Photograph by Peter Cahn: George and Mary Foster in the home of Doña Micaela González, Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán; June 2000
George McClelland Foster was born in 1913 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and raised in Iowa. He obtained his bachelor's degree in anthropology under Melville Herskovits at Northwestern University in 1935. After visiting Mexico for the first time as a tourist in 1936, he decided to focus on the country for his professional career. In 1940-41, he conducted research on the economic life of the Sierra Popoluca Indians of Veracruz, for which he earned a doctorate in anthropology from UC Berkeley in 1941. From 1944 to 1946, he taught at the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, while conducting eighteen months of fieldwork in Tzintzuntzan for the Smithsonian's Institute of Social Anthropology (1945-46).
George Foster served as director of the Institute (1946-53) before becoming a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, where he remained for the rest of his career. During 1949-50, he conducted comparative fieldwork in Spain, researching the cultural background of Latin America. In 1958 he returned to Tzintzuntzan, where he has spent part of every year through the year 2000. During these visits, in which he helped develop the methodology of long-term research in ethnography, he has investigated economic, demographic, and socio-cultural change. In addition to these research interests, Dr. Foster is known for his fundamental contributions to peasant studies, the concept of "the limited good," and of hot-cold theories of disease. He is a founder of the modern subfield of medical anthropology, and made important contributions to the study of pottery technology. As a developer of applied anthropology, he has traveled throughout South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, as well as Latin America.
Professor Foster is a member of the National Academy of Science, the winner of many awards, and has served as president of the American Anthropological Association (1970). He is the author of over twenty-one books and monographs (many translated into Spanish), including two major studies of Tzintzuntzan: Empire's Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan (1948) and Tzintzuntzan: Mexican Peasants in a Changing World (1967; revised editions, 1979, 1988); as well as more than one hundred articles. Since his retirement in 1979, George Foster has remained an active scholar.