Duncan Thomas

Duncan Thomas

Norb F. Schaefer Distinguished Professor of International Studies in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences

External Address: 
314 Social Sciences Bldg, Box 90097, Durham, NC 27708
Internal Office Address: 
Box 90097, Durham, NC 27708
(919) 660-1803

Thomas' research interests focus on population health and development. His work delves inside the black box of the family to provide empirical evidence on how resources are allocated within families in very low resource environments and highlights the role of female empowerment in improving the well-being of the next generation. Understanding the mechanisms that explain why healthier people are richer is a theme that runs through much of his research. He implemented a large-scale randomized intervention in Indonesia and established the causal impact of poor nutrition on economic prosperity among adults. Related research examines the impact of unanticipated financial shocks in Indonesia, Russia and the United States on health and well-being. The immediate and longer-term impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on a broad array of indicators of well-being are explored to identify the behaviors and coping mechanisms that are most effective in the aftermath of a devastating disaster.

Thomas has invested heavily in the design and implementation of large-scale population-based longitudinal surveys that contribute to the information infrastructure for scientific research. This includes co-directing waves of the Indonesia Family Life Survey (IFLS) and Mexican Family Life Survey (MxFLS). His work has emphasized measurement of health using biomarkers, innovative measurement of economic status and preferences and the importance of minimizing attrition in longitudinal surveys. This includes following migrants who were interviewed in Mexico and have subsequently been interviewed in both the U.S. and Mexico to better understand the causes and consequences of international migration.

Thomas' research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. His work has been published in such journals as the American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Economic Journal, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Demography, Population Studies and the American Journal of Public Health. He was elected Vice President of the Population Association of America and has served on its Board of Directors. He is an elected Fellow of the Bureau for Research on the Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD) and has served as its President. He directs the Development Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He has served on the Board of Scientific Counselors at the National Center for Health Statistics and on the Committee on Population at the National Academy of Sciences. He has been a co-editor of the Journal of Development Economics, the Journal of Human Resources and Economic Development and Cultural Change. He is on the editorial board of the American Economic Journal-Applied Economics and the Economics of Human Biology.


  • Ph.D., Princeton University 1986
  • B.S., University of Bristol (United Kingdom) 1981

A. Rangel, Marcos, and Duncan Thomas. “Decision-Making in Complex Households,” January 2020.

Frankenberg, E., C. Sumantri, and D. Thomas. “Effects of a natural disaster on mortality risks over the longer term.” Nature Sustainability, January 1, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0536-3. Full Text

LaFave, Dan, Evan Peet, and Duncan Thomas. “Farm Profits, Prices and Household Behavior,” January 2020.

Brown, R., V. Montalva, D. Thomas, and A. Velásquez. “Impact of violent crime on risk aversion: Evidence from the mexican drug war.” Review of Economics and Statistics 101, no. 5 (December 1, 2019): 892–904. https://doi.org/10.1162/rest_a_00788. Full Text

Thomas, Duncan, Teresa Seeman, Alan Potter, Peifeng Hu, Eileen Crimmins, Elizabeth Henny Herningtyas, Cecep Sumantri, and Elizabeth Frankenberg. “HPLC-based Measurement of Glycated Hemoglobin using Dried Blood Spots Collected under Adverse Field Conditions.Biodemography and Social Biology 64, no. 1 (January 2018): 43–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/19485565.2018.1451300. Full Text

Ho, Jessica Y., Elizabeth Frankenberg, Cecep Sumantri, and Duncan Thomas. “Adult Mortality Five Years after a Natural Disaster.Population and Development Review 43, no. 3 (September 2017): 467–90. https://doi.org/10.1111/padr.12075. Full Text

LaFave, Daniel, and Duncan Thomas. “Height and cognition at work: Labor market productivity in a low income setting.Economics and Human Biology 25 (May 2017): 52–64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ehb.2016.10.008. Full Text

Frankenberg, E., and D. Thomas. “Human Capital and Shocks: Evidence on Education, Health and Nutrition.” Nber, April 2017.

LaFave, Daniel, and Duncan Thomas. “Farms, Families, and Markets: New Evidence on Completeness of Markets in Agricultural Settings.Econometrica : Journal of the Econometric Society 84, no. 5 (September 2016): 1917–60. https://doi.org/10.3982/ecta12987. Full Text

Ho, Jessica Y., Elizabeth Frankenberg, Cecep Sumantri, and Duncan Thomas. “Adult Mortality Five Years after a Natural Disaster: Evidence from the Indian Ocean Tsunami,” June 2016.


Frankenberg, Elizabeth, Jessica Y. Ho, and Duncan Thomas. “Biological Health Risks and Economic Development,” 2015.

Frankenberg, E., M. M. Laurito, and D. Thomas. “Demographic Impact of Disasters.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences: Second Edition, 101–8, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.31059-5. Full Text

Thomas, D., and E. Frankenberg. “Experimental Methods in Survey Research in Demography.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences: Second Edition, 559–65, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.31028-5. Full Text

Strauss, J., and D. Thomas. “Chapter 54 Health over the Life Course,” 4:3375–3474, 2007. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1573-4471(07)04054-5. Full Text

Thomas, Duncan, and E. Frankenberg. “Household Responses to the Financial Crisis in Indonesia: Longitudinal Evidence on Poverty, Resources, and Well-Being.” In Globalization and Poverty, 517–60, 2007.

Frankenberg, Elizabeth, Jed Friedman, Nicholas Ingwersen, and Duncan Thomas. “Linear child growth after a natural disaster: a longitudinal study of the effects of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.” In Lancet, 389:21–21. ELSEVIER SCIENCE INC, 2017.

Selected Grants

Cardiovascular Health Effects of the Great Recession awarded by University of California - Los Angeles (Principal Investigator). 2018 to 2021

Biomarker Cross-Calibration to Investigate International Health Inequalities awarded by University of California - Los Angeles (Principal Investigator). 2017 to 2020

The Evolution of Well-Being among Older Adults after a Disaster awarded by National Institutes of Health (Principal Investigator). 2008 to 2020

Longer Term Effects of a Natural Disaster on Health and Socio-Economic Status awarded by National Institutes of Health (Principal Investigator). 2007 to 2019

Health and Well-Being after Large Scale Shocks awarded by National Institutes of Health (Co-Mentor). 2015 to 2017

Integrative Pathways to Health and Illness awarded by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System (Principal Investigator). 2011 to 2017

Longitudinal Study of Older Adults and their Families in Mexico awarded by National Institutes of Health (Principal Investigator). 2008 to 2014

Doctoral Dissertation Research in Economics: Experimenting with methods that will cut the costs of attrition awarded by National Science Foundation (Principal Investigator). 2012 to 2014

Preferences and Economic Decision-Making awarded by National Institutes of Health (Principal Investigator). 2005 to 2012