James W. Vaupel (1945 - 2022)

Jim Vaupel was a leading figure in demographic research on mortality and longevity. He was an innovator, charismatic leader and a man of conviction as well as a captivating teacher and passionate researcher always full of new ideas he was eager to share. He conveyed his love of demography to generations of students and young researchers from all disciplines, with a particular fondness for formal demography, which he called the champagne of demography.

Born in 1945 in New York, he initially studied mathematical statistics at Harvard and then business, before finally defending a thesis in public policy. But in the middle of the 1970s, shocked by the death at a relatively young age of three of his close relatives, he began studying mortality. He started a brilliant teaching and research career in demography, first at the University of Minnesota and then at Duke University. He drew the attention of his peers with his work on the topic of survival and aging, in particular with the 1979 volume The impact of heterogeneity in individual frailty on the dynamics of mortality written with Kenneth Manton and Eric Stallard. Jim Vaupel was also a long-time member of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria.

No doubt this unique background influenced the choice made in 1996 by the Max Planck Society, which was looking for a someone to set up and direct a new research institute dedicated to demography in Rostock, the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR). What a perfect choice! Starting from scratch in what was then an uninviting city, Jim Vaupel was able to create what quickly became a jewel in the crown of European demographic research.

Jim Vaupel went on to create the first open-access journal in the discipline, Demographic Research, launched several training initiatives, such as the European Doctoral School for Demography and the Max Planck Research Network on Aging, and informed European decision-makers through the Population Europe network.

None of this prevented him from pursuing his highly appreciated teaching career at Duke or from building strong links with the University of Southern Denmark, where, after serving 20 years as director of MPIDR, he continued his research and teaching as Professor of Social, Health and Natural Sciences and Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics. Up until very recently, he was the director of an International Chair for the AXA Research Fund and had just won an advanced grant from the European Research Council.

Jim Vaupel joined the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population in the early 1980s where he was always very active. In addition to his assiduous presence at the major international population conferences, he chaired the Panel on Social and Biological Determinants of Longevity from 2009 to 2012 and organized two landmark workshops on “The Life Expectancy Revolution” in 2010 and on “The b-Hypothesis and the Modal Age at Death” in 2011. He also shared the Union’s concern for teaching younger generations of demographers and was instrumental in co-organizing three IUSSP-MPIDR Summer Schools: in 2005 on “Limits to Demographic Research on Mortality and Longevity”, in 2007 on “Mathematical Demography and its Applications to Human and Non-Human Species”, and in 2009 on “The Frontiers of Demographic Analysis”.

Jim Vaupel consistently sought to combine demography and biology, contributing greatly to the development of biodemography in the study of mortality. He was particularly interested in the links between evolution and demography developing a new field of research in evolutionary demography seeking to better understand the mechanisms of senescence.

Jim saw himself as a kind of mathematical biologist. He was fascinated by the idea that human lifespan had no tangible limit because of its multifactorial plasticity. To try to understand this phenomenon, he started gathering as much information as possible on supercentenarians (people living more than 110 years), an emerging group he had been the first to highlight. This research led to the development of the International Database on Longevity (IDL) which involved collaborations with INED and INSERM, MPIDR and other research centers.

Jim’s sudden death is a great shock for all those who knew him well and a great loss for science.

His closest colleagues will long remember his wit and insatiable curiosity. He was bubbling with ideas, which he never kept to himself; he would show you a mathematical formula written on a piece of paper like it was a priceless jewel.

We sympathize with the sorrow of his wife, Bodil, and his daughters Anna and Sofie, to whom we express our heartfelt condolences.