Robin William Winks was born on December 5, 1930 in Indiana. After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado, Winks became a Fulbright Scholar in New Zealand where he earned a master's degree in Maori studies from Victoria University. He returned to University of Colorado and received a second master's degree in ethnography, and followed this with a PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 1957. After teaching for a year at Connecticut College, he was hired as a professor at Yale University in 1957 where he would remain for much of his career, apart for some brief periods as a visiting professor at a few institutions and taking leave from 1969 to 1971 to work as US Cultural Attache to the American Embassy in London.
In addition to his work at Yale, Winks participated in several organizations, such as the American Historical Association, the Canadian Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the Royal Historical Society, and he Royal Commonwealth Society. His interest in the outdoors, led him to become an advocate for the protection of the environment, and serving as chair of the National Parks System Advisory Board. It is claimed that in 1998, he became the first person to have visited all of the United States National Park Service units, and in recognition of his support of the Parks system, the National Parks Conservation Association not only established an award for contributions to public education on behalf of the national parks with him as its first recipient they named the award in his honour (Robin W. Winks Award for Enhancing Public Understanding of National Parks).
Winks died in New Haven, Connecticut on April 7, 2003.