Samuel H. Preston, the Frederick J. Warren Professor of Demography in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, has been recognized as one of the world’s leading demographers. His breakthrough development of the “variable-r” method, based upon age-specific growth rates of a population, changed the way demographers examine populations. Previously, population models were limited to unchanging birth and death rates. Preston’s development of variable-r methods, in which “r” represents a population’s age-specific growth rates, provided a way for demographers to use the formulas of basic stable population theory to examine non-stable populations. He also pioneered the self-titled Preston Curve, which shows the empirical cross relationship between one’s life expectancy and one’s real per capita income.
His work has extended beyond the development of mathematical and statistical tools to applying those tools in examining population change and contributing to public policy. In the 1970s, he produced a landmark study of cigarette smoking and mortality patterns. A decade later he was the first to show that quality of life for populations differed by age group, notably, that the well-being of America’s older population was improving while that of the younger population was deteriorating. His findings were frequently cited by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in proposing increased social services for children. Preston can also be credited with debunking the belief that rapid population growth created impoverished countries.
Over the past decade, his work has focused on mortality among different populations, such as infants and children, the elderly, late nineteenth century Americans, captive animals, and soldiers in the Iraq War. His current research centers on the mortality effect of cigarette smoking in developed countries and why U.S. life expectancy remains far below other wealthy nations. Recently, he co-authored a paper on the future of American fertility.
Preston is the author or editor of more than 15 books and has published more than 140 articles on topics from mortality, health, aging, urbanization, race and ethnicity, female labor force participation, fertility, occupational mobility, marriage and divorce, and population and the environment. He currently chairs committees at the National Research Council addressed to the National Children’s Study and to international divergences in longevity. In 2006, he received the Mindel Sheps Award for Mathematical Demography and Demographic Methodology by the Population Association of America.
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