George Zeidenstein

The Population Council mourns the passing of George Zeidenstein, the Council’s fifth President, who died on August 21, 2021 aged 92 in Goshen, Connecticut. Zeidenstein leaves behind a powerful legacy from his long tenure as Population Council President from 1976 to 1992; his contributions continue to influence our work and our field today. Zeidenstein was instrumental in shaping the Council’s long-standing mission of promoting access to broader sexual and reproductive health services and technological innovations and to ensuring that quality services be focused on meeting the needs of the populations facing the greatest vulnerability.


Below are tributes to Zeidenstein, written by former colleagues, which detail his remarkable life and legacy:

I had the pleasure of working at the Council during George’s tenure from 1976 to 1992 and recall this period as one of the most important in the Council’s history. He presided over a rapidly growing international institution with an increasingly broad agenda, an expansion overseas, a more diverse staff and a new endowment.  My career started in 1973 as a junior scientist with my own projects until George asked me to become VP for the Policy Research division in 1989 and we started collaborating frequently. It was a real pleasure working with George. He was a receptive listener and a supportive boss who always stood ready with advice and encouragement.  I will always be grateful for the generous support he provided to me and my colleagues and for the strong institution he built.

John Bongaarts, Distinguished Scholar at the Population Council and former colleague of George

When George’s Future Directions paper came to me in 1976, I was overjoyed. He had put the paper together in the first few weeks after becoming President of the Population Council. It clearly stated all the new approaches for the Council to take going forward that struck me as essential to the needs of the world.  He explicitly broadened the narrow focus on family planning pursued by his predecessors, and emphasized problems facing  women and young girls, who were mostly neglected at that time. He clearly focussed on abortion, another problem overlooked or avoided at the time. The Future Directions paper also called for the Board of Trustees to be broadened to include members from the developing world.

For me, the most practical element was the intention to expand and strengthen the Council’s overseas staff and program activity by creating an International Programs Division, to work in parallel with the social science and biomedical divisions.

One year later, George invited me to head up that Division. For the next seventeen years, he and I worked together to create a much more robust overseas program, decentralize responsibility to highly competent regional staff, and above all grow our program in the new directions set forth in his future Directions paper.  George took a hands-off approach, delegating a great deal of work to me and to key colleagues. But he was always available to support me, and help me bail out of tough problems. George and Sondra travelled frequently to our overseas offices, untangled political problems, and offered moral support.

Most important was our work, initially called Roles and Status of Women, then broadened to include the many challenges facing young girls. Judith Bruce, who joined the Council at the same time as I did, took the lead in creating new projects, building a knowledge base through publications, and steadily influenced our staff on the need to include adolescents in many parts of our overall effort. Sondra Zeidenstein was a key participant in creating new avenues of work with women and girls. Her early publications were critically important.

Abortion was another issue highlighted by the Future Directions paper. George’s predecessors had steered away from abortion, as being too politically sensitive. George tackled it head on, even though it created some internal opposition, and the resignation of one Board member. George’s move to work on abortion coincided with the arrival of the medical abortion drug, initially known as RU-486, now called mifepristone. George took on the heat, persuaded the Board to go ahead, worked through many political and programmatic problems, and signed the formal agreement with the drug company which had developed mifepristone, to take on the rights in the U.S. This effort, carried forward by his successors, has resulted in medical abortion, including mifepristone, to be used currently by over 40% of those American women obtaining an abortion, as well as millions of women around the world.

George’s new directions had a profound effect on the Council’s work and on the population field as a whole. George was always modest, frequently saying he “was not a population expert”. But he was a development expert, attuned to the needs and thoughts of people worldwide. He was a delight to work with, always gracious to Nora and me when we visited their rural farmhouse. He and Sondra were wonderful friends to us, and to so many others. He will live on forever in our hearts.

