The field of gerontology lost a true pioneer on July 4th, when Dr. Robert N. Butler died at the age of 83, reportedly from acute leukemia.
Dr. Butler, a psychiatrist, coined the term “ageism” and is perhaps best known for his advocacy of the medical and social needs and rights of the elderly. In 1975 he became the founding director of the National Institute on Aging, where he identified Alzheimer’s disease as a national research priority. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his book “Why Survive? Being Old in America,” founded the first department of geriatrics in the United States, at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in 1982, and chaired the 1995 White House Conference on Aging.
For such an accomplished man, Dr. Butler held no pretensions. I first met him and his late second wife Myrna I. Lewis, Ph.D., in 1993 when they were in San Diego promoting the third edition of their book “Love and Sex After Sixty.” At the time, I was working as a health editor for a now-defunct newspaper that circulated to more than 500,000 seniors in Southern California, and I interviewed the couple in their hotel suite.
After the interview I told them about my plans to move to New York City to continue my journalism career the following summer. Dr. Butler was encouraging and asked me to keep in touch.
I arrived in New York City in July of 1994 at the age of 28 with two suitcases, lots of job leads, but no job. In early September, I followed up with Dr. Butler, who invited me to his office at the International Longevity Center, which he founded in 1990. That morning, I was feeling stressed out as the job search was taking longer than I had anticipated, and my savings account was running low. He spent a few minutes with me, told me he’d keep his ears open for work I’d be suitable for, and then asked, “Do you have a few minutes?”
“Sure,” I replied.
It turns out that in order to carve out time to meet with me, he’d broken from a meeting with officials from the International Longevity Center-Japan, who were in town to meet with Dr. Butler. He said that he wanted to introduce me to the group.
He walked me down a long hallway and opened the door to large conference room. There, about a dozen officials from Japan were seated around a large conference table, all dressed in suits. Dr. Butler invited me to take a seat at the table and went on to introduce me as a young journalist interested in aging issues, and asked me to pass around copies of some of the stories I’d written. He made me feel like a million bucks.
Maybe Dr. Butler had no idea how frazzled I was feeling that morning, but I like to think that he knew I needed a confidence boost. And his thoughtfulness didn’t stop there. About 6 weeks later, after I landed a job as a writer for Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons––his alma mater––Dr. Butler mailed me a note of congratulations. The first sentence read: “Welcome to New York.”
— Doug Brunk (on Twitter@dougbrunk)