Obituary, James W. Vaupel, 02.05.1945 – 27.03.2022
With deep sadness, we announce that our founding Director, Prof Dr. James W. Vaupel, died on Sunday, March 27th, 2022 after an unexpected and short period of illness.
He deeply loved and appreciated the elegance of mathematics: a sentence he would probably have written first in his own obituary. To him, proving theorems and working on mathematical demography problems was – as he liked to say – what “angels tell each other on Sundays”.
This was his deepest attraction to the field of demography, as he expressed in an article in 2004 on the Biodemography of Aging. He also cared deeply about people. Fueled by the experience of untimely deaths of those near to him, he early on in his journey decided to contribute to saving lives.
Equipped with a BA (1968) in mathematical statistics, and an MA (1971) in public policy, he gained a PhD (1978) from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University with his thesis entitled “Early Death: A Policy Analysis of the Prospects for Saving Lives”. After his time as assistant, and later, tenured associated professor at Duke University from 1972 to 1985, and several long research stays between 1981 and 1985 at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, he worked as professor of public affairs and planning, of ancient studies, and as adjunct professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota from 1985-1991. He loved to bridge disciplines.
Being married to a Danish wife, Bodil, the family with two daughters decided to move to Europe. As professor of demography and epidemiology at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) between 1991-1996 and in the years to come, during which he kept on fostering ties with Odense, he made major contributions to aging and twin research at the university. Excellent research on aging and twin studies has since been continually growing and blossoming at SDU, to be recognized around the world.
In 1996, he began a life as a traveler. He commuted between Germany, Denmark, and the U.S., becoming the founding director of the Max Plank Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. Especially in that position, he fundamentally shaped the field of demography for 21 years. This is reflected in his outstanding research record, his impact on generations of demographers, and institutionally, e.g., in founding the European Doctoral School of Demography, the open-access journal Demographic Research, and the network of Europe’s leading research centres in the field of policy-relevant population studies, Population Europe.
In 2013, he became founding Director of the Max‐Planck Odense Center on the Biodemography of Aging at the University of Southern Denmark, which after 5 years morphed into our Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics here in Odense.
Jim was the visionary driving force behind this center. It materializes his vision that demography, at its heart, was an inter-discipline. Indeed, he held shared appointments with the faculties of Social, Health, and Natural Sciences and was chair at the Danish Institute for Advanced Study: an explorer among the disciplines. Major research results in the field of biodemography published in Nature, Science, and PNAS came out of these fruitful connections. Last year, Jim was knighted for his contribution to research at the University of Southern Denmark by Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark (The Royal Order of Dannebrog).
He was going strong in leading exciting new research projects and laying out promising visions for future research and leading an ERC Advanced grant that he had just acquired when his sudden death stopped him in full flow. We all somehow had become used to the idea that he would be around forever.
To many people that he met and connected to throughout his life, he became a steadfast and lifelong collaborator, supporter, and friend. With his uncountable projects and initiatives, he connected not just disciplines, but also the East with the West, from China, over Russia and all parts of Europe, to America, and beyond. He united us in our shared desire to bring new insights and truth to the world, and to help saving lives.
He was thinking boldly, with vision and outside the box. He dared to venture into new territory with an unshakable instinct for important and truly groundbreaking problems. He had a feeling for people’s talents, and how he could promote them. He had an amazing memory for people’s names, and even the stories they would tell him upon first meeting – one of his talents that was vital to build bridges among people.
He deeply cared about his PhD students. He gained much joy from seeing how his many students grew into mature and successful scientists, many of whom now form the meat and bones of demography, connected around the world.
In an email to me he once wrote: “If you share your ideas they live on. It is crucial to publish. But also to talk with and try to inspire young demographers. When I give my occupation on my tax return, I say teacher. That is how I see myself – a teacher and a gardener cultivating sprouts and shoots.”
Jim Vaupel was our great mentor, colleague, and friend, who touched, influenced, and shaped the careers and lives of so many of us. This obituary can only give a small glimpse. It is comforting to know that many of us will feel the need to tell their story of Jim Vaupel. And they will be written. Together, we can create a colorful kaleidoscope that will help us cherish and memorialize him with his seemingly infinite energy, his brilliant mind, and his contagious smile and enthusiasm. We lost one of the greatest demographers of our time, a decent man, and a reliable friend. We will continue in his spirit.
Our deepest sympathy is with his family.
Annette Baudisch, Odense, 03.04.2022