Notestein, Frank W.

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Frank Notestein was born in Alma, Michigan, the son of the Dean of Alma College. He attended Wooster College in Ohio, graduating with a degree in economics. He received a Ph.D. in social statistics from Cornell University in 1927, where he was a student of Walter Willcox, one of America's leading demographers. After a brief stint in Europe studying occupational mortality, Notestein took a position as a research associate at the Milbank Memorial Fund in 1928. The Fund, formerly interested primarily in public health issues, was expanding its focus to general population concerns, especially fertility trends. Notestein spent his eight years at the Fund studying class differences in fertility and the role played by birth control in inducing fertility decline. He was present at the establishment of the Population Association of America in 1931, being one of its charter members. His research on birth control culminated in the publication of Controlled Fertility (1940), coauthored with Regine Stix, which concluded that fertility declined when the motivation to have children underwent a change. They found that an increased desire for small families stimulated the desire for more contraceptive use and better contraceptives, not the reverse.

In 1936 Frederick Osborn, convinced of the need for a formal training center in demography, persuaded Albert G. Milbank to fund the establishment of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University. Notestein became the director of this first center at a major U.S. university offering graduate training in demography. His recruitment of Irene Taeuber, Frank Lorimer, Dudley Kirk, Kingsley Davis, Ansley Coale, Wilbert Moore, John Hajnal, Robert Potter, and Charles Westoff over the early years as staff members or associates provided demography with an entree into the academy that helped establish it as an accepted academic discipline. Notestein's initial research agenda at Princeton was the study of Europe's interwar population trends, undertaken at the request of the League of Nations–later extended, at the instigation of the State Department, to Asia. In the course of projecting future European demographic trends, the Princeton demographers observed that the population dynamics of Eastern and Southern Europe were similar to those of Western and Northern Europe at an earlier time, and Notestein argued that a "vital revolution" was sweeping Europe. (Adolphe Landry had earlier used essentially the same term.) In 1945 Notestein made this revolution worldwide in his classic elaboration of transition theory, "Population: the long view." "High growth potential" populations would become "transition growth" ones as modernization began to affect their fertility. When industrialization and urbanization became commonplace fertility would reach low levels and the population would enter into the stage of "incipient decline." At the time Notestein clearly foresaw the possibility that not all "high growth potential" populations would experience the entire vital revolution, especially those under colonial domination. Many of these populations were experiencing public health advances and improved agricultural productivity that lowered their mortality, but not the urbanization and industrialization that would lower their fertility. Notestein suggested that their period of population expansion could end in catastrophes and increased mortality. He directed his scholarly and practical energies over the rest of his career to preventing such an eventuality.

Partly at Notestein's initiative, one of the early offices established by the United Nations Secretariat, in 1946, was a Population Division, and he became its first director. He set the division on the path of objective, informed documentation and analysis of demographic trends that it has subsequently followed.

In 1948 John D. Rockefeller 3rd invited Notestein to be part of a four-person team to travel to six East Asian countries and appraise their population problems. The team reported that birth rates were "resistant to change" and were producing a situation where the gains in production were being consumed by increasing numbers. Although the political sensitivities surrounding the birth control issue prevented the conservative Rockefeller Foundation from acting on this report at the time, it induced Rockefeller to sponsor a conference on population problems in 1952 that resulted in the establishment of the Population Council. Notestein was one of the original four trustees of this unique non-profit organization focused on population issues, and became its third president in 1959. Under Notestein's leadership the Council conducted biomedical and demographic research and sponsored graduate training in these fields; it also became the key organization offering technical assistance to developing countries wishing to establish family planning programs well before the United States and the United Nations began offering such assistance. He retired in 1968.

A bibliography of Notestein's writings appears in Population Index, 49 (Spring 1983), pp. 7–12.

See also: Demographic Transition; Demography, History of; Population Thought, Contemporary.


selected works by frank w. notestein.

Notestein, Frank W. 1936. "Class Differences in Fertility." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 188: 26–36.

——. 1943. "Some Implications of Population Change for Post-War Europe." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 87, no. 2 (August): 165–174.

——. 1945. "Population–The Long View," In Food for the World, ed. Theodore W. Schultz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

——. 1964. "Population Growth and Economic Development." Colombo. Reprinted in Population and Development Review 9 (1983): 345–360.

——. 1967. "The Population Crisis: Reasons for Hope." Foreign Affairs 46(1): 167–180.

——. 1982. "Demography in the United States: A Partial Account of the Development of the Field." Population and Development Review 8: 651–687.

Stix, Regine K., and Frank W. Notestein. 1940. Controlled Fertility: An Evaluation of Clinic Service. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

selected works about frank w. notestein.

Coale, Ansley J. 1979. "Notestein, Frank W." In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences:Biographical Supplement, ed. David L. Sills. New York: Free Press. Reprinted in Population Index 49(1), 1983.

Ryder, Norman B. 1984. "Obituary: Frank Notestein (1902–1983)." Population Studies 38(1): 5–20.

Dennis Hodgson