Having been in academic teaching and research for over four decades, I never met an academician or researcher who was as uniquely talented as Jim Vaupel. He was truly remarkable as a friend, a colleague and a science leader.
I met Jim in 1984 while on a research trip to the Mediterranean fruit fly (medfly) sterilization laboratory at International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, where on a side trip met the demographer whose work I most admired as a young scientist—IIASA population program leader Nathan Keyfitz. Nathan introduced me to his mathematical demography understudy Jim Vaupel. Four years later Jim and I crossed paths again at a UC Berkeley symposium on upper limits to human lifespan, the ultimate outcome of which was for me becoming part of his oldest-old mortality NIH/P01. My project would involve the use of the medfly at the industrial-level rearing facility in Tapachula, Mexico (on Guatemala border) for testing hypotheses concerned with upper limits to lifespan. Jim traveled to this Mexican border-town fly factory multiple times. Here are few of my memories of Jim in the context of our medfly collaborations.
First salad = last salad. Having ordered dinner with a large lettuce salad on his first evening in Tapachula, I was ready to caution him about that decision when one of our Mexican colleagues toasted «¡Salud!¡Comamos! [Cheers! Let’s eat!]». Too late. Jim ate his salad down to the last leaf. The next day at meetings he positioned himself near the door so he could make frequent mad-dashes out. I never again witnessed Jim ordering a fresh salad in Mexico.
Mexican standoff. One evening Jim, myself and three colleagues were seated at an outdoor restaurant in Tapachula when a flatbed truck suddenly appeared, screeched to a halt and a dozen armed soldiers jumped off to surround a nearby building. We all sat spellbound. Nothing was happening. After 15 minutes the man in charge waved his soldiers back onto the flatbed truck and they sped away. Jim would re-tell this story for years, with the armament each iteration scaling from small guns and a flatbed to machine guns and armored vehicles. I told him that his next iteration should be Mexican Special Forces repelling down out of gunships while we were sipping on pina coladas.
Billions and billions. After we published our Science paper on slowing of mortality at older ages based on a million medfly life table, Jim insisted that we had to follow with a billion fly life table. Having done the logistical arithmetic, I reminded him that to do this we could take 1-of-2 approaches: Either we build our own billion-fly industrial factory or, since our million fly table required two years to complete, take the next two millennia to complete the billion. Reluctantly Jim dropped the idea.
Multi-Jims. To showcase our fruit fly study, which included one on Drosophila led by James Curtsinger, we co-organized a symposium at the 1991 Gerontology Society meetings in San Francisco. As Jim was returned to his seat following his presentation, the last speaker introduced himself: «Thank you Jim, Jim, and Jim. My name is Jim [Fries]».
Some scholars contribute to science chiefly through their publications, others through their organizational and motivational skills, and still others through the force of their intellect. Jim Vaupel was one of the rare scholars who contributed to science in all of these ways. I will forever be indebted to Jim for his scientific inspiration, professional guidance, and especially for his enduring friendship. And it is doubtful I would have spent my professional life in the world of formal demography had Nathan Keyfitz not introduced Jim and me nearly four decades ago. Along with many of my entomological colleagues in the U.S., Mexico and Greece, we will all be forever indebted to Jim for his scientific inspiration and professional guidance.