Curtin was born in Philadelphia on May 22, 1922, and grew up in Webster Springs, West Virginia, the site of a coal and timber company owned by his family. He attended Swarthmore College, where he was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree during 1948, having had a recess of three years while he served in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II, serving aboard ship as a radio operator. He did his graduate work at Harvard University, earning a Master of Arts degree during 1949 and was awarded his Ph.D. during 1953. His doctoral dissertation, titled “Revolution and Decline in Jamaica, 1830-1865” addressed 19th-century history and economics of Jamaica.
After graduation, he began teaching at Swarthmore College where he remained until 1956. He relocated to the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he taught from 1956 through 1975. There, Curtin and fellow historian Jan Vansina established a department of African languages and literature during 1956 (now the Department of African Cultural Studies), as part of one of the first academic African studies programs established at a college in the United States. From 1975 until the time of his death he was a member of the faculty of Johns Hopkins University.
Recognized during 1983 as a MacArthur Fellow with its accompanying “genius grant”, Curtin published a total of 19 books, which include Death by Migration: Europe’s Encounter with the Tropical World in the Nineteenth Century, described by the American Historical Review (AHR) as “ground-breaking.” His most famous work, 1969’s The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census was one of the first estimates of the number of slaves transported across the Atlantic Ocean between the 16th century and 1870, yielding an estimate of 9,566,000 African slaves imported to the Americas. Although subsequent authors have disputed this number, his work remains the most commonly cited. He also wrote about how many Africans were taken and from what location, how many died during the middle passage, how many actually arrived in the Americas, and to what colonies/countries they were imported.
You can find a memorial article published in the New York Times here.