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IUSSP Laureate 1998. Samuel H. Preston

Speech by Jacques Vallin at the Award Ceremony, New York, March 21 1999




On behalf of the council of the IUSSP and in place of its President Jose Alberto Magno de Carvalho, who, unfortunately, was not able to come, I have the great honour and the great pleasure, Sam, to present you the IUSSP award for the year 1998.


I am sorry, it is not the Nobel Prize… (There is no Nobel Prize in Demography!) ...But, year after year, since 1991, it has become more and more a solid and regular tradition for the union to honour a prominent actor in the field of population studies. Thus, you are the 8th, after Louis Henry, Nora Federici, Tony Wrigley, Nafis Sadik, Jorge Somoza, William Borrie and, last year, Nathan Keyfitz. The 8th, and I hope, not the last, and certainly not the least!


Entering this prestigious list of venerable fathers and mothers of contemporary population science, you, immediately, provoke two major events: first, you make younger the mean age of entry to the laureate population, second, you contribute a lot to the prestige of the institution. Let me say two words on the first and a little bit more on the second.


It is true, Sam, that you are terribly young! Do you know that the mean age of entry of your 7 predecessors was 72,29 years? If I say that, including you, this mean age falls to 69.87, I am sure that everybody here can immediately conclude that you are almost 20 years below the mean age at IUSSP awards! But I am even more sure that no one thinks that it is too soon! As El Cid said in the famous Corneille tragedy « Aux âmes bien nées, la valeur n’attend pas le nombre des années » (« to well born souls, value doesn’t depend on the number of years »). And I am sure that everybody thinks with me that the choice of the Council was the best that we could imagine. Indeed, I can say that the Council was not only unanimous but really an enthusiastic one.


In his short statement proposing your name to the Council, Herbert Smith wrote that « for the past quarter century Sam Preston has been one of America’s leading demographers: now, at century’s end, he is widely recognised as the pre-eminent American demographer ». Is this unfair for the other American demographers? Does anybody contest it? No? …Well, I can contest it. It is not fair for you, Sam, to limit your « aura » to America. Your audience and your influence on demographic research go all around the world, far from America’s boundaries. And it is true that, for the international scientific community, you are and you will stay for a long time, a great name in demography.


Your career is so dense, so diversified, so brilliant that it is quite impossible to summarise everything in a few minutes. It is the reason why I shall only point out three of your numerous talents.


I. After studying demography with Ansley Coale and getting your Ph.D. in economics at Princeton university, you first taught at the Department of Demography of the Californian university at Berkeley, then at the Department of Sociology of the university of Washington at Seattle, and, finally, after spending two years to serve at the u.N, you joined the university of Pennsylvania. Fortunate university! They gained a lot when they attracted you there! And they were even more lucky keeping you for twenty years, till now!


The first time I met you was in Bangkok, in 1975, at a CICRED meeting organised by Jean Bourgeois-Pichat on the links between infant mortality and fertility. You were the Rapporteur General and I was very impressed! And, a very short time later, you edited such nice proceedings!


We also met, in the late seventies, in a panel on data collection at the National Academy of Science, chaired by Bill Seltzer and, again, I was very impressed by your contribution to the work of a group. Then we spent four years together on the IUSSP committee on mortality, chaired by John Pollard, and again, I got the opportunity to appreciate how much you surpassed each of us in cleverness and efficiency. After the memorable Fiuggi meeting in Italy, once more you demonstrated your talent for making a wonderful book from a basket of papers which were not always very exciting, when publishing « Biological and Social Aspects of Mortality ».


But you have not only edited books. You also produced your own. From the well known « Mortality Patterns in National Population » to the wonderful « Fatal years », there were, among others, « Patterns of urban and Rural Population growth » as well as « Population growth and economic development ». And you are soon publishing a new manual of demographic analysis, which many of us are waiting for. Certainly, you occupy a large space, not only on the shelves of our libraries, but also in our minds.