George Brown, former colleague of George at the Population Council

George gave me my first real job, as program officer in the newly established Ford Foundation office for Bangladesh.  Consequently, he influenced and shaped my life.  George hired me despite my lack of qualifications since I was neither a population nor a social scientist (my official Ford title).  I had just obtained a MPH degree from Hopkins in mid-1973.  But he could tell my enthusiasm for Bangladesh  having started at the Cholera Research Lab in 1970, helicoptered to Manpura Island for cyclone relief in November, evacuated in April 1971, and participated in lobbying for an independent Bangladesh in Washington DC.  As I learned later, a couple of senior Ford people turned down my Dhaka position, since Bangladesh was a “basket case.”  Indeed, Ford provided quarterly air tickets for Marty, our son Greg, and me to go to either Kolkata or Bangkok for purchasing of essentials like toothpaste, toilet paper, and medical check-ups.

George himself was a bit of a rebel, wearing long hair and sandals.  It was rumored that George had bucked McGeorge Bundy, President of Ford, during anti-Vietnam protests in New York.  True to his nature, George commanded respect from his Ford colleagues because of the quality of his work.  His Harvard Law School training obviously showed through as he made judgments about a situation and what Ford/Dhaka should do. 

As a doctor, I had never worked in a foundation.  Of the two sister-foundations, Rockefeller was for doctors; Ford prided itself on social sciences and social change, not medicine.  George patiently taught me how to think about strategic investments, evaluate projects, and assess people.  As I started, I didn't even know how to respond to a business letter.  When I asked him, he said that I should go into the file and copy a letter!  So, my first dozen Ford business letters, began: “In response to your letter of xxx…”

Two program officers (Stephen Biggs, an agricultural economist and I) reported to George based in the Ford Dhaka Office, a 3-bedrooms converted house on Road 2 in Dalmondhi Enclave.  George’s commitment to supporting Bangladeshis was steadfast, and he reached out to senior Bangladeshis – especially Planning Commission members Rehman Sobhan, Musharaff Hossain, and Kamal Hossain.  His special program commitment, however, was to “women in development”, a program passion he shared with Sondra.  So, he commissioned papers on women from the likes of Selma Sobhan, Therenessa Abdullah, and others.  Indeed, one of George’s legacies is how the women of Bangladesh rose to the occasion to lead the country’s great development success story.  While he would deny credit, the agency of women has been one of the key drivers of exceptional development advances in Bangladesh.

George invited Adrienne Germain, to visit from New York’s Ford headquarters.  Adrienne observed George’s “innovative development approach” and informed her good friend, Joan Dunlop, who was the special assistant to John D. Rockefeller III, founder and chair of the Population Council.  Joan and Adrienne came to Dhaka and met George.  Joan became convinced that George was the right person to lead the Population Council as it searched for a new leader.  Marty recalls George asking about the meaning of a Joan telegram that read: “game, set, match” when he was offered the Presidency of the Population Council.

I was sad to lose George as my boss, and we stayed in touch over his 17 years tenure at the Population Council, where he groomed the next generation of leaders like Judith Bruce and George Brown.

George stepped down from the Presidency while still youthful, and he agreed to a position as Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies which I directed 1987-1996.   He rented a small apartment in Cambridge and drove up weekly from his farm-house in Connecticut.  Many students and faculty benefited from conversations with George, who had a wealth of wisdom and experience from his decades in Asia. George also contributed regularly to the student journal club in the Center and he brought his experiences and views into the intellectual life of the Center.

George was a once-in-a-lifetime colleague for me.  He was remarkable in many ways: mentor, smart and wise, a good hearted friend and colleague.  He was an exceptional husband and father.  He was devoted to Sondra, and their love for each other was exemplary.  He was extremely proud of Laura and Peter.  After Sondra’s passing, it was clear that George wanted and would soon join her.

Lincoln Chen, President Emeritus of the China Medical Board and former colleague of George at the Ford Foundation

I only had the opportunity to work with George for a few years at the beginning of my time at the Population Council in the early 1990’s.  He was one of the first to see the opportunity for the Council to apply it’s long history of research, policy, and advocacy to the challenges of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.  I specifically remember the critical role he played in forging a cross-divisional effort to launch research and development efforts to pursue woman-controlled HIV prevention technology.  He fostered an environment at the Population Council that encouraged intellectual pursuit and evidence based policy that advanced science and women’s reproductive and sexual health and rights.  He led the Population Council through a critical moment of its growth and influence in the field and his leadership, with his commitment to rigorous application of knowledge in pursuit of human development, will be long remembered.

