James Birren Examines the History and New Ecology of Aging

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ASA Hall of Fame Award

"The age quake brings with it the most complex issues of science today," stated James E. Birren, who is now, at age 86, one of the reigning pioneers of gerontology. Yet, he told an audience at the 2004 Joint Conference of the American Society on Aging (ASA) and the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) in San Francisco last spring, the integrated approach to understanding the multidisciplinary complexity of "the phenomena of aging" continues to be held back by the lag effect once described by sociologist Matilda White Riley. Out-of-date treatments of aging dog fields ranging from medicine to education, he said.

During the conference, Birren received the ASA Hall of Fame Award, sponsored by Atlantic Philanthropies, which honors an older ASA member for a lifetime of advocacy and leadership that has enhanced the lives of elders. Currently, he is the associate director of the Center on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also an adjunct professor of medicine and gerontology, as well as adjunct professor in the School of Medicine. In addition, he is professor emeritus of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California (USC), where he was the founding executive director and dean of the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, the first multidisciplinary and degree-granting gerontology center in the United States.


In his award address, titled "Gerontology: Past, Present and Future," Birren dated the beginning of the field to 1930, when scientists met in New York to ponder how the prevailing focus of medicine on infectious disease was becoming an increasingly out-of-date paradigm. As medical science brought infectious agents under control, he said, arteriosclerosis, heart disease and other chronic illnesses "began to emerge as mainstream factors in health." The first major text on conquering the problems of aging was published in 1939. Then the U.S. Public Health Service created its center on gerontology at the city hospitals in Baltimore. Its founding director, Nathan Shock, arrived on Dec. 7, 1941-and much of his work on aging would be stalled by World War II.

"The growth of the field of aging really took off about 1950," Birren said. "A survey of only the psychological literature on aging showed that more was published from 1950-1960 than had been published in the entire previous history of the field." he added, "There was exponential growth, and I think that exponential growth is still going on."

Still, the lag effect persisted. As a young psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Birren and his colleague Robert N. Butler, who would become the founding director of the National Institute on Aging almost two decades later, proposed establishing a laboratory on aging. The directors of NIMH turned down the idea. Birren commented, "The dominant views in mental health were Freudian. The idea was that the important things that happen are those that happen early in life. So, why study aging?"

Then, in 1959, Birren found rejection at one publishing house after another for what would become the first of many editions of the now-classic Handbook of Aging textbook series. "Who wants to read about aging? That was the attitude of the day," he recalled. …