The God of Growth (James M. Tanner, 1920-2010)


The journal Economics and Human Biology has an obituary (in press) describing the life of James M. Tanner, and his singular contributions to the development of the study of human growth.  In his memorial, Roderick Floud quotes David Barker as saying “Jim was the God” of growth studies.

I had missed news of Tanner’s passing, which occurred in August, and was sad to learn of it. His work has been invaluable to many people, including my own teaching and research, from formulating growth charts to a comparative look at how people grow in different parts of the world. But it’s important to reflect not just on his contributions to science, but also the person behind them. One gets a sense of his compassion from the way he referred to childhood growth as a mirror for “the material and moral condition” of a society (1986: 3). Floud quotes an oft-cited passage by Tanner:


A child’s growth rate reflects, better than any other single index, his state of health and nutrition, and often indeed his psychological situation also. Similarly, the average value of children’s heights and weights reflect accurately the state of a nation’s public health and the average nutritional status of its citizens. . . . Thus a well- designed growth study is a powerful tool with which to monitor the health of a population, or to pinpoint subgroups of a population whose share in economic or social benefits is less than it might be.”

Select Works

Eveleth, Phyllis B. and Tanner, James M. 1990. Worldwide Variation in Human Growth (second edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, James M. 1986. Growth as a mirror for the conditions of society: secular trends and class distinctions. In Human Growth: A Multidisciplinary Review. Arto Demirjian and Micheline Brault Dubuc, eds. Pp. 3-34. London: Taylor and Francis.

Tanner, James M. 1990. Fetus into Man: Physical Growth from Conception to Maturity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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