Council Commentary

In Memoriam: Former Population Council President George Zeidenstein (July 29, 1929 – August 21, 2021)

Photo credit: Jill Krementz

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.

“The field of international development and the Population Council have lost a giant in the passing of George Zeidenstein,” said Population Council President Julia Bunting.  “George helped to reorient the global sexual and reproductive health research agenda toward a more human-centered approach, one that placed women and girls front and center.”

Zeidenstein was recruited to the role of Population Council President by our founder and first President, the prominent philanthropist John D. Rockefeller 3rd.  Rockefeller had become aware of Zeidenstein’s approach to population and development issues as the first Ford Foundation Representative in newly independent Bangladesh from 1971 to 1976, where Zeidenstein had made seminal investments in the rising generation of young women leaders emerging from the country. In a controversial keynote address that Rockefeller gave at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Bucharest in 1974, he called on world leaders to address the need for poverty reduction and social inclusion as solutions to a more sustainable and just world. In fact, Rockefeller’s palpable passion was informed by meeting young women from the Global South, including a young woman from Bangladesh that Zeidenstein had especially encouraged, shortly before his keynote. Rockefeller’s electrifying speech underscored the non-negotiability of participation from the Global South, calling out especially for the inclusion of women and girls as “subjects, not objects” in future global compacts and plans of action. The execution of this very public pivot in the development field fell to Zeidenstein when he became President of the Population Council in 1976.

Zeidenstein was not trained in medicine nor as a social scientist for his role as Population Council President, a fact upon which he modestly commented, but that many considered a benefit. His status as an “outsider” freed him from restrictions on whom he listened to and disciplinary formalities that may have otherwise confined his vision. He was thoughtful in discussions with staff and counterparts and generous with his time, particularly for those from the Global South.

A stalwart advocate for social justice, Zeidenstein added rights and ethics systematically to the Councils’ agenda with a focus on understanding and addressing the social and economic inequalities underlying poor reproductive health outcomes. He was the vanguard of the Council’s enduring efforts to bring the lived experience of girls and women in low- and middle- income countries to bear in the design of health, social, and economic programs.

Zeidenstein expanded the Council’s organizational structure internationally and greatly decentralized its operation to be closer to the people we are committed to serve, led by talented Regional and Country Directors. Greater staff diversity was a key component, and many more professionals were drawn from diverse disciplines, low- and middle-income countries, and a pool of prominent women in the field. He helped to increase the Council Board’s representation from the Global South, including leaders from West and East Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean.

Some of Zeidenstein’s directions engendered controversy, including major investments in female-controlled methods and male contraception intended to better realign decision-making power and gender roles between partners; a new Council position and budget to ensure that women’s needs would be given prominent voice; and efforts to gauge the quality of care from the client’s perspective. In 1988, he supported reconfiguring family planning within a broader reproductive health framework, prioritizing neglected subjects, such as maternal health, infant feeding practices, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS. As the AIDS pandemic progressed, Zeidenstein championed cross-disciplinary work, from understanding the biological mechanisms that increased the risk of HIV in young women and to men who have sex with men, to developing new protective technologies and program strategies that prioritized the less powerful and most at risk populations.

Perhaps the most controversial element of Zeidenstein’s agenda was to define reproductive choice not simply as a wider range of better contraceptive methods but an explicit commitment to new abortion technologies to enhance safety and to facilitate women’s reproductive choices. In his “Future Directions for the Population Council” paper, published in 1976, he stressed the need to address abortion, which his predecessors had avoided. At about that time, a new and promising medical abortifacient, mifepristone, was developed in France. Zeidenstein obtained the Board’s backing for undertaking work on this new drug and for gaining US rights for its distribution. Successor Presidents oversaw mifepristone’s registration, US FDA approval, and licensing. Currently, medical abortion, including mifepristone, is used in more than 40% of abortions in the US, and many millions more around the world. The importance of access to safe medical abortion has been highlighted during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as in places where obstacles to abortion access continue to exist.

At the Council, Zeidenstein oversaw the launching of regional operations research (OR) programs in family planning, first in Latin America, then in Asia and Africa. These large programs were designed to actively collaborate with national policy and program managers, giving them voice and new learning tools to design and implement responses, voluntary family planning, and HIV prevention initiatives. Consonant to his commitment to client-centered care was a major new effort in measuring quality of care, which revealed what women actually received in terms of care in government and private clinics. This methodology was applied in many countries and by sister organizations, and the Council later pioneered this focus on implementation science in HIV and AIDS prevention programs.   

Under Zeidenstein’s leadership, the Council significantly advanced the agenda for long-acting reversable contraception, developing and securing the US FDA approval of the Copper-T IUD (1984), Norplant (1990), and Mirena (2000).  Together, these technologies and others based on them are used today by 170 million women worldwide.

Zeidenstein’s own life experience laid a foundation for his remarkable contributions. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1929 to a modest Russian Jewish immigrant family and received his BA from the University of Pittsburgh.  His wife of 68 years, Sondra, who he met in 1953 while attending Harvard Law School, was a lifelong advocate for women’s voices and an intensely powerful force and influence in his life. They had two children, Laura and Peter. In 1964, Zeidenstein left a career in a promising law practice to volunteer in the US South’s Freedom Summer, registering Black American voters who face considerable prejudice in the electoral system. This experience shaped his life, and he abandoned law to take on a directorship of the Peace Corps in Nepal, where he served from 1965 to 1968 before joining the Ford Foundation in Bangladesh and subsequently the Population Council in New York.

“The Council is undeniably a better institution with greater effectiveness, a clearer vision, more resources, and a more prominent place in the world because of George,” said Peter Donaldson, Population Council President from 2005-2015.

Judith Bruce, who was recruited to the Council by Zeidenstein in 1977 and continues to work on the power and potential of girls worldwide, said, “We are living with his legacy. We are better off and safer for it. He was a slayer of dragons and a warrior for women and those borne of them.”

The Council shares its deepest sympathies with Zeidenstein’s family and loved ones in this difficult time.

Read powerful tributes to George Zeidenstein's life and legacy from former colleagues and friends.