967. Dr. Gunther was recognized as a leading authority on Pacific Northwest Indian culture whose work is still consulted today. Her research focused on the Salish and Makah peoples of western Washington State. She published scholarly articles and books on ethnobotany, ethnohistory, and general ethnology, including Ethnobotany of Western Washington (1945).