Sara McLanahan, a prominent sociologist whose work played a foundational role in the understanding of single parents and their children, died of cancer Dec. 31. She was 81.

Described by Princeton colleagues and students as a gracious and fair-minded scholar, McLanahan focused her teaching and research on societal gaps, guided by a profound curiousity about why some children fared better than others and how family structure played a role. She passed on this curiosity — and a deep appreciation for collecting robust data — to the network of scholars she mentored and supported throughout her career.

McLanahan’s greatest academic legacy is the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a landmark longitudinal study that has for two decades followed nearly 5,000 children born to unwed parents between 1998 and 2000 in 20 large U.S. cities. Researchers around the country continue to draw upon this rich data set to better understand the connections between family structure and social inequality.

“We are deeply saddened by Sara’s passing,” said Amaney Jamal, dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). “She was a leading pioneer in the demographic studies linked to single motherhood. Not only was she a towering figure in the field but also an outstanding member of the SPIA community. She will be terribly missed.”

Read more about her legacy.