Frank Wallace Notestein Research Paper

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1. Life And Career

Frank Notestein did more than any other person in the twentieth century to develop demography as a field of study in the USA, and probably the world. He was born on August 16, 1902, in Alma, Michigan to a family with academic connections. His undergraduate education was in the mid-West in Alma and Wooster colleges, but he earned his Ph.D. in Economics at Cornell University. There he came under the influence of Walter Willcox, which was important both because Willcox was interested in social and population statistics and because of his connections with the Milbank Memorial Fund (MMF), New York, which was to become an important early funder of population research. At Wooster Notestein met Daphne Limbach whom he married in 1927.

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Notestein worked with Edgar Sydenstricker from 1928 to 1936 helping to establish the MMF’s population program, carrying out studies of both differential fertility and contraception, and arranging for MMF to fund a demographic survey in rural China. During this time the Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly became, and remained for over a decade, the primary journal where demographic research was reported. In 1936 Frederick Osborn convinced Albert Milbank to fund Princeton University to establish the Office of Population Research (OPR). This was the first program in the USA to combine demographic research and graduate education. Notestein became its first head, 1936–59, directing and synthesizing its work with profound consequences for demographic thought. Because of Princeton’s departmental structure OPR’s faculty were assigned to appropriate university departments (Notestein to the Department of Economic and Social Institutions), as were its students for most of their course work. OPR provided a single course, given for the first years solely by Notestein, for which it was later to award its own certificate. This was where most of OPR’s demographic discoveries and theories were first taught. OPR, because of its head start and its high standards, provided from its faculty and students an extraordinary proportion of the leading demographic teachers and researchers as the discipline expanded through the USA, and indeed the world, in the second half of the century. The two-year-old bibliographical journal Population Index was moved to OPR and Notestein became one of the editors.

Notestein took leave from OPR during 1946–8 to become the first Consultant Director of the new United Nations Population Division, which acted as the secretariat for the United Nations Population Commission. Ryder (1984, p. 10) believes that the decision that the United Nations should have such a commission was probably influenced by OPR’s wartime research on demographic change in Europe, commissioned by the League of Nations. Notestein left Princeton in 1959 to become President of the Population Council, finally to retire from the Council back to Princeton in 1968 to the position of Visiting Research Demographer at OPR. The Population Council was established as a result of a meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1952. It was held on the initiative of John D. Rockefeller III, but Notestein prepared the agenda and appears to have arrived with a clear concept of the form such an institution should take. For some years the Council was the only organization which could provide expert advice to Third World governments on contraceptive technology and the establishment of family planning programs. During Notestein’s presidency its annual budget rose from US$1 million to US$11 million and its professional staff from 10 to 90, with an increasing presence in developing countries. It also offered scholarships, predominantly to students from developing countries, to pursue graduate studies elsewhere in demography or reproductive biology.

To understand Notestein’s achievements it is necessary to have some knowledge of the man himself. He was plain-speaking and straightforward, as was his prose. He had a great capacity for leadership, often in a fatherly way, perhaps because the Notesteins had no children. He had a gift for creating and building institutions, which was enhanced by his closeness to some of the rich and powerful, notably John D. Rockefeller III and Frederick Osborn. He moved easily between the foundation and the university worlds, partly because he believed that the aim of both should be to improve the human lot. He had great love for Princeton University but was no believer in the ivory tower. He was strangely modest, saying that others had greater intellectual contributions to make than himself, but that his strength lay in his gift for recognizing ability and providing it with an opportunity. His successors at the various institutions he developed were men he had brought into the demographic field: Ansley Coale at OPR, John Durand in the United Nations Population Division, and Bernard Berelson at the Population Council.

Notestein’s world was the institution he was building and a major source of information the seminars and papers of that institution. When first presenting demographic transition theory in its more fully developed form, he described it as ‘some of the work which my colleagues and I, of Princeton’s Office of Population Research, have undertaken …’ (Notestein 1943, p. 165). Prominent among the colleagues contributing to demographic theory were Dudley Kirk and Kingsley Davis. The most employed of Notestein’s outside sources were two works which significantly appeared in his first year of teaching: World Population (Carr-Saunders 1936), which documented Third World mortality declines and population growth, and Medical History of Contraception (Himes 1936), which showed how ancient were attempts to restrict fertility. In his two most famous papers on demographic transition, ‘Population—the long view’ (1945) and ‘Economic problems of population change’ (1953), there are only a couple of references which go beyond these two sources and work that either he or his colleagues had undertaken at MMF, OPR or the UN. All his papers drew quite early on ongoing research projects at MMF or OPR, which themselves were not often fully reported until years later. Many of his papers were given first to conferences of mixed disciplines and achieve their impact from their simplicity, common sense, and clarity. After 1936 surprisingly few of his publications were papers submitted without solicitation to demographic journals. All, as Coale (1979) notes of his writing and teaching, were marked by skepticism, respect for evidence, and insistence on rigor and technical competence.

