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David G. Mandelbaum was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1911 to Sam and Lena (Goodman) Mandelbaum. He attended Northwestern University where, in 1932, he was awarded the first Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in the University's history. Mandelbaum took his doctorate at Yale University in 1936. His dissertation was the result of extensive field work in Saskatchewan in 1934 and 1935. This dissertation, "The Plains Cree, An Anthropologic, Historical and Comprehensive Study" was published in 1936 and has remained a standard resouce on the subject
Mandelbaum was particularly well known for his anthropological studies of India and its people, especially the Kola and the Cochin Jews. In 1946 he joined the University of California, Berkeley Department of Anthropology where his extensive south and southwestern Asian experience helped to broaden the department's perspective. Mandelbaum taught at Berkeley until his retirement in 1978 and remained an active professor emeritus until his death in 1987. At the time of his death on April 19, 1987, Mandelbaum was survived by his wife, Ruth, son Michael, and daughter, Susan (Tohbe).