Samuel H. Preston, PhD
University of Pennsylvania
Samuel H. Preston has, for at least a third of a century, been an intellectual and institutional leader in demography and the scientific study of the health of human populations. He has made numerous scientific discoveries, many of which have seeped into public consciousness, all of which have been integral to the formulation of public policy, and any one of which would be considered the mark of a successful scientific career. A sampling of some of his stellar accomplishments would include:
- His empirical account of the changing relationship between a country’s life expectancy and its real per capita income—known as the Preston curve—has become the canonical foundation of research on population health.
- He uncovered a long-term continuous rise in the cohort divorce rate of American marriages since the Civil War that had been masked by period measures and a focus on recent trends.
- He was pioneering researcher of the tobacco epidemic of the 20th century and of its toll on U.S. mortality.
- He found that high levels of natural increase, not rural to urban migration, were the primary cause of rapid urban growth in contemporary developing countries.
- His leadership in creating computer-readable data from the manuscript records of the 1900 and 1910 U.S. censuses provided the model for archiving and disseminating historical census data.
- His PAA presidential address, presented at a time when common wisdom was that the elderly were America’s neediest dependents, showed that the aging of American society was accompanied by an improvement in the political and economic position of the elderly while the state of American children was declining.
- He revised classical stable population theory to allow for variations in rates of entry and exit (“variable r”).
- He was the primary author of the heterodox 1986 National Academy of Sciences that challenged long-held consensus that rapid population growth was invariably a drag on economic development.
- He has generated new estimates of the population and mortality of African-Americans over the course of the 20th Century.
In addition to his brilliant scientific career, which shows no signs of lessening, Samuel Preston advises the U.S. government on the reform of the Social Security Administration, is an authority on the conduct of the U.S. Census, and is a frequent advisor on population matters at the United Nations. His stature in and beyond demography and population studies is reflected in his election to the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Philosophical Society, and as a fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Statistical Association. He has served as President of the Population Association of America (PAA) and the Sociological Research Association. He has received two awards for research (the Irene Taeuber award, and the Mindel Sheps award) from the PAA and was named Laureate of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population.
Upon receiving the Olivia Schieffelin Nordberg Award from the Population Council in 2009, Preston’s writing style was described as follows:
Without sacrificing an ounce of scientific rigor, Preston’s prose is a delight to read. His canonical textbook (with Heuveline and Guillot) Demography: Measuring and Modeling Population Processes (2001) and his many expository articles set the standard of clear, engaging writing for demographers. He is also not afraid to let his sense of humor show in his work—no doubt a factor in his wide readership outside the demographic field.
Sam grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. He attended Amherst College, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, with a degree in Economics, in 1965. At Princeton University, where he completed his Ph.D. in Economics in three years, he discovered demography under the tutelage of Ansley J. Coale. From 1968 to 1972, he was an assistant professor in illustrious Department of Demography at the University of California, Berkeley and then moved to Department of Sociology at the University of Washington, Seattle, where he directed the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology from 1972 to 1977. After a short stint in the United Nations Population Division (1977-79), he was recruited “back home” to Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. For the last 3 decades, he has been a Professor of Sociology (and was the inaugural Frederick J. Warren Professor of Demography) and has served in almost every leadership role on the Penn campus, including multiple stints as departmental chair and Population Studies Center director, and most recently as Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. In recognition of his many contributions to the University of Pennsylvania, an endowed professorship has been established in his name. In addition to his research and institutional leadership, Preston has chaired approximately 50 Ph.D. dissertation committees and served on many more. His former students, active in universities, governments, and international agencies across the world, fondly recall his teaching and mentoring.
Sam and his wife, Winnie, were high school sweethearts. They raised four children and continue to be an active presence in the lives of their children and grandchildren. In spite of the demands of his many professional roles and his strong commitments to family and friends, Sam is always calm at the center of the storm. He works at an unhurried pace and with the utmost consideration for others. Even though the field of demography has only one Sam Preston, the marvel is that he has done so much, so well, and for so long.