Alan Harwood was born on March 20, 1935 in Tarrytown, New York. He earned his undergraduate degree, magna cum laude, in Social Relations from Harvard University in 1957 and attended the London School of Economics on a one year fellowship the following year. When he returned to the United States, he began his graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Michigan, earning his M.A. in 1960. He went on to Columbia University for his doctorate, which he was awarded in 1967.
Under a pre-doctoral fellowship funded by the Social Science Research Council, Harwood conducted ethnographic research on the Safwa of the southwestern region of Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania). From September 1962 to 1964, Harwood carried out his research mainly in the village of Isyesye, near Mbeya, Southern Highlands Region. At the time, witchcraft accusations were common, and it thus became the subject of his dissertation, Witchcraft, Sorcery, and Social Categories among the Safwa, later published in 1970.
In 1967, Harwood was hired by the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Health Center (formerly called the Neighborhood Medical Care Demonstration) in Bronx, New York. From 1967 to 1970, he directed a study on the health, illness, and medical beliefs and practices of residents in a low-income area of the south Bronx. One of the articles produced from this research was Harwood's "The Hot-Cold Theory of Disease: Implications for Treatment of Puerto Rican Patients" (1971). Harwood also looked at spiritism among the Puerto Rican community, which led to his publication, Rx: Spiritist as Needed: A Study of a Puerto Rican Community Mental Health Resource (1977).
From 1994 to 1995, Harwood was the co-principal investigator of a study conducted under the Tufts New England Medical Center on conceptions of health and well-being among 4 ethnic groups in Boston: African Americans, Mandarin-speaking Chinese Americans, Irish Americans, and Puerto Ricans. Harwood led the group studying Irish Americans.
In addition to his research, Harwood was the founding editor of Medical Anthropology Quarterly (new series, 1986-1991) and series editor of Cambridge Studies in Medical Anthropology (1999-2004) and of Studies in Medical Anthropology (2004-2006). He also edited Ethnicity and Medical Care (1981), a book geared towards health professionals.
In 1971, Harwood spent a year in New Zealand as a visiting senior lecturer at the University of Auckland. From 1972 to 2002, he was a professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. During his tenure, he also served as adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology (1993-2002) and as associate dean for Undergraduate Education, College of Arts and Sciences (1998-2001). In addition, he was a lecturer in the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School (1992-present).
In 1982, Harwood was honored with the Wellcome Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland for Research in Anthropology as Applied to Medical Problems. He is also a Fellow of the American Anthropological Association and of the Society for Applied Anthropology.