It’s with great sadness that the IUSSP shares that Dr. Joseph E. Potter passed away on May 13th. 

Joe joined the IUSSP in 1976, attending numerous International Population Conferences including those in Beijing, Salvador de Bahia, Tours, Busan and Cape Town. His impact on the IUSSP is also keenly felt in his legacy: two of his former students just won early career awards (Amanda Stevenson and Raquel Zanatta Coutinho) and two of his former students are currently IUSSP Council members (Irene Casique and Ann Moore). 

Joe’s contributions have unfolded in two distinct stages: a first that spanned several decades of research in Latin America motivated by concerns about population and development; and a second during the past two decades on sexual and reproductive health in the United States, with particular foci on contraception and abortion. During the first stage that began in the late 1970s and extended through the 1990s, Joe worked closely with leading demographers in Mexico and Brazil on understanding the causes and consequences of the fertility declines in both countries and throughout the Latin American region. During those decades, Latin American governments were wrestling with the question of how much to invest in the expansion of publicly financed family planning services. At issue was the larger policy question of how population growth was affecting social and economic development. In the early 1990s, he led an interdisciplinary project with support from The Hewlett Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation on the Social Impact of TV and Telenovela on Brazilian Fertility that involved two departments at The University of Texas in Austin (Population Research Center and Radio-TV-Film) and three institutions in Brazil: CEBRAP, University of São Paulo (Communication), and the Federal University of Minas Gerais (CEDEPLAR). After a project meeting in Austin, screenwriter Walther Negrão honored Joe by creating a character called Mr. Potter for his next telenovela. This project was followed by two NICHD grants, one examining cesarean sections and sterilization in Brazil, and the other using spatial statistics and census data to analyze the relationship between fertility and development in Brazil.


In the early 2000s, Joe launched a second stage of his career with the Border Contraceptive Access Study, funded by NICHD. This innovative longitudinal study exploited the “natural experiment” that exists in El Paso, Texas where women may access the oral contraceptive pill either in pharmacies in Mexico without a prescription or through family planning clinics and private providers through prescription in El Paso. Whether oral contraception should require a physician’s prescription has been a matter of considerable policy debate in the United States for decades, both in Congress and at the FDA. In 2012 (and updated in 2019), the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued a committee opinion recommending that oral contraception should be sold over the counter in drugstores without a doctor’s prescription, drawing heavily on the findings from Joe’s study, the findings of which were published in prominent medical, public health, and demography journals.  


In 2011, Joe founded the pioneering Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP), a  comprehensive effort to document and analyze the impact of Texas state legislative measures that severely restricted on abortion access and family planning funding and access in Texas. The project has been exceptional in its contribution to policy and program deliberation, both at the state level and nationally. TxPEP research was central in the June 2016 Supreme Court ruling issued in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt that struck down abortion restrictions in Texas’ House Bill 2 (HB 2). The Court found that lower courts must weigh any potential benefits from a law with the burdens the law would impose on women, demonstrating the importance of scientific evidence of burdens. Few university-based demographers have matched Joe’s engagement during the 2010s with the public policy process. Joe led the project until 2020; he was an exemplar of a scholar who has participated in policy debates without any compromise of scientific standards.  


TxPEP became the model for a family of projects on the impact of state legislation and regulations on contraception and abortion, and the subsequent consequences for the well-being of women, children, and communities. TxPEP now has university-based analogues in a number of other states including Colorado, Ohio and Wisconsin. Each one of these projects has learned from TxPEP and received practical advice from Joe and his TxPEP colleagues; in this way, Joe’s success in designing and leading TxPEP has had substantial spillover effects beyond Texas. 


Joe has also been influential in his work around contraceptive preferences. He challenged the long-standing assumptions that a woman’s current contraceptive method is both freely chosen and preferred over all other methods. Joe and colleagues’ work in Brazil and Texas showed that asking women about their contraceptive preferences yields large discrepancies between the method they want to be using and the one they are actually using. To better capture women’s true experiences, Joe advocated for including contraceptive preference questions in nationally representative samples such as the National Survey of Family Growth and the Demographic and Health Surveys. Joe’s goal with this work was to generate policy and programmatic changes to identify and reduce barriers to care. The research Joe developed, acquired funding for, and led has adhered to the highest scientific standards. Indeed, his insistence on scientific rigor, and his impatience with research that is defective in design and/or measurement, is well-known (almost to the point of notoriety) among his colleagues and collaborators. 


Joe received his B.A. in Economics from Yale University in 1968 and then embarked on a 3-year stint in the U.S. army where, for some of his time in Panama he worked on a USAID-funded project. After the project ended, he returned to the US where he earned his MPA (which Joe jokingly referred to as the Master of Practically Anything) in 1973 at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (formerly the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs). Though he had originally intended to make a career in public policy after completing his Ph.D. program in economics, as soon as he met Dr. Ansley Coale, he knew that demography was his calling. With Dr. Coale as his mentor, Joe received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1975.


His first job as a demographer was at the Population Council-New York City. While there, he was seconded to a project headed by Carmen Miró at the Center for Studies of Demography and Urban Development at El Colegio de México, where he also taught demography courses, and then the Population Council-Mexico City. In 1983 he joined Harvard University’s School of Public Health as an Associate Professor, finally landing at The University of Texas at Austin as a full professor in 1989. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the State University of Campinas, Brazil, between 1994-1996. Joe served on numerous editorial boards, committees, and on the Board of Directors for the Population Association of America, the Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas, and the Society of Family Planning. 


During Joe’s more than three decades tenure at the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center, it became a leading institution for training several generations of Latin American demographers, with Joe mentoring many of them. His former students hold senior positions in universities and government agencies throughout the region. Among the dozens of graduate students, postdocs and colleagues Joe mentored, many have made significant contributions to the reproductive health and rights fields. Joe retired in 2022, though he continued to mentor students, attend conferences, and write academic papers in his retirement.


Joe was also an incredibly kind and generous person who cared for his students inside and outside of the classroom, including them in family Thanksgivings, catching up with them over meals at conferences, and visiting them in their home countries after they graduated–enjoying “tempero brasiliero.” He was a Buddhist and an active member of the Austin Shambhala Meditation Center.  


Joe was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2016. He was the first US patient to receive the cutting edge CAR T-Cell therapy in a clinical trial in 2020, and was judged to be cancer free thereafter. Joe passed away after a short illness while traveling in Vermont just days after attending his 60th high school reunion at the Groton School in Massachusetts.


Joe had many interests, including fly-fishing, traveling, cycling, and golf, spending time at his cabin in Montana, playing board games with his three grandchildren and attending their many performances and sporting events. He was a fun-loving friend with a social network that extended across Latin America and the United States, and will be sorely missed. Joe is survived by his wife, Dr. Patricia Stout, his daughters Susan Potter and Jennifer Potter-Miller, their mother Carmen Andreu, his son-in-law, Robert Miller, and his grandchildren, Nico, Lucia, and Olivia. We extend our sincere condolences to them. The family is planning to hold a memorial service in November in Austin to celebrate Joe’s life.