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John Charles (Jack) Caldwell (1928–2016)

by Bob Douglas, Terry Hull and Peter McDonald

John Caldwell, c.1980s

John Caldwell, c.1980s

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-180

John (Jack) Charles Caldwell, who died aged 87, was one of The Australian National University’s international treasures. A 2009 survey of nearly 1,000 demographers worldwide named him the most influential researcher of all time in the demographic field. Caldwell shared most of his research career with his anthropologist wife of 60 years, Rosie (Pat) Caldwell. Together they were a formidable team. Pat’s death in 2008 had a great effect upon Jack. Caldwell was the author of 25 books, 128 book chapters and 139 journal articles.

Caldwell’s seminal work included documentation of the role of mothers’ education in fertility limitation and child mortality decline, and the role of circumcision in inhibiting the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. He is particularly noted for his ‘wealth flows’ theory, which relates demographic transition theory to changes in intergenerational transfers within the family. Caldwell received recognition both at home and overseas. In 1985, the Population Association of America presented him with its highest prize, the Irene Taeuber Award for excellence in demographic research. In 1994, he began an elected four-year term as President of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, the peak international body for demography, and in 2004 he was presented with the United Nations Population Award. These are the three highest international honours in the field of demography and no other person has won all three of these awards. He was made an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia in 1994 and received the Australian Centenary Medal in 2001.

Jack Caldwell was born in the suburb of Canterbury, Sydney. His father was a schoolmaster and when Jack was nine years old the family relocated to Canberra, where his father became the first language master of Canberra High School, and Jack obtained his NSW Education Department Leaving Certificate. His tertiary education took him to Sydney University, Sydney Teachers College, the University of New England and The Australian National University (ANU) where he gained his PhD in 1961. He was awarded Honorary Doctor of Science degrees by the University of Southampton and ANU.

For many years he taught in a primary school in Nabiac on the NSW Mid North Coast and on his return to Canberra in 1953 he taught at Telopea Park High School while undertaking his academic qualifications as an external student.

Caldwell’s first academic appointment was at the University of Ghana (1962–64). This early experience began a lifelong interest in Africa and produced his first two books, being the products of surveys carried out on migration and family life in Ghana. He was appointed in 1964 as a staff member of the Department of Demography at ANU, and took leave from that post to work with the Population Council in New York in 1968 and with the University of Ife, Nigeria, in 1969. The family returned to Australia in 1970 where Jack took up the Headship of the Department of Demography at ANU, a position he would hold until 1988. In 1970, he initiated the first major Australian sample survey of marriage, fertility and contraception, tested in Queanbeyan, and carried out in Melbourne. During the 1970s, he developed a close working relationship with Lado Ruzicka, which was to continue for the rest of their careers.

Also in the 1970s, the Caldwells co-directed the Changing African Family Project. This program of work used demographic and anthropological approaches to understand the nature and trends of fertility and mortality shaping the many unique family systems across the continent. His speculations on intergenerational flows of wealth and obligations fuelled debate about the likelihood of fertility decline at a time when the Western world was investing heavily in family planning programs. His conclusion that fertility decline would be a long and slow process in Sub-Saharan Africa has been borne out by history.

Caldwell believed deeply that researchers could not gain a good understanding of demographic phenomena without being steeped in the cultures to which the behaviour applied. He practised this himself in what he called micro-demography (or anthropological demography), where the researcher meets face-to-face with the subjects of the research in their own environment. His belief was that this experience should inform quantitative surveys, leading to the development of theoretical modelling, which was also underpinned by the experience to be gained from the historical record in the Western world.

From 1977, the Caldwells’ research attention shifted to South Asia (India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh), where he fine-tuned the micro-approach working with South Asian scholars. Visitors and students flocked to the ANU to learn about ‘Caldwellian methods’.

As Head of ANU Demography, he attracted numerous PhD students, from Australia, from other developed countries and, most importantly, from developing countries. He was then highly influential in furthering the careers of the department’s PhD graduates, often ensuring that they occupied positions where they could be exponents of micro-demography.

He was an incredibly generous leader and teacher, encouraging all staff and students to develop their own interests and produce their own publications.

Caldwell played a pivotal role in the 1970s in the development of the World Fertility Survey (WFS), and he continued to contribute to the WFS as a member of its Technical Committee. As Head of Demography at ANU, he was instrumental in the creation of the International Population Dynamics Program and the master’s degree in demography.

Caldwell stepped away from the Demography Department at the end of 1988, but he had by no means finished his work. Having worked for many years on the theory of the demographic transition that had firmly shaped international studies of human population change, he saw that there was great opportunity to marry the theories of demography with the developing research findings on morbidity and mortality. The Rockefeller Foundation provided Caldwell with initial funding for the establishment of a Health Transition Centre, to explore the cultural and social determinants of health. This centre was housed in the newly developed National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health (NCEPH) in 1988, for which he was the first Acting Director. As the enormity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic became clear in the late 1980s, Caldwell applied his knowledge of African family systems to understand what he termed ‘sexual networking’. The Swedish Agency for Research Cooperation with Developing Countries supported research collaboration with academics in Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria into the social and behavioural context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

An international conference entitled ‘The Continuing Demographic Transition’ was held in 1996 to mark Jack’s retirement. Colleagues from around the world who had been influenced by him came to Canberra to honour him. Oxford University Press published a volume that drew together many of the threads of his many academic contributions. An endowment was established at ANU in 1998 to honour Jack’s lifetime work. It has supported collaborations between demography and epidemiology at the ANU, and has funded visits by outstanding African population researchers to the ANU as JC Caldwell Fellows. Subsequent to retirement, Jack returned to the ANU Demography Program as an Emeritus Professor.

Jack was a humble and unassuming man with an adventurous mind and an abiding commitment to a better understanding of human behaviour. He is survived by four sons, Peter, Colin, Grahame and Bruce, six grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

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Citation details

Bob Douglas, Terry Hull and Peter McDonald, 'Caldwell, John Charles (Jack) (1928–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

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