James Abernathy, renowned statistician and international demographer, dies Sept. 3

September 12, 2012
Dr. Abernathy

Dr. Abernathy

James R. Abernathy, PhD, retired professor of biostatistics at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, died Sept. 3, 2012. He was 86.

Dr. Abernathy was a well-known international demographer who published dozens of statistical papers. He was a member of the American Public Health Association (APHA) and North Carolina Public Health Association (NCPHA). In 1980, he was appointed a fellow of the American Statistical Association (ASA).
Over his 30-year career, Dr. Abernathy pioneered statistical research in maternal and child health programs, epidemiological investigations, public health nursing and dental health services. He served as a statistical consultant to national agencies, including the National Center for Health Statistics and the World Health Organization.
After serving in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Howard College in 1951 and immediately began work as a statistician for the Jefferson County (Ala.) Health Department. After one year, he took leave to study biostatistics at UNC, where he specialized in improving the collection and analysis of vital statistics, ultimately earning a Master of Science in Public Health in 1953. After earning his doctorate in 1965, he became assistant professor at the School, and was appointed professor in 1975.
His contributions to the International Program of Laboratories for Population Statistics (POPLAB) helped bring it to prominence. POPLAB was a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project conducted through UNC’s Carolina Population Center from 1969 to 1983. During the project’s early days, Dr. Abernathy visited potential sites in India, Pakistan and Thailand, and became a consultant to the Philippine branch. He served as the organization’s director from 1980 to 1983.
Dr. Abernathy’s impressive accomplishments and remarkable work ethic did not go unnoticed. The late H. Bradley Wells, PhD, former biostatistics professor, wrote in his nomination for Dr. Abernathy’s ASA fellowship that Dr. Abernathy “performed his activities in an exemplary fashion and, in the process, has made contributions to the field of statistics and vital statistics, and brought credit to the profession in general.”
Dr. Abernathy is survived by his wife of 57 years, Cherye W. Abernathy, of Chapel Hill; sons David Abernathy, of Statesville, and J. Bradley Abernathy, of Rocky Mount; daughters Cherye Moody, of Whiteville, and Linda Hartig, of Durham; and granddaughters L. Star Abernathy, of Statesville, Leeana Foster, of Rougemont, Megan Merke, of St. Augustine, Fla., Meredith Edgerton, of Durham, and Mary Elizabeth Moody and Sarah Moody, both of Whiteville. Also surviving are siblings Mary Jane Aycock and Clarence Abernathy, both of Alabama. Daughter Linda Hartig is an applications analyst in the School’s biostatistics department.
A memorial service was held Sept. 8 in Chapel Hill. The family asks that gifts in his memory be made to Ephesus Baptist Church, 2025 Ephesus Road, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27517.


UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: Linda Kastleman, communications editor, (919) 966-8317 or linda_kastleman@unc.edu.