Making a Difference: How Robert Butler Changed Life for Millions

“His work established that the old did not inevitably become senile, and that they could be productive, intellectually engaged, and active — sexually and otherwise…”

by Dave Riley

In 1810 a fellow in Great Britain named Peter Durand was awarded a patent for inventing a method that preserved food in a can. Wonderful, we might all say, except for one wrinkle: it would be nearly fifty years more before anyone invented the can opener.

So what did people do all that time? Buy canned food, put it in the pantry and hope that eventually someone would create a method for opening the doggone stuff?

Actually no. “The first cans were made of iron,” says an article from Listverse, the company that makes many of those top ten lists you find all over the internet, “so people had to struggle to open them with a hammer and chisel.” Imagine the mess you’d make in your kitchen today if you tried doing that with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup.

Eventually Robert Yates of Middlesex in the UK developed a truly workable can opener. And very probably if Yates hadn’t done it, eventually someone else would have, just as chances are that if the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison had never been born, we very likely would still have airplanes and light bulbs today.

But I’m not sure the same can be said of the enormous contributions Dr. Robert Butler made to society. He did so much to advance the understanding of aging that you have to wonder how much less satisfying life would be for seniors today if instead of going to med school, Robert Butler had decided to become a lawyer or a house painter or a race car driver.

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Dr. Robert Butler

Robert Butler’s life did not get off to a promising start. Eleven months after he was born in New York in 1927, his parents broke up. He was sent to live with his grandparents on their chicken farm in New Jersey, but just six years later his grandfather, whom he revered, died unexpectedly. Not long after that, in the midst of the great depression, his grandmother lost the farm, and she and Robert moved to New York City, where they lived in a cheap hotel and ate government surplus food. Meanwhile Robert sold newspapers to help them get by. Then the hotel burned down and they lost all their possessions.

Really, I didn’t make any of that up. It all happened to them, and you have to wonder why little Bobby Butler didn’t turn into a rebellious juvenile delinquent.

But he didn’t. Many years later he recalled this period of his life not with bitterness but with appreciation. “What I remember about those years more than the hardship was my grandmother’s triumphant spirit and determination,” he wrote. “Experiencing at first hand an older person’s struggle to survive, I was myself helped to survive as well.”

Robert Butler’s appreciation of his grandparents would transform not only his life, but the lives of millions of other people. He eventually went to medical school, where he was horrified at his professors’ attitude toward the elderly. “Those professors frequently referred to older people as crocks because they viewed their older patients as being as fragile as crockery,” Thomas Maugh II wrote in his obituary of Dr. Butler in the Los Angeles Times. “I had grown up with grandparents, and it seemed quite disrespectful to me.”

Dr. Butler devoted the rest of his life to the study of aging, and was one of the founders of the modern field of gerontology. He did a groundbreaking eleven-year study on aging, which helped establish that senility was not the result of growing old but of disease. That study resulted in his 1975 book Why Survive: Being Old in America, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1975 he created the National Institute on Aging, which he headed for six years. In 1982 he founded the Department of Geriatrics and Adult Development at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, the first such department at a medical school.

He coined the term “ageism,” and in his writings and speeches pounded home a single basic but not often recognized fact: in the 20th century the average life span increased 30 years, which is greater than the increases in the last 5,000 years of human existence.

Frequently reporters would call Dr. Butler for a quote on some matter having to do with aging, but he wouldn’t let them get away with just a sound bite.

“When I was an editor at a health professions magazine trying to get a call back and a quote,” said journalist Paul Kleyman, “I’d get my quote, all right, but more than that, I’d get an education. Bob, far from being a publicity hound, wanted to fill you in with background and other sources to interview for your story. And, if you had time and seemed interested in writing more about issues in aging, he wanted to know about you and your work.”

When Dr. Butler died at age 83 in 2010, Kate Zernike wrote in the New York Times, “No one, his colleagues said, had done more to improve the image of aging in America. His work established that the old did not inevitably become senile, and that they could be productive, intellectually engaged, and active — sexually and otherwise. His life provided a good example: He worked until three days before his death from acute leukemia.”

“I always thought Bob Butler would live forever,” journalist Trudy Lieberman wrote in Columbia Journalism Review. “After all, he was Mr. Live A Long Life, and preached the gospel of helping Americans do just that. I never thought of Bob getting old.”

But he did, and when he passed away, he left behind not only four daughters and six grandchildren, but countless colleagues and adherents to carry on his work, and millions of seniors all over the globe, many of whom had never heard of Dr. Butler but whose lives are far richer because of his pioneering successes.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.