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Robert Butler

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 28 July 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4051
  1. Ned Stafford

    Championed elderly people and promoted gerontology as an academic discipline

    As a young medical student in the early 1950s, Robert Butler was shocked by the dismissive, almost contemptuous, attitude of many of his teachers towards older patients and their diseases. The young man, who had been raised by his financially struggling grandmother during the great depression of the 1930s, felt a deep respect for older people.

    He vowed to be different, and he was. His dogged persistence in support of older people was perhaps the key factor in transforming geriatrics into a full discipline of medicine. In the late 1960s, Butler borrowed from the terms racism and sexism to coin the now widely used word “ageism” to describe age discrimination. He also initiated so called life review therapy, insisting that older people’s desire to reminisce and explore old memories was healthy.

    Excruciatingly painful

    In the middle of the 1970s his support for older people reached a mass audience in his book Why Survive? Being Old in America, in which he declares, “Old age in America is often a tragedy.” He adds that the ageing process “has been made unnecessarily and at times excruciatingly painful, humiliating, debilitating, and isolating through insensitivity, ignorance, and poverty.” The book, …

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