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Obituary for Professor James W. Vaupel

On Sunday 27 March 2022, Jim Vaupel died following an unexpected and brief illness. Thus, our university and Denmark, indeed the whole world, lost a leading demographer and researcher on ageing.

At SDU, Jim Vaupel was a Professor of Health Sciences, of Natural Sciences and of Business and Social Sciences. He was a rare breed indeed. His accomplishments are a testament to his breadth and his ability to think across the different sciences.

Jim Vaupel was born in New York on 2 May 1945. He completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard University, Boston, where he also met Bodil, whom he married. They had two daughters. Bodil is Danish and the couple initially agreed they would move to Denmark when their daughters were to begin school.

Jim Vaupel was awarded his PhD degree in 1978 from Harvard University with his dissertation ‘Early Death: A Policy Analysis of the Prospects for Saving Lives’. A few years earlier, he had already started at Duke University as an Assistant Professor, and over the years, he did several stints as a research fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna.

Focus on ageing

Jim Vaupel’s research increasingly focused on the biology, epidemiology and demography of ageing. He challenged the then dominant view that there is a biologically defined upper limit to our life expectancy – and that we were approaching that limit.

Vaupel – followed by many other researchers – have been able to show that this is not the case, and as late as last year, he and two of our younger colleagues at the Danish Centre for Demography at SDU were able to show that our life expectancy is increasing year by year at an astonishingly constant rate of almost 3 months for women and slightly less for men.

By 1991, their daughters were reaching school age and Bodil and Jim moved to Denmark. Luckily for us, he chose the University of Southern Denmark (then Odense University). A newly established Department of Public Health, excellent Danish health data, including the Twin Registry in Odense – a young research colleague and a talented Dean at the Faculty of Health Sciences made all the difference to Jim Vaupel.

Think big and be industrious

Jim Vaupel taught us many things, including to think big – both in research questions, publishing in the very best journals and in terms of the size of research grants applied for.

Think big, be industrious and build strong alliances – these were his own guiding principles, and together with his talents, they took him far. Literally, too. He was a constant traveller: China, Russia, Mexico, USA, Europe … and many of his countless articles were written on the plane and during stopovers.

In 1996, Jim Vaupel was headhunted to found and become the manager of the new Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock. Bodil and Jim decided to stay in Kerteminde, so he ended up spending even more time on commuting. In addition to the Max Planck Institute, over the next 10 years he created major European research institutions, such as the European Doctoral School of Demography, the journal Demographic Research, and Population Europa – which links demographic research in Europe.

Nominated for the Nobel Prize

Jim Vaupel never left SDU completely. He maintained a part-time position and continued the collaboration, just as he had done for decades at Duke University. And when, somewhat against his will, he was due to retire from his executive position in Rostock, in 2014 he arranged a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute and SDU, bringing with him ten of its most talented researchers.

In 2018, on this basis, he founded a centre whose name rolls right off the tongue: the Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics, abbreviated CPop (in Danish: Dansk Center for Demografi), which belongs under the Faculty of Business and Social Sciences, but branches out to a total of four faculties.

Jim Vaupel held honorary doctorates at several universities, received a multitude of international awards and was nominated for the Nobel Prize several times.

A privilege to work with

It was a privilege for us to work with Jim Vaupel. His drive and willingness to support younger researchers in particular never failed to impress us.

He didn't have time to die, because he had recently presented a research programme for the next 10 years in a scientific paper. But he certainly achieved a great deal in his life, which biological coincidences unexpectedly cut short.

Our thoughts are with Bodil, their daughters Anna and Sofie and their five grandchildren.

Jens Ringsmose, Marianne Holmer, Sten Rynning and Ole Skøtt, Rector and Deans of the University of Southern Denmark

Editing was completed: 04.04.2022