I don’t know how many papers you published in how many journals, but what I know is that your contribution to scientific literature is prominent. It is very rare to read any article without seeing some reference to your work. In the field of mortality, it is quite impossible, but even on many other topics like ageing, marriage, divorce, differential fertility, occupational mobility, population growth, historical demography, population models, etc., etc.,… it is rather difficult to avoid your name in a bibliography.


Obviously, the number of your Publicationsis not the only reason for such a success, not even the main one. The first one is of course that, through your works and writings, demography made important progress. I only quote here one example: the generalisation of Lotka’s theory of stable populations to every population among which we are actually living. And what is more remarkable is that, after discovering the way to do that you simply conclude « This set of relations is known in demography for particular instances, and the basic equation in differential form is familiar in mathematical biology and actuarial work, but the full (through simple) generalisation seems to have escaped attention ». As if you were sorry to discover it before others! This modesty is nothing else than the mark of the greatest scientists. But the second reason is, as Herbert Smith wrote: « readers of Sam Preston’s work, even the most technical of papers, are abetted by a masterful prose style that reflects his cogent mind at work », as I’d like to say in French « la clarté de l’écriture révèle la rigueur de la pensée ». Even I, with my poor knowledge of your mother tongue, I can recognise this part of your scientific talent.


II. And it is obviously linked to your second great talent: teaching. First of all, it must be said, all this scientific work never prevented you from serving permanently as a full-time professor. I did not have the chance to be your student but I can imagine the fascination of those who learned demography with you and I have many proofs of that through what is said by so many good and brilliant researchers who had the chance to follow your courses. For numerous cohorts of nowadays demographers you really were a « master » in the sense that you gave them not only techniques, methods, formulas, but also the means to make sense to their work and a passion for scientific approach. How many Ph.D. dissertations did you supervise? I was told 70, only since you are at Penn! And 42 as president! And each time you gave the student, time, guidance, advice, and, furthermore, you communicated to a lot of them your own passion for training and research. One of them, who is now our Secretary General, would like to tell you some words on the topic… later.


III. But that’s not all. You have a third great talent of which I want to speak: your capacity to deal with administrative affairs. It is the reason why after directing for many years not only the famous Population Studies Center of the Penn university but also the Department of Sociology, you are now the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. A very huge responsibility. So huge that it made my friend étienne van de Walle tell me that it is a « catastrophe majeure pour la science, car cela l’absorbe entièrement » (a major catastrophe for science, because the task is entirely absorbing you!)


I don’t think so. First, it is not entirely true, since not only you were there, attending the PAA meeting, but you brought with you a paper on mortality at old ages, which contributed a lot to the interest of the session 110 just this afternoon. But, second, I think that your work at this level will be productive too. It will contribute a lot to promote the science of the next century because the students of today are the scientists of tomorrow and I am sure that under your leadership, the Penn School of Arts and Sciences will train even more marvellous future scientists.


For all these talents, Sam, and for many others, you get full recognition, not only from the scientific community but also from the PUBLIC policy makers. Your advice is appreciated by the uS Government on many topics, from census organisation to social security reform, and by the international agencies as well. But over all the most important scientific institutions are proud to have you among their members.


Of course, you are member of many scientific associations. Not only the IUSSP (where you served formerly as a Council member) and the PAA (of which you were the President 15 years ago), but also the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, the American Statistical association, etc, etc.…


But over all you have been elected member of such venerable institutions as: the Institute of Medicine, the American Philosophy Society, and the most prestigious of all, you have been elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Science. Obviously, in comparison with all these honours, the modest IUSSP medal is nothing but a pale award.


However, I am very happy to have, today, the opportunity to give it to you. You did a lot for the union, of which you always were an active member either serving on scientific committees or being a member of the council. Today, with the medal, you, the specialist of the cross over mortality, you cross over the curve of your own IUSSP story. I am very happy, in complete agreement with Herbert Smith’s words when he noted that you are « terribly fitting as the IUSSP’s 1998 Laureate ».


And I hope that you will accept the medal as a symbol of all IUSSP’s recognition of your enormous scientific work, your brilliant personality, and your prominent role in the promotion of population sciences.