Sheila Cosminsky, professor emerita at Rutgers Camden, died May 1, 2021, in Haddonfield, NJ, at age 80. A pioneer in the anthropological study of reproductive and related maternal-child health and nutrition, she made midwifery a unifying theme that married biological and sociocultural perspectives on food, health, and care, and bridged nutrition, ethnography, and gender studies. Her core research concerned comparative infant feeding and nutrition in multiple places, and the significant roles of traditional midwives in nutrition and healthy outcomes for mother and child. Related research explored cultural food classifications that linked food, medicine, diet, and health; the multiple factors influencing household and individual malnutrition on a Guatemalan coastal plantation; and evolving diet, nutrition, and health among highland Maya. In each of these areas, she published significant findings and implications, and in 2016 summarized 40 years of intergenerational research with a mother-daughter pair of Guatemalan midwives, whose lived experiences documented how they had been contending over the decades with changing medical ideas of safe birth practices and breast feeding, which dominated policies.
The cross-cultural breadth and longitudinal scope of her work were also significant. Originally trained as an Africanist, she turned to Guatemala for dissertation and repeated research that sustained relationships with community and professional partners. In addition, she completed research fellowships in Kenya and Zimbabwe, Belize, and Tokyo, Japan, and later worked with migrant agricultural laborers in southern New Jersey. Wherever she worked, she worked with local colleagues, whom she respected as equals in an era before this became “in” and a regular, required part of institutional guidelines.
Cosminsky earned her BA at Brooklyn College City University of New York, her MA at Washington State, and her PhD at Brandeis. Her lifelong professional affiliation was Rutgers-Camden, where her primary affiliation was Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, a department she chaired multiple times. She was also founding faculty and director of the Women’s (Gender) Studies Program in the 1990s, and affiliated with Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Nursing School, where she co-taught in their Health and Healing in Guatemala Service Learning class. At Rutgers-New Brunswick she affiliated actively with Anthropology and the Women’s Studies Program.
Throughout her research and teaching, Sheila was respected and beloved for her unflappable good nature, kindness, generosity, and inclusiveness. Colleagues “never heard a mean word” from Sheila toward anyone; “there wasn’t a mean bone in her body.” Colleagues from around the world became welcome guests at her home, where she made every effort to assist them.
As a lifelong member of the American Anthropological Association, she contributed regularly to Annual Meetings and networked with nutritional, medical, and applied anthropologists and the Guatemala Scholars Network.
Cosminsky was predeceased by her beloved husband of 38 years, American historian Herbert Ershkowitz (died March 1, 2021). She is survived by her children, William and Anna. Many of us remember Anna as Sheila’s lovingly energetic young companion at meetings.
(Ellen Messer, Judith Goode, and Myra Bluebond-Langner)
Cite as: Messer, Ellen, Judith Goode, and Myra Bluebond-Langner. 2021. “Sheila Cosminsky.” Anthropology News website, July 6, 2021.