2. Contribution To Demography

The greatest support for demographic studies and for their funding came between the World Wars from those in the eugenics movement. Their major concerns were that the lower socioeconomic classes were outbreeding the higher ones (and, they assumed, the genetically brighter) and, in the USA, that immigrants had higher fertility than the native-born. The contribution of Sydenstricker and Notestein (1930) was to present, virtually without comment on the implications for society, technically sophisticated analyses of a sample of previously untabulated 1910 US census returns to show that immigrants had higher fertility than the native-born in the first generation but lower in the second. They also showed there were marked rural–urban fertility differentials and somewhat smaller occupational ones. They tried to free the debate from ideology. After 1936 Notestein ceased publishing in the area of fertility differentials, although it was an important element in the 1941 Indianapolis Survey, which was recommended by a committee of which he was a member. That study was the world’s first household fertility and family planning survey and was the direct ancestor of the global programs of such surveys in the later decades of the century.

During the 1930s Notestein, together with Regine Stix, analyzed information from interviews in 1932–4 of women who had attended a Margaret Sanger family planning clinic in 1931–2. Three conclusions were to be taught to all who passed through OPR. The first was that deliberate fertility control completely explained the fertility transition and that it did not have biological origins. The second was that ‘New patterns of living and new values brought growing interest in family limitation that spread the use of known methods and stimulated the development of new ones. In a real sense, modern birth control is as much the result of new interest in family limitation as its cause’ Stix and Notestein (1940, p. 150). The third conclusion, deriving from the discovery that most of these women (predominantly Jewish refugees from Europe) had earlier employed coitus interruptus (withdrawal) to limit fertility, was that all societies at all times could have reduced family size if the socioeconomic and cultural circumstances had made this desirable.

Notestein’s name is most strongly linked with demographic transition theory, which is as important an intellectual framework in modern demography as evolution is in biology. In its simplest sense, namely, as societies evolve and become richer, mortality falls, to be followed later by a decline in fertility, the concept existed all through the twentieth century. Notestein taught demographic change within such a framework from the inception of his OPR course. His Cornell supervisor, Willcox, had published a paper drawing these conclusions in 1916, and Warren Thompson had divided the process into analytical stages in 1929. Notestein’s and OPR’s contributions were to identify the conditions of fertility decline, the role of contraception, the great spurt of population growth which occurred before the transition was over, and the spread of the phenomenon. This was greatly facilitated by the sponsorship of four major studies of demographic change in Europe at OPR by a division of the League of Nations transferred from Geneva to Princeton for the duration of World War II, and subsequent funding by the Carnegie Foundation through MMF. This work was published in the period 1944–6, but by February 1943 Notestein was reporting to a meeting of the American Philosophical Society the nature of the ‘vital revolution,’ the growth of population because of the ‘lagging transition in growth rates,’ the spread of this revolution to Southern and Eastern Europe, and the fact that mortality was already declining in agrarian Asia portending rapid population growth there.

The globalization of demographic theory was permitted by the funding in 1943 by the Geographer of the US Department of State of studies of population change in India (now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) and Japan. Later studies were to cover Formosa (now Taiwan), Malaya (now Malaysia), and Lebanon. Notestein’s interest in Asia had been whetted by his part in funding and analyzing the population segment of John Lossing Buck’s land utilization survey carried out in China in 1929–31. His conviction that the colonial world would face mounting population growth in the postwar period had been strengthened by the Annual Conference of the Milbank Memorial Fund in Princeton in early 1944 where OPR researchers gave papers on rapid population growth in India, Japan, and Egypt, and agreed that global demographic transition was underway. This led to his paper, ‘Population – the long view’ (1945), presented to a 1944 conference of food specialists at the University of Chicago, and a 1952 address to a conference of agricultural economists, ‘Economic problems of population change’ (1953). With these two papers the theory was complete. Notestein maintained that fertility declined first in the urban populations of industrialized societies because of the development there of conditions that eroded the traditional family and ascribed status, favoring instead individualism and self-advancement. The decline was retarded because of the slow erosion of ancient institutions and beliefs which had been required to encourage the high fertility necessary to offset the high mortality of premodern times.

