March 30, 2023 | News | Symposium

“Model simple, think complex” - A Symposium in Honor of James W. Vaupel

© MPIDR/Wilhelm

On the occasion of the first anniversary of his sudden passing away, the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) honored its Founding Director with a one-day symposium on March 27, 2023 showcasing James W. Vaupel's groundbreaking contributions to the field of demography.

At the MPIDR, we were specifically interested in his scientific legacy as it is revealed by the exciting work that is happening in the inter-discipline of demography now and that builds on the methods, theories and models developed by Vaupel throughout his career.

Managing Director Emilio Zagheni welcomes the guests. © MPIDR/Wilhelm

Sunbeams lit up the auditorium at the MPIDR as Directors Mikko Myrskylä and Emilio Zagheni welcomed nearly 100 guests on site and another 50 participants to the livestream. They agreed that Founding Director James W. Vaupel was not only an inspiring scientist, a charismatic leader, and an institution builder, but also a great lover of the arts. His wife Bodil Vaupel, an architect, acoustician, and painter, had sent some of her paintings of her husband to the MPIDR for a small commemorative exhibit during the symposium.

Bodil Vaupel's paintings. © MPIDR/Wilhelm

In the first session, Karl Ulrich Mayer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin recalled the founding of the Institute between spring 1993 and fall 1995. 30 years ago, the Max Planck Society (MPS) announced an ideas competition for the founding of new Max Planck Institutes in East Germany.

Karl Ulrich Mayer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development recalled the founding of the MPIDR. © MPIDR/Wilhelm

Karl Ulrich Mayer's proposal to found a demographic institute was accepted by a large majority of the MPS Senate in spring 1994. A few months later, in the summer of 1994, the MPS received a fax from James W. Vaupel, in which he outlined on one page his vision for such an institute. After several committee meetings and an evaluation of Vaupel's scientific career, it was decided on November 17, 1995, to establish the MPIDR under the leadership of the Founding Director, James W. Vaupel.

John Wilmoth, Director of the United Nations Population Division reconstructed the founding of the Human Mortality Database. © MPIDR/Wilhelm

John Wilmoth, Director of the United Nations Population Division in New York, expanded on the symposium's motto of "model simple, think complex" to include the call to "use data" and reconstructed the 2002 creation of the Human Mortality Database (HMD) under Vaupel's leadership, which grew out of the Kannisto-Thatcher Database on Old Age Mortality and the Berkeley Mortality Database.

C. Jessica E. Metcalf (Princeton University) presented her research in biodemography. © MPIDR/Wilhelm

C. Jessica E. Metcalf is now an Associate Professor at Princeton University and was a Researcher at the MPIDR in the 2000s. She presented her research in biodemography. Using models she learned about at the MPIDR, she hopes to find out why 80 percent of autoimmune patients are women, for example.

Vladimir Canudas-Romo (Australian National University) searched for age-specific sex ratios. © MPIDR/Wilhelm

Next, Vladimir Canudas-Romo of the Australian National University, also working at the MPIDR in the 2000s, used a bouquet of mathematical formulas to search for age-specific sex ratios of men and women at birth, in survival, and mortality.

Alyson van Raalte (MPIDR) pointed out how much she was inspired by James Vaupel. © MPIDR/Wilhelm

In the final talk of the day, Alyson van Raalte summarized her time so far as a researcher in the area of lifespan inequalities at the MPIDR and emphasized how much she was inspired and mentored by James Vaupel.

On the occasion of the symposium a seminar room at the MPIDR was renamed in honor of James W. Vaupel. © MPIDR/Wilhelm

The symposium highlighted how alive James W. Vaupel's legacy is in the work of so many demographers worldwide. Of course, the MPIDR will also keep its Founding Director in living memory. To conclude the symposium, Emilio Zagheni announced that a seminar room at the MPIDR is now named after James W. Vaupel. “The symposium was a wonderful mix of science, memories and emotions”, said Mikko Myrskylä, summing up the event.


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The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.