Jul. 07 2010

Dr. Robert Butler, one of the world’s leading authorities on healthy aging and longevity, a pioneering researcher, and an esteemed senior lecturer at the Mailman School died on July 4, 2010, at age 83. A tireless and passionate scientist, an opponent of narrow-minded “ageism” - a term that he coined, Dr. Butler was in many ways his own best example of the possibility of remaining vital, active and productive throughout the human lifespan.

In marking his death, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius hailed Dr. Butler as “one of America’s greatest champions for the health and well-being of older Americans.”

See Dr. Butler's December 2009 Grand Rounds Lecture on "An Aging World."

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A Lifetime of Achievement

A gerontologist and psychiatrist, Dr. Butler established the nation’s first department of geriatrics - at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, served as the founding director of the National Institute for Aging (part of the National Institutes of Health) and created the International Center for Longevity, a New York-based research center with offices in 12 countries. His book Why Survive? Being Old in America earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

In the 1950s, Dr. Butler began one of the first interdisciplinary, longitudinal studies of healthy older people. This work resulted in the landmark book Human Aging, which defined the concept of healthy aging and offered a plan for avoiding chronic illness and revitalizing the final third of life. Dr. Butler helped to establish the fact that senility is a disease process rather than an inevitable consequence of growing old. His vision of old age set the stage for today’s concepts of “productive aging” and "successful aging.”

“Strictly speaking, longevity is measured in numbers: it is the arithmetical accumulation of days, weeks, months and years,” he wrote in his latest book, The Longevity Prescription, published only last month. “Yet again - or, more accurately, its converse, staying young - is in no small measure a state of mind that defies measurement.”

At the National Institute on Aging, which he led from 1976 to 1982, Dr. Butler identified Alzheimer's disease as a national research priority. Since 1990, Dr. Butler has led the International Longevity Center (ILC), a nonprofit research, policy, and education organization formed to educate individuals on how to live longer and better, and advise society on how to maximize the benefits of today’s longer life span. Today, there are ILC branches in Tokyo, London, Paris, and many other countries.

Dr. Butler joined the faculty of the Mailman School in 2009. He was a frequent advisor to the World Health Organization, and from 1986 to 2000 served as medical editor-in-chief of Geriatrics, a journal for primary care physicians. Dr. Butler also frequently consulted for television and radio and was the author of some 300 scientific and medical articles.

“Bob was a visionary for 50 years,” says Mailman School Dean Linda P.  Fried, whose own research also focuses on healthy aging. “He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize because he transformed our understanding of what it meant to be an aging world. He was, until the day of his death, leading the World Economic Forum’s Council on an Aging World to create an understanding of the necessity of establishing the rights of older people worldwide and to create a vision of productive aging that brings benefits to all. Most recently I had the privilege of working with him on how public health needs to be leading on these issues, and we look forward to carrying his vision on in his memory.”