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Population & Reproductive Health


The Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, includes accounts of individuals throughout the world who have made important contributions to the field. Reflecting the voices and perspectives of advocates, communication specialists, lawyers, managers, physicians, researchers, social workers and others, the series addresses the historical period 1965-2005.

The Narrators page includes biographical sketches for each narrator, plus links to the full transcripts for most of narrators.

Project History

The Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project began as a discussion in the Population, Reproductive Health, and Family Planning section of the American Public Health Association in the late 1990s. In her newsletter message to the section membership, Deborah R. McFarlane, then chair, discussed the need for archiving the papers of people in the field who were retiring and asked for ideas. Jack C. Smith, an eminent statistician at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), read the column and called Deborah. "Not only do the papers of prominent people in our field need to be saved," he said, "but we need to save their stories. These stories are far more compelling than statistics." Jack convinced Deborah and many others of the need to conduct an oral history project with leaders in the population and reproductive health movements.

Jack retired shortly after and spent the next several years looking for an appropriate repository, speaking with oral historians, professional organizations, and friends in the field. He secured funding for a pilot project interviewing the directors of the Division of Reproductive Health at CDC: these interviews were conducted by Rebecca Sharpless, director of the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University. Sadly, Jack died in October 2000, but not before he had identified the Sophia Smith Collection (SSC) at Smith College--following discussions with its director, Sherrill Redmon--as the best place to preserve the interviews and make them available for research. He was impressed with the commitment of the SSC to documenting the history of women's health and the reproductive rights movement and felt that the project's records would be a logical complement to the SSC's impressive holdings on the subject, including the Margaret Sanger Papers, the archives of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and many other collections.

In 2001, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in Menlo Park, California, generously awarded funding to Deborah R. McFarlane of the University of New Mexico for this project. Dr. J. Joseph Speidel, then population program director at Hewlett, has continued to assist the project with his connections to key figures throughout the field.

To preserve the accounts and papers of pioneers in population and reproductive health, McFarlane enlisted the support of the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College and the Institute of Oral History at Baylor University. The thirty-eight interviews were conducted by Rebecca Sharpless and Deborah McFarlane between 2002 and 2005. The oral history tapes and transcripts arrived at the SSC in 2005, where they were edited and processed by oral historian Revan Schendler.

Some of narrators in the Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project have agreed to donate their papers to the SSC. Others will donate their papers to the Francis Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard University, or other appropriate archives. Where known, this information is included in the entry for the individual narrator.

About Oral Histories

Oral history, a scholarly method of gathering historical information about and reflections on lived experience, takes the form of a taped conversation between a narrator and a well-informed interviewer. As an interactive performance, the oral history interview reflects the social and historical moment in which it occurs, including pressures to speak and to be silent. Not only does it record speech and thought patterns lost in written material, oral history also documents processes of memory and the creation of meaning. Tapes of the oral history conversations in the Population and Reproductive Health Project were transcribed, audited for accuracy and edited for clarity, and then reviewed, corrected and approved by the narrators. As primary historical materials, the tapes and transcripts comprise a unique record of the changes in the field in the last forty years.

Access Information

The records of the Population and Reproductive Health Oral History Project, including audio recordings and transcripts, are housed in the Sophia Smith Collection. View the finding aid for more information.

Researchers may purchase copies of audio recordings or transcripts (in print or electronic format). For more information and rates, see Rights & Reproductions. To request tapes and/or transcripts, contact the Special Collections.

The following interviews are currently closed or partially restricted: Mohammed Alauddin, Peter J. Donaldson, Elizabeth Maguire, and Margaret Neuse. Some interviews are not available online but may be viewed in the SSC or you may request a copy sent to you.

Copyright and Permissions

All oral history interviews on this site are copyrighted. The transcripts and photographs are provided for educational and research purposes only. Rights have been licensed to the Sophia Smith Collection for presentation on this web site. No other rights are extended for copying and/or publishing.

Requests for permission to publish quotations should be addressed to the Sophia Smith Collection and should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

Credit Line: Population and Reproductive Rights Oral History Project, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA 01063

Project staff

Deborah R. McFarlane is professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. She is the author, with K.J. Meier, of The Politics of Fertility Control: Family Planning and Abortion Politics in the American States (Congressional Quarterly Press, 2001). McFarlane worked as an administrator and a consultant in reproductive health in the U.S. and internationally for more than three decades.

During three decades with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Jack C. Smith, M.S., made numerous contributions to public health, particularly in the areas of family planning and reproductive health. He was well known for his work with the state offices of vital and health statistics (including New York City and the District of Columbia) in enhancing public health surveillance of infant mortality, legal induced abortion, and maternal mortality. Jack retired from CDC in 1999 and began planning for an oral history project to document the family planning movement. He had secured a planning grant and institutional partners to conduct the interviews and preserve them at the time of his death in 2000.

Rebecca Sharpless directed the Institute for Oral History at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, from 1993 to 2006. She is the author of Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms, 1900-1940 (University of North Carolina Press, 1999). She is also co-editor, with Thomas L. Charlton and Lois E. Myers, of Handbook of Oral History (AltaMira Press, 2006). In 2006 she joined the department of history at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.