Peter J. Donaldson is a native New Yorker, who despite living away from the city for 38 years retains his New York accent. He did his undergraduate work at Fordham University and completed his Ph.D. in sociology at Brown.
Peter’s dissertation was on attitudes toward death, but before long he shifted his attention to research on population policy, fertility, and family planning. He published his first academic article on physicians and methods of family planning and his first popular article on talk show host John McLaughlin (who was then a priest running for the US senate) within months of each other. He has since continued to write articles in the popular media and scientific journals.
Peter began his professional career in 1971 as a Fredrickson Overseas Population Fellow funded through the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was stationed at the Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR) at Mahidol University in Bangkok, where he worked on a project aimed at increasing the availability of family planning services. Peter maintained his relationship with IPSR throughout the years, serving as an informal advisor, occasional collaborator, and part-time North American representative. These contributions were recognized in 2010, when Mahidol awarded him an honorary doctorate for his contributions to the development of population sciences in Thailand, especially at the university.
At the end of his fellowship in 1973, Peter joined the Population Council in Bangkok, where he was seconded to the research and evaluation unit of the Family Health Division of Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health. He conducted surveys of contraceptive use and helped automate a management information system for Thailand’s national family planning program. In 1975, he moved to Seoul, where he served as the Population Council representative and as a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Family Planning (now the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs) and the Korea Development Institute. While in Korea, Peter studied the tempo of fertility, especially the decline in the length of birth intervals associated with increases in age at marriage. He and colleagues produced two edited volumes on demographic issues in South Korea. He also worked to incorporate more population-related information into Korea’s development assessments.
Peter left Korea in 1977 to take a position at the International Fertility Research Program (now FHI 360) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Initially recruited to oversee a family planning program evaluation unit, Peter eventually became responsible for coordinating FHI’s international activities and liaising with national governments and nongovernmental research organizations. He also spent time as director of development and government relations working to diversify funding and secure foundation support for FHI’s research activities.
In 1985, Peter left FHI to become director of the Committee on Population at the National Academies’ National Research Council. Among other projects while he was director, the Committee carried out an assessment of the health consequences of high fertility and produced an influential report on policies influencing contraceptive development.
After four years at the National Academies, Peter returned to the Population Council in 1989 as regional director for South and East Asia, again stationed in Bangkok. During his time in Bangkok, there was a substantial growth in Population Council activities. Offices were opened in the Philippines, Pakistan, and India; and new projects were undertaken in Indonesia and Vietnam.
Peter returned to the United States in 1994 to become president of the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), a position he held for nine years. While at PRB, he helped expand electronic communication and dramatically increased the number of website visitors and downloads. He also helped expand PRB’s training program and increase support from government and nongovernmental sources.
Peter left PRB in 2003 to return to the Population Council as vice president and director of the International Programs Division. He became acting president in 2004 and was appointed president early in 2005. He announced his plans to retire at the end of 2014. As president, he oversaw a major reorganization of the Council’s research programs and increased fundraising, as a result of which the budget grew by $10 million. Under his leadership, the Council has played a major role in population, health, and development research and policy formulation, particularly in Africa and South Asia. Council biomedical scientists continue to develop new contraceptives and products aimed at reducing the risk of HIV and AIDS transmission.
Beginning during his first years in Thailand, Peter has studied population policy issues. He wrote a series of articles on the development of medicine in Thailand, authored a well-received book on US international population policy, and published articles on religion and family planning, contraceptive targets in India, and related topics.
Peter is an unusual demographer who has studied traditional issues such as contraceptive use and the tempo of fertility, but who has also encouraged the use of photographs for data collection and employed the Freedom of Information Act to obtain material from the CIA for an analysis of US population policy. He has written popular articles on topics as varied as minor league baseball, poker (about a game in which PAA presidents Barbara Entwisle and Ron Rindfuss were once regulars), the Cambodian holocaust, and the demography of Christmas.
Peter has served the PAA. He was a member of the Board of Directors, chair of the Nominations Committee, and a longtime member of the Public Affairs Committee. He also served as president of the Association of Population Centers, and a council member of the population section of the American Sociological Association. He was an advisor for the Center for Population Research at Georgetown University and the Population Research Institute at Penn State University. He is currently a member of the Committee on Population at the National Research Council and a member of the Board of Directors and Chair of the Nominating Committee at the Global Health Council.