Dr. J. Richard Udry, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Maternal and Child Health and Sociology Remembered
J. Richard Udry, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Maternal and Child Health and Sociology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, passed away Sunday, July 29.
In his career of nearly fifty years in population research, Dick Udry has left an enduring legacy. Dick has been a pioneer in research integrating biological and sociological models of human behavior and a prolific research scholar in the areas of sexual behavior, women’s gender roles, and adolescent behavior and health. He has contributed enormously to the infrastructure for population research through his stewardship, professional service, and development and leadership of a major population center and a ground-breaking national survey.
Dick earned his PhD in Sociology from the University of Southern California in 1960. After a few years of teaching at Chaffey College and California State Polytechnic College, he moved in 1965 to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he assumed faculty positions in Maternal and Child Health and Sociology. He remained at UNC for the rest of his career. In 1977 he took on the directorship of the Carolina Population Center (CPC), a role he filled for an unprecedented fifteen years.
During his tenure as CPC director, he led CPC to be one of the preeminent centers for population research in the country. Dick initiated a fundamental shift in the Center’s mission from technical assistance to research. He recruited a group of Faculty Fellows whose research focused on population issues and organized the Center’s support structure to serve the research and training needs of the Fellows. He set out to build external funding for the center, winning CPC’s first P30 Population Center and training grants from NIH in 1979. He led the Center firmly towards interdisciplinary work, with a strong emphasis on integrating biological and social sciences in the examination of population issues and demographic behavior that has remained one of the Center’s hallmarks to this day.
Dick’s scientific interests in the biosocial aspects of sexual relationships and gender emerged early in his career. Although his first published paper in 1960 bore the less than scintillating title, “The Theory of Differentiated Leadership,” by 1961 he was publishing papers on “widely held beliefs about marital interaction” and “complementarity in mate selection.” By 1965 he had published work on “feminine beauty preferences” and “ideal mate images.” Soon after arriving at the University of North Carolina, he began his biosocial career in earnest. He developed a fruitful collaboration with Naomi Morris (then also at UNC) to pursue work on biological aspects of pregnancy. During three decades of work together, the pair produced 36 papers on the timing and frequency of coitus in the menstrual cycle, seasonality of coitus, conceptions and births, fecundability, pregnancy outcomes, contraception, and hormonal influences on behavior. In their most recent study together, they examined the effects of prenatal exposures to hormones on women’s gendered development, finding that levels of androgen exposure in utero were strong predictors of later gendered behaviors.
Dick’s first decades as a scholar also included work on other themes. He published papers on contraceptive use, race differences in fertility, and adolescent behavior with Karl Bauman, another frequent collaborator. He contributed to research in family planning delivery and the prevention of unwanted births. He published on marriage and marital disruption throughout his career, including many articles and three editions of his book, The Social Context of Marriage.
In 1979, Dick published an article giving the first clue to his emerging interest in adolescence: “Age at Menarche, at First Intercourse, and Age at First Pregnancy” in the Journal of Biosocial Science. Up until this point the titles of his articles had been about sexual behavior in the abstract or explicitly mentioning only marital sexual relationships. But times were changing, and scholars were taking note of high rates of sexual activity among youth. Dick realized that a biosocial approach would contribute much to understanding these patterns. He launched a series of intensive studies of adolescent sexual behavior known as ADSEX. He conducted yearly interviews with youth in Raleigh, North Carolina and Tallahassee, Florida and collected reproductive hormones to assess the interrelationship of social and biological influences on the initiation of sex and other aspects of sexual behavior. At the time, many doubted he would be able to successfully conduct these biomarker studies, but true to his legacy of innovations in study design, he proved them wrong. To replicate the cross-sectional findings regarding hormonal contributions, he initiated multi-year longitudinal studies in North Carolina, collecting weekly biospecimens on the same individuals for two years. His findings demonstrated that behavior reflected the interwoven effects of biological and social influences. These early studies explored many of the themes Dick later examined on a national level in Add Health: the influence of parents, friends, religion, intelligence, attractiveness, as well as biological maturation. He also maintained an ongoing portfolio of methodological research: how do you assess pubertal development via self-report? Why do people say they have had sex in one interview and then deny it in later ones? How accurately are teens’ reports of their friends’ sexual experience? Does interviewing teens repeatedly about their sexual experiences cause them to have sex (the answer, as published in a 1994 article in Archives of Sexual Behavior, is no). He mentored generations of new researchers, gently and not so gently shoving them out of the Population Center nest into the real world of research, program and policy.
Building on this experience, Dick worked with Ron Rindfuss, Barbara Entwisle, and Peter Bearman in the 1980s to design a national study of adolescent sexual behavior. The American Teenage Study was designed to study adolescent behavior in the social contexts that defined teenagers’ lives: their schools, peer groups, romantic relationships, families, and neighborhoods. Beginning with a nationally representative sample of schools, the study was designed to incorporate features that would allow the measurement of global social networks; measurement of school climate and policies; the comparison of sibling pairs differing in genetic similarity; and the incorporation of both partners’ perspectives in analyses of romantic and sexual relationships. The American Teenage Study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in 1991, and almost immediately de-funded (and eventually declared illegal by the U.S. Congress) because of political opposition.