But Notestein was already entering a new stage in his life. He and other OPR researchers had recorded that European fertility had begun to fall centuries after mortality did so, with the result that population of European extraction increased sevenfold. This seemed to be an impossible scenario for agrarian Asia and suggested that mortality decline there might meet a Malthusian barrier strangling both the mortality transition and hopes for rising living standards. Already in ‘Population—the long view’ (1945, p. 52) he had raised the possibility that Asian population growth might be held to doubling by ‘wise and vigorous leadership’ and ‘studied efforts … to induce declining fertility.’ By 1952, in ‘Economic problems of population change’ (1953, p. 28), his position was that ‘It is within the bounds of possibility that the wise use of modern methods of communication and training to promote higher age at marriage and the practice of birth control would bring a considerable reduction of the birth rate even in peasant societies.’ Birth control interventions were increasingly attempted, many with the assistance of the Population Council during Notestein’s presidency. Fertility in most of the developing world has since declined, earlier than the OPR researchers of the 1940s thought likely, but neither Notestein nor others at OPR incorporated the new vital revolution into a revised demographic transition theory. Perhaps Notestein’s stature and influence rested most on the extraordinary extent to which most of his colleagues and students retained the consensus which had been reached in OPR during the 1940s and which he expressed so well.

3. Revisionists

The movement of Notestein and others toward being more involved in policy formulation and less the detached intellectual observer disquieted parts of the academic demography community. Dennis Hodgson (1983, pp. 2–3) saw this change as being unfortunate, from the scientific point of view, arguing that ‘There is a tendency … for crisis research to be policy research rather than to be strictly academic in nature.’ He contrasted this with an earlier, perhaps happier period, when ‘Understanding, not change, was the goal.’ Simon Szreter (1993) went much further and attributed the changes in Notestein’s and his colleagues’ interpretations and attitudes to demographic change to their appreciation of the USA’s strategic interests during the Cold War period.

Hodgson’s criticism probably would not have worried Notestein. He had always held that the overriding purpose of research was to help the human race, writing in his last published article that he was ‘both a foundation and university man,’ which he did not find incompatible, because most social scientists are ‘reformers who are basically interested in the interplay of evolving technology, socioeconomic institutions, and population change as major determinants of the human condition’ (Notestein 1982, pp. 651–87). He had never ruled out policy interventions but regarded them as not only desirable but even to be expected, not only on the mortality side of demographic transition but also on its fertility side. He regarded them as social experiments worth undertaking and studying. His concluding chapter to Stix and Notestein (1940, pp. 150ff) referred to the need to do something about the high fertility, poverty, and human suffering of half the world, and then discussed possible family planning interventions in distressed areas of the USA. His acceptance of assistance from the League of Nations, the Department of State, the World Bank, and others shows his determination to fund OPR adequately to investigate to its fullest the demographic transition as it had occurred in Western European populations and as it moved around the world. Indeed, if he had not done so, we would have heard little of him or of OPR. Even his later papers place less emphasis on saving the world than on giving priority to demographic research and its funding. The charge that Notestein gave priority to Asia because it was the prime area of American strategic interest, especially as China became communist (Szreter 1993, pp. 675–80), overlooks the fact that Notestein regarded Asia as the main continent facing potential Malthusian pressures throughout his academic life.

Frank Notestein died at 80 years of age, of complications arising from emphysema, on 18 February, 1983 in retirement at Newton, Pennsylvania, only a short drive from Princeton.


  1. Caldwell J, Caldwell P 1986 Limiting Population Growth, and the Ford Foundation Contribution. F Pinter, London
  2. Carr-Saunders A M 1936 World Population: Past Growth and Present Trends. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  3. Coale A J 1979 Notestein, Frank W. In: Sills D L (ed.) International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences: Bibliographical Supplement. Free Press, New York
  4. Himes N E 1936 Medical History of Contraception. Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, MD
  5. Hodgson D 1983 Demography as a social science and policy science. Population and Development Review 9: 1–34
  6. Notestein F W 1938 A demographic study of 38,256 rural families in China. Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly 16: 57–79
  7. Notestein F W 1943 Some implications of population change for post-war Europe. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 87: 165–74
  8. Notestein F W 1945 Population—The long view. In: Schultz T W (ed.) Food for the World. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, pp. 36–57
  9. Notestein F W 1953 Economic problems of population change. In: Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference of Agricultural Economists. Oxford University Press, London, pp. 13–31
  10. Notestein F W 1982 Demography in the United States: A partial account of the development of the field. Population and Development Review 8: 651–87
  11. Ryder N B 1984 Frank Wallace Notestein (1902–1983). Population Studies 38: 5–20
  12. Stix R K, Notestein F W 1940 Controlled Fertility: An Evaluation of Clinic Service. Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, MD
  13. Sydenstricker E, Notestein F W 1930 Differential fertility according to social class. Journal of the American Statistical Association 25 (169): 9–32
  14. Szreter S 1993 The idea of demographic transition and the study of fertility change: A critical intellectual history. Population and Development Review 19: 659–701
  15. Thompson W S 1929 Population. American Journal of Sociology 34: 959–75
  16. Willcox W 1916 The nature and significance of the changes in the birth and death rates in recent years. Journal of the American Statistical Association 15 (113): 1–15


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