Twenty-five years ago, W. Parker Frisbie stumbled into the field of mortality research by accident.
The young sociology professor’s interest in mortality, the study of death in a population, was piqued when a graduate student asked him to chair her dissertation committee.
“At that time, we had no mortality specialists at UT so I told her she’d have to go to another university,” says Frisbie, now a professor emeritus of sociology and former director of the Population Research Center (PRC) at The University of Texas at Austin. “But when she asked me to chair her dissertation, I said OK we’ll learn together.”
After successfully guiding his graduate student through her dissertation on mortality, Frisbie went on to publish more than 80 studies on racial disparity in infant mortality, pregnancy outcomes, and mortality and the demography of minorities.
For more than three decades, Frisbie mentored dozens of graduate students, many of whom went on to become center directors, chairs of departments and leading demographers around the country and the world.
“If you want to do quality research and a lot of it, you need graduate students, but they have to be supported,” Frisbie says. “As they move through their academic careers, it’s important to help them think of themselves more as colleagues, rather than students. I’m proud of them all, but when they become stars in the discipline, it gives me a sense of satisfaction that I don’t get in many other ways.”
Frisbie’s record of obtaining research funding — more than $4 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health — placed him among the nation’s scientific elite. This amount of research funding is almost unheard of in social sciences, says Sociology Professor and former chair Robert Hummer.
When asked of his accomplishments, Frisbie humbly says he’d much rather brag on his students and colleagues. But after some coaxing, he recalls accomplishing a tremendous feat — publishing three papers in top scientific journals during his first year at The University of Texas at Austin in 1972.
Without Frisbie’s research and mentorship, the Sociology Department and the Population Research Center wouldn’t be as strong as it is today, Hummer says.
“Parker is a great demographer who accomplished everything he possibly could in our field,” Hummer says. “Perhaps most important, he has former students all over the country and all over the world who are succeeding at the highest level. But more important than anything professionally, he is a fantastic person. He’s incredibly hard working, honest, loyal and a great family man. He was and is a mentor to me in many ways that go well beyond what it means to be a successful faculty member at The University of Texas.”
Adds current PRC Director Mark Hayward: “He is truly both a first-rate scholar and a cowboy — and perhaps the most unique yet down-to-earth and honest person in our field and the university. His cowboy boots and cowboy hat signal a very important aspect of Parker’s identity — he is a son of Texas.”
Born to Texas ranchers in 1940, Frisbie says he was shaped by his father and grandparents.
“I’m very proud of my heritage,” Frisbie says. “My grandparents had the most influence on me. They were tough, but honest and decent to the core. They taught me to believe that you’re supposed to work hard and do your best. And if you do less than that, you’re letting everyone down. Growing up, I always loved cattle ranching and that feeling never left me.”
The scholar also attributes his success to his wife of 50 years, Elaine, and their children. In 2008, he retired to his family ranch in South Texas where he works cattle on horseback, mends fences, repairs water wells and teaches his grandchildren the ropes of Texas ranching.
To carry on his legacy, Frisbie’s colleagues created an endowment in his honor to support faculty and student research in the Sociology Department and the PRC. In the future, they hope to raise enough to transform the excellence fund into an endowed professorship in the PRC.