It is with sadness that we inform you of the death of Reimert (“Rei”) Thorolf Ravenholt on Thursday October 1, 2020 at his home in Seattle, WA at age 95. Rei served as the first Director of USAID’s Office of Population (now Population and Reproductive Health) from 1966-1979.
Rei was born and raised on a dairy farm in West Denmark, Wisconsin, one of nine children in a Danish-American family. He received his M.D. from the University of Minnesota and a Master’s in Public Health from the University of California (Berkeley) from which he graduated first in his class. Over the course of his career, he served as an officer in the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Centers for Disease Control (beginning work in its second class); Director, Epidemiology and Communicable Disease Control Division, Seattle-King County Health Department; Epidemiology Consultant, European Region, U.S. Public Health Service, American Embassy, Paris, France; Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine, University of Washington; Director, Office of Population, USAID; Director, World Health Surveys, CDC; Assistant Director for Research and Epidemiology, National Institute on Drug Abuse; Chief, Epidemiology Branch, Food and Drug Administration; and President, Population Health Imperatives, Seattle, Washington. He also researched and published extensively on topics ranging from epidemiology to preventive medicine, public health, population/family planning, malignant cellular evolution, tobaccosis, and the need for U.S. welfare reform.
When Rei took charge of USAID’s nascent population program in 1966, the program had no staff, budget, or mandate. Few developing country governments outside of Asia wanted anything to do with subjects as controversial as population growth and family planning, and there was great debate about whether family planning programs worked. Many doubted that couples would use family planning services and, if couples did use them, that the services would have any impact. But Rei believed that people would use family planning and that it would have a global demographic impact. He was right.
During his 14-year tenure, USAID’s global population/family planning assistance program became the world’s foremost population program, providing more than half of all international population/family planning program assistance ($1.3 billion) during those years. USAID remains the largest bilateral donor of family planning assistance today. Many of the approaches that were pioneered under Rei’s leadership, such as routine survey data collection (he originated the World Fertility Survey, the precursor of the Demographic and Health Survey, which stands today as the gold standard of household survey data collection in the developing world), working through non-governmental organizations, social marketing, and community-based services, continue today as standards of strong voluntary family planning programs. He further understood that the available contraceptive methods were not appealing to all users and ensured that the Office of Population established a strong central contraceptive research program. Almost every contraceptive method available today has received USAID funding or support.
Rei is survived by his wife, Betty Butler Ravenholt and five children: Janna, Mark, Lisa, Dane, and Matthew. Funeral services will be private. Remembrances may be made to West Denmark Lutheran Church, 2478 170th Street, Luck, WI 54853 or to Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and Hawaiian Islands, P.O. Box 3641, Seattle WA 98124.
For those who knew him or knew of him, there is also an excellent obituary for Rei Ravenholt published by The Seattle Times on November 16, 2020.