The theory of epidemiologic transition: the origins of a citation classic

George Weisz, Jesse Olszynko-Gryn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)


In 1971 Abdel R. Omran published his classic paper on the theory of epidemiologic transition. By the mid-1990s, it had become something of a citation classic and was understood as a theoretical statement about the shift from infectious to chronic diseases that supposedly accompanies modernization. However, Omran himself was not directly concerned with the rise of chronic disease; his theory was in fact closely tied to efforts to accelerate fertility decline through health-oriented population control programs. This article uses Omran's extensive published writings as well as primary and secondary sources on population and family planning to place Omran's career in context and reinterpret his theory. We find that “epidemiologic transition” was part of a broader effort to reorient American and international health institutions towards the pervasive population control agenda of the 1960s and 1970s. The theory was integral to the WHO's then controversial efforts to align family planning with health services, as well as to Omran's unsuccessful attempt to create a new sub-discipline of “population epidemiology.” However, Omran's theory failed to displace demographic transition theory as the guiding framework for population control. It was mostly overlooked until the early 1990s, when it belatedly became associated with the rise of chronic disease.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287–326
Number of pages40
JournalJournal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
Issue number3
Early online date22 Dec 2009
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2010


  • epidemiologic transition
  • demographic transition
  • population control
  • family planning
  • World Health Organization
  • public health


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