Sidney Wilfred Mintz was born on November 16, 1922, in Dover, New Jersey. In 1943, Mintz completed his B.A. at Brooklyn College, continuing his training at Columbia University in anthropology during the surge in graduate students following the war, under the auspices of The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. At Columbia, Mintz was a founding member of the Mundial Upheaval Society, a graduate student group that included several future well-known scholars, notably Eric Wolf, Stanley Diamond, Elman Service and Morton Fried. His first fieldwork was conducted in Puerto Rico in 1948, as part of a large-scale team project directed by Julian Steward. As a student, he and Eric Wolf also came under the influence of Ruth Benedict, and the classmates (and later, co-authors) would share a deep and fruitful intellectual friendship until Wolf’s death in 1999.
Owing to a promising career at Columbia, Mintz was invited to join the faculty at Yale University in 1951 where he remained until 1974. During this period, he wrote on the rural proletariat, the now famous life history of a sugar-cane worker (Worker in the Cane), and several major manuscripts on Caribbean peasantry and the relevant historical processes of European colonial expansion, culminating in the 1974 Caribbean Transformations.
In 1975, Mintz joined the American historian Richard Price in founding the new Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins, thanks to the initiative of Dean George Owen. In 1973, the Rockefeller Foundation had financed two positions in history and two in anthropology as part of the newly created Atlantic Program in History, Culture and Society. The pair brought on Emily Martin (then Ahern) and co-authored the 1976 The Birth of African American Culture, establishing the department as one of very few in the United States founded (and developed organically) to specialize in socio-cultural anthropology. In 1985, Mintz shifted the focus of his work (while staying true to the method he had developed, namely an anthropology of the present inflected by a Marxist historical materialism) toward the cultural, economic and social history of food, inaugurated by the publication of Sweetness and Power – a text which remains one of the best selling in the history of the discipline. This was followed by his study of American food habits, the 1996 Tasing Food, Tasting Freedom.
Over his sixty-year career, Mintz published several hundred scholarly works on a range of topics, and influencing a variety of fields, including political economics, social history, economic anthropology, and area studies. He conducted field research in Puerto Rico, (1948-49, 1953, 1954, 1974, 1976); Jamaica, (1952, 1954); Haiti, (1958-59, 1961); Iran, (1966-67); Hong Kong, (1996, 1999). During that time he also taught as a visiting professor at MIT, Princeton, Berkeley, Le Collège de France, NYU and in Germany, Australia, China, and New Zealand and served as the Directeur d’Etudes at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, 1970-1971. A member of the American Ethnological Society, he was president from 1968 to 1969, and is a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain. He is also the recipient of several major national and international awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a William Clyde DeVane Medal, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, Social Science Research Council Faculty Research Fellowship, the Huxley Medal, the Caribbean Review Medal, the Phi Beta Kappa Medal for Teaching and a Fulbright Senior Researcher award, and has given several of the most important annual lectures in anthropology, including the Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures at Rochester, the Christian Gauss Lectures at Princeton, the W.E.B. Dubois Lectures at Harvard, and the McCay Memorial Lecture at Cornell. He is the recipient of three honorary doctorates (Litt. D.,Trinity College,1994; L.L.D., University of Puerto Rico, 1996; and L.L.D., University of the West Indies, 2006). Mintz retired from full-time teaching in 1997, taking on the title of Research Professor at the age of 75. In 1992, he was honored with the establishment of the annual Sidney W. Mintz Lectures at Johns Hopkins.