Eventually, when the US Congress mandated that NICHD conduct a study of “adolescent health,” Dick was ready. He secured NICHD funding for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), building on the design created for the American Teenage Study but expanding the content to include a broad range of health-related behaviors and outcomes. Add Health proved to be a path-breaking study of the effects of biological and social factors on adolescent health and behavior. He directed this study from 1994-2004, producing not only innovative data but also innovative strategies for making the data available to researchers while protecting research participants, thereby greatly expanding the scientific payoff from the study. During Dick’s tenure in Add Health, the data were made available to over 2,000 researchers, producing hundreds of research articles and additional grants funded to analyze the data. Dick is no longer directing Add Health, but under the leadership of Kathie Mullan Harris who has taken the study to new levels of social and biological linkages, continues to break new ground in the biosocial arena. It is among the first national social science surveys in the world to collect DNA samples from saliva beginning in early 2000s, coupled with a permanent and self-perpetuating DNA sample from archived blood spots. It is likely the largest survey in the world (and perhaps the only one) to contain an embedded behavior genetic sample of more than 3,000 pairs of siblings with varying biological resemblance, coupled with high quality molecular genetic data on the entire sample, each based on a probability sampling design that is nationally representative.
For much of his professional career, Dick worked in an environment in which social scientists not only marginalized but often aggressively ignored any biological explanations of human behavior. Wise and well-meaning researchers and funding agencies advised him that his goals were either misdirected on the one hand, or impossible to achieve on the other. The more this happened, the more Dick became committed to showing that he was heading in exactly the right direction (on the first hand) and that he could indeed achieve the impossible (on the second hand). And in retrospect, he was and he did, repeatedly!”
Dick was never a biological determinist: he always felt that genetic and hormonal influences acted in concert with the environment to shape the individuals and individual behaviors. He urged his students to think this way as well. But being who he is, Dick has never been captive to political correctness. He drew on his work with Naomi Morris for his presidential address to the Population Association of America in 1994. In “The Nature of Gender,” Dick integrated macrosociological theory with theory derived from primate behavior, informing his PAA audience that his data supported a primate model of within-sex variance in women’s gendered behavior. In several papers, including “Sociology and biology: What biology do sociologists need to know?”(Social Forces, 1995) and “Biological limits of gender construction” (American Sociological Review, 2000) Dick argued persuasively for the need to account for biology in models of human social behavior. Being ahead of his time did not slow Dick down, but it did breed in others an ambivalence about his work that is only now beginning to fade. Because of his persistence, he was able to lay a foundation of knowledge upon which current efforts to unite biological and social sciences can build.
An internet search for “Dick Udry” and “J. Richard Udry” produces virtually nothing advertising Dick’s accomplishments, but scores of hits showing people thanking him for his advice, mentorship, or guidance or crediting him with the development of research resources or the solving of problems for the PAA. However, his accomplishments did attract notice. In 1994 he served as President of the Population Association of America. Dick served two terms as President of the Society for the Study of Social Biology. In 1997 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in recognition of his distinguished contributions to science and scholarship. He received the Society for Adolescent Medicine’s Outstanding Achievement in Adolescent Medicine Award in 2004. At one point, Dr. Udry was featured in Science magazine as one of NIH’s most prolific grant-getters. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funded his work continuously for over a quarter-century, honoring him with a MERIT award during 1989-1998.
Dick used his genius for institution-building to benefit all the organizations he served. As PAA president, he greatly increased membership and improved the organization’s finances by instituting poster sessions at the annual meetings. What was at first an economic move has now evolved into one of the most-loved features of the meetings. He was also centrally involved in the establishment of the Association for Population Centers, an organization that has enhanced education about population research among policy-makers.
Dick Udry was ahead of his time, and the rest of the research world is still catching up. On August 10, 2009, his findings from a study he conducted nearly 30 years prior in 1970 on birth rates after one-night events were cited in an MSNBC article discussing the myth of a baby boom after President Obama’s election. There was speculation that celebration by Obama supporters would result with “nine months later, babies born out of that election night euphoria.” The article reported there was no statistical evidence to support the notion that one-night events and birth rates are correlated and pointed to Dick’s 1970 article analyzing local birth rate nine months after a 1965 blackout in New York City that found nothing above average. Despite being retired since 2004, Dick is quoted in the MSNBC article from his 1970 publication that “it is evidently pleasing to many people to imagine that when people are trapped by some immobilizing event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation.” He did write that while “one nights” don’t have much of an effect, longer-term events such as hurricanes and wars can. Most of what Dick thought about, analyzed, and wrote is and will remain current in research for many years to come as we try to catch up.
One of Dick’s last articles of his biosocial career, published in Epidemiology in 2003, was titled “Putting Prenatal Effects on Sex-Dimorphic Behavior in Perspective: An Absolutely Complete Theory.” Need we say more?