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Groundbreaking anthropologist Sidney Mintz dies at age 93

Mintz co-founded the JHU Department of Anthropology

Sidney Mintz, co-founder of the Johns Hopkins University Department of Anthropology and the William L. Straus Jr. Professor Emeritus, died Dec. 27 of head trauma related to a fall he experienced while traveling in New Jersey with his wife, Jacqueline. He was 93 years old.

Image caption: Sidney W. Mintz

Mintz was an anthropologist known best for his studies of Caribbean societies, the anthropology of food, and Afro-Caribbean traditions. Since his first fieldwork in Puerto Rico in 1948, much of his research had focused on connecting the anthropological concept of culture with historical materialist scholarship.

"Sidney was never at a loss for words and was filled with stories," says Mintz's longtime friend and colleague Richard Kagan, a professor emeritus in the Department of History. "He was generous, intelligent, and articulate. He was a brilliant lecturer. We called him Sidney the Wise."

"His work broke new ground and inspired countless scholars to follow in his footsteps in anthropology, history, and many other disciplines in the social sciences," says Emily Martin, a former colleague of Mintz's who teaches at New York University.

In a joint statement, the Department of Anthropology's Deborah Poole, Niloofar Haeri, and Jane Guyer wrote, "Sidney combined, in one person, all the qualities we aspire to as anthropologists: a deep appreciation for the most mundane of skills in the world, a critical knowledge of history and theory, a love of languages, a deep commitment to teaching, and a sense of wonder which made him enjoy every aspect of fieldwork."

"I remember him expressing admiration for the way a young girl in Puerto Rico ironed his clothes with a coal-filled flat-iron, and for the strength of the ditch-diggers on the sugar plantation," adds Guyer. "A former Yale student in his huge introductory lecture class—700 students in the Law School auditorium—told me he would sing calypso to his class to bring them into the spirit of the Caribbean. Sidney lived—and loved life—in the vibrant spaces where people are constantly creative, resilient, and also funny. His own long life, whose end we now grieve, was a gift to us all: of lively times, challenging ideas, and an exemplary richness of interest."

Food and gastronomy were central to Mintz's work. He, his book on sugar, and his recipe for perfumed lamb were featured in Molly O'Neill's column "Food" in The New York Times Magazine in 1996. He was featured in the November 1998 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine. His professional website includes a "cookbook" containing recipes and notes to commemorate his 80th birthday, among them a message from his daughter, Elizabeth, who states that "my appreciation for and love of cooking come from my father." His son, Eric, wrote that Mintz's "perpetual interest in food ingredients, and their history and evolution, is also something that stays with me today, and adds 'spice' not only to my personal culinary indulgences but to my current professional activities as a medical epidemiologist specializing in foodborne diseases (a career choice that indirectly reflects his influence as well)."

At Johns Hopkins, Mintz aimed to bring the departments of Anthropology and History closer together for research on slavery and the Atlantic world. Former JHU professor Katherine Verdery, now a Distinguished Professor at City University of New York, describes the Anthropology Department's collegial atmosphere, saying it "had an esprit de corps I have not found in my two jobs since I left Hopkins, and it produced graduate students of a very distinctive cast who even now, years after they left it, feel special kinship with one another. The intellectual synergy among the faculty, as well as between faculty and students, was both generative and rare. Sidney's influence had a great deal to do with that outcome."

He was appointed professor emeritus on July 1, 1997. In 2014, he converted the lecture fund established in his honor in 1993 into the Sidney Mintz Student Fellowships to support summer field research for graduate students in the humanities and social sciences. He most recently held a workshop on fieldwork at Johns Hopkins on Dec. 10.

Mintz was the author of several books and hundreds of articles and reviews. His books include Worker in the Cane, the life story of the cane worker Eustaquio "Taso" Zayas, who became one of Mintz's lifelong friends; Sweetness and Power, a groundbreaking study on the history of sugar and its role in the history of early capitalism; Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past, a collection of his writings on food; and Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations, which was recently published. Mintz's study of a sugarcane village became part of The People of Puerto Rico, edited by Julian Steward and others, and he co-edited The World of Soy.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Mintz served in the U.S. Army Air Corps after earning his undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College in 1943. He received his doctorate from Columbia University in 1951, studying under Julian Steward and Ruth Benedict and alongside others who would become prominent anthropologists, including Eric Wolf, Stanley Diamond, Elman Service, and Morton Fried. Before coming to Johns Hopkins in 1975, Mintz was on the faculty at Yale University for 25 years.

Mintz was awarded Guggenheim, Fulbright, and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, among other academic honors. He received honorary degrees from Trinity College, Oberlin College, the University of Puerto Rico, and the University of the West Indies. He was a visiting professor at MIT, Princeton, Berkeley, the Collège de France, and institutions in Germany, New Zealand, Australia, and Hong Kong.

An enthusiast of physical exercise, he swam and used exercise equipment several times a week at his Broadmead retirement community in Baltimore County.

Mintz was a popular lecturer and spoke regularly on campuses and elsewhere. When giving lectures, including those he gave at Broadmead, he would quip that his audience was being treated to "after dinner Mintz." He is survived by his wife Jacqueline W. Mintz; son Eric Mintz; daughter Elizabeth R. Nickens; grandson Andre Mintz, and his granddaughter Nicole Mintz.