I was born in New York City in the borough of the Bronx on January 6, 1936. I attended public schools in Far Rockaway Queens. After graduating Far Rockaway High School, I first attended Syracuse University from 1953 to 1955 and then transferred to the University of Chicago, where I obtained a BA in history in 1957, an MA in 1959 and a PhD in 1963 with a major in history and a minor in anthropology. I taught Latin American history at the University of Chicago from 1962 to 1969, rising from lecturer to the rank of associate professor with tenure. I then taught at Columbia University from 1969 to 2005, being named the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History in 2003. I retired from Columbia in 2005 and was named professor of history and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford University from 2005 to 2011. After my retirement as director, I was named research fellow and curator of Latin American Collection, of the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in 2011–2017.
My main areas of interests are in comparative social history, quantitative methods in historical research and demographic history. I have published some 25 books dealing with the history of slavery, the Atlantic slave trade, colonial fiscal history, and demographic history and have published extensively on the history of Bolivia, Brazil and the United States. I has been a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Lecturer in numerous Latin American universities and received grants from the Ford Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Tinker Foundation.
My honors include the 1977 "Socio-Psychological Prize" of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), joint with Jonathan Kelley; the 2010 Premio em Historia e Ciencias Sociais of the Academia Brasileira de Letras, for a co-authored book Escravismo em São Paulo e Minas Gerais (joint with Iraci Costa and Francisco Vidal Luna) and in 2015 I received the Distinguished Service Award from the Conference on Latin American History, the professional organization of Latin American historians. In 1982 I was elected chair of CLAH. I was also editor of the Cambridge University Press Series of Latin American Monographs from 2003-2015 and I am on numerous editorial boards for Iberian and Latin American Journals of History, Economics and Social Science..