John E. Knodel died on January 10, 2024, in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the age of 83. He had joined the IUSSP in 1968 and participated in many of IUSSP’s actvities and numerous International Population Conferences. He was a member of two IUSSP committees - the Committee on Comparative Analysis of Fertility and Family Planning (1981-1985) and the Committee on Historical Demography (1987-1990) - and more recently, when IUSSP launched the weekly news magazine N-IUSSP, John volunteered to serve on its Editorial Committee.
John was born on July 25, 1940, in Mt. Vernon, New York, to Henry and Edna Knodel. John had one sibling, Richie, who died in 2005. John’s first marriage, to Erica Wessling, ended in divorce in 1984. John was married to his second wife, Chanpen Saengtienchai, from 1992 until his death. John had no children.
When John was about 10 years old, the Knodel family embarked on a European vacation. Connecting with their German roots was a central focus. The trip ignited John’s lifelong passions for Germany and for what he would later come to know as historical demography. These early enthusiasms were fueled by his undergraduate experience at Duke University, where he was more formally introduced to the discipline of demography. He graduated in 1961 Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude with a degree in psychology.
John earned his Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University in 1965 (at 25 years of age). He worked closely with Dr. Ansley Coale on the demographic history of Europe. Following his graduation from Princeton, John pursued a one-year post-doctoral fellowship at Free University, Berlin, immersing himself in the literature and data relevant to the decline of European fertility during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. This research resulted in the publication of two classics in the field of historical demography: The Decline of Fertility in Germany, 1871-1939 (1974) and Demographic Behavior in the Past: A Study of Fourteen German Village Populations in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1988). Evoking that summer vacation as a 10-year-old boy, John dedicated his first book to Henry and Edna: “For my parents, to whom I owe my interest in Germany”.
Upon his return from Germany, John accepted an invitation to join the sociology faculty at Rutgers University and renewed his association with Princeton as a Research Scientist in the Office of Population Research. He continued his studies of historical European fertility but around this time he was introduced to a different part of the world that altered his academic path and shaped the rest of his life. In 1971, the Population Council and the Institute of Population Studies at Chulalongkorn University offered John a position in Bangkok. We have never heard a compelling explanation of why he accepted the offer and made such an abrupt shift in his research. We do know that after his first visit, he was hooked. John quickly became one of the foremost experts on the demography of Southeast Asia (especially Thailand) - a region that was experiencing in real time some of the same seismic shifts in fertility that Europe had undergone hundreds of years earlier and that John had studied so masterfully. John’s substantive interests also rapidly expanded from fertility to include mortality; migration; intergenerational relations; aging; the interactions between the HIV epidemic and demographic processes; education; and research methods.
After two years with the Population Council in Thailand, John spent a year at Brown University before joining the Sociology Department and the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, where he remained from 1975 to 2004 as regular faculty and afterwards as emeritus until his death. During this extremely productive period of his career, John solidified his relationships with his collaborators and with the major institutions focusing on demographic change in Southeast Asia, especially the College of Population Studies at Chulalongkorn University. He also pioneered research on demographic change (and many related topics) in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar, and created many opportunities for his U.S.-based colleagues and students in these difficult-to-access countries. Influential books from this period include Fertility in Thailand: Trends, Differentials and Proximate Determinants (1982) and Thailand’s Reproductive Revolution: Rapid Fertility Decline in a Third World Setting (1987), co-authored with Thai colleagues Aphichat Chamratrithirong and Nibhon Debavalya.
Major recognition for John’s scholarship, teaching, and institution building includes the LS&A Excellence in Education Award from the University of Michigan; an honorary doctoral degree from Chulalongkorn University; election as Vice President of the PAA; and being named an Honored Member of the PAA.
Following John’s formal retirement in 2004, he remained deeply engaged in research, mentoring, and institution building. John maintained an active affiliation with the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan and with the College of Population Studies, Chulalongkorn University. John and his wife - and decades-long collaborator, Chanpen Saengtienchai – continued their long-established yearly migration between Ann Arbor and Bangkok (and the nearby beach town of Hua Hin, where they kept a condo for what John would call “weekend getaways” but the rest of us would refer to as “short work trips.”). John so loved his Michigan and Thailand friends and colleagues that he could never imagine permanently decamping for one location or the other.
Perhaps John’s most enduring legacy is his mentorship and his commitment to institution building, especially in low resource settings. John was especially generous to students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty, including several he mentored from the University of Michigan and from many other U.S. based institutions. He frequently collaborated with scholars from other countries. A comprehensive list of students and junior colleagues John mentored from Southeast Asia would be vast. Many joined John as co-author on one or more of his multitudinous publications (see: John Knodel CV). In addition to the institutions noted above, his formal collaborative relationships included numerous national, regional, and international organizations and universities. Examples include:
- Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, Thailand
- Faculty of Nursing, Chulalongkorn University
- Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore
- Department of International Health and Development, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Tulane University
- Department of Sociology and Institute of Public and International Affairs, University of Utah
- Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Pennsylvania State University
- Department of Sociology, University of Montana
- School of Demography, Australian National University
- The Population Council
- HelpAge International
- Social Statistics Division, National Statistical Office, Thailand
- Research Center, National Institute of Development Administration, Thailand
- Faculty of Public Health, Khon Kaen University, Thailand
- Institute of Sociology, Vietnam Academy of Social Science, Hanoi, Vietnam
- Institute of Economic Research, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
- Division of Population and Labor Statistics, General Statistical Office, Hanoi, Vietnam
- Department of Sociology, Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), Analyzing Development Issues (ADI) Project, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
John’s passions extended beyond population studies. A dedicated vegetarian for decades, John was an articulate advocate for the humane treatment of animals. John loved many genres of music but was especially passionate – and knowledgeable - about bluegrass. He was an exceptionally good clogger. John loved language. He enjoyed pushing himself to better understand Thai language and customs throughout the five decades he spent working in Thailand. John loved social interaction and lively conversation, especially after a hard day’s work, and especially if it involved beer – perhaps because it reminded him of his grandfather Knodel’s brewery in New York before Prohibition in the 1920s. Most of all, John loved Chanpen: collaborator, confidant, North Star, best friend, and love of his life.
To learn more about John’s contributions to demography, please visit his “Honored Member” page on the PAA website.
Based on the obituary written by Bussarawan (Puk) Teerawichitchainan and Mark VanLandingham.