Chris Elias, President of Global Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and former colleague of George at the Population Council

When George joined the Ford Foundation, I was a Training Associate in its New Delhi office. As a British socialist, I was not an easy fit in the Foundation. When we met during George’s first visit to the India programme, I told him of my discomfort with the style and content of the Foundation’s work in India, and my intention not to continue beyond my one-year contract. He persuaded me that I had not seen enough of the Foundation’s work to make that decision and to consider moving on to the Pakistan office, which he correctly said was very different.

Thus it was on George’s advice that I moved to Pakistan in September 1970 – shortly before a devastating cyclone hit the then East Pakistan, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won a majority in the national election. I was in Dacca, as it then was, on 25 March 1971, when the Pakistan Army began its crackdown on Bangladeshi nationalism and genocidal killings of Hindus. I hardly glimpsed the normal work of the Foundation in Pakistan, as discussions were dominated by the implications of political crisis and then civil war. US policy under Nixon and Kissinger was to support the Pakistan regime’s narrative that normalcy was being restored. To its credit, the Foundation – strongly influenced by its Pakistan Representative, Bob Edwards, and I’m sure by George at New York headquarters – refused to join in this pretense, and suspended its Pakistan programme. Our work turned to finding ways of supporting former Bengali partners who became refugees – the intellectual capital of a future Bangladesh.

George must have been substantially responsible for the Foundation sending me to independent Bangladesh in January 1972, to be the first person to assess the situation of its local staff and former programmes there, and then as the sole international staff member, in temporary charge of its office until a progamme could resume and a full Representative be appointed. George was soon designated to become that Representative, and on his first visit I accompanied him to the meeting in which Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib welcomed the resumption of a Ford Foundation programme. George made further visits and we worked closely together until shortly after he came to stay at the end of 1972, when I fulfilled my intention to return to the UK.

I thus owe to George what became a lifelong connection to Bangladesh, and a first experience of extreme violations of human rights which influenced my later career. He was delighted when I became Secretary General of Amnesty International, to which he was a longtime contributor. Having preceded him in Bangladesh, I was able to introduce him to friends to whom both he and I remained close, most notably Mosharaff and Inari Hossain. Our lives touched each other again when I could share with him something of my work for the United Nations in Nepal, where he was still warmly remembered by former Volunteers who had served under him as Peace Corps Director there.

George’s qualities which I particularly valued are the respect and humility he showed in working in cultural contexts other than his own, which was not typical of the US foundation world, and his commitment to human rights in their broadest sense.

Ian Martin, Former United Nations Under-Secretary-General, former Secretary General of Amnesty International and former colleague of George at the Ford Foundation

I remember George Zeidenstein in very specific ways: his apparent shyness, his voracious intellectual appetite, and his stance as a totally committed male feminist.  He supported work on women’s issues and the women who worked on those topics; he enjoyed talking with outspoken people with strong opinions. He followed his heart in the work he supported.  As President of the Population Council, he backed efforts to create programs for women’s health, including on many fraught and unpopular topics. He backed his staff in creation of the Ebert Program, a program specifically designed to research maternal death in childbirth, reduction of disincentives to breastfeeding, access to abortion, and attention to sexually transmitted diseases – none of which were the usual fare of health initiatives in developing countries.

George was singularly prescient in throwing his influence behind the newest and arguably the most important new reproductive technology of the late 20th Century: medical abortion with mifepristone and misoprostol.  During his tenure at the Population Council, Zeidenstein laid the groundwork for the Population Council to do the research that resulted in FDA approval of mifepristone in the US twenty years ago.  Without his stalwart backing, the US might not have had access to the drug for decades, and the world might never have known the health and safety benefits of abortion with pills.

Beverly Winikoff, President of Gynuity Health Projects and former colleague of George at the Population Council