Dr. Robert N. Butler dies at 83; Pulitzer Prize-winning pioneer in the study of aging

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Dr. Robert N. Butler, a gerontologist who pioneered the study of aging, founded the National Institute on Aging and the first department of geriatrics at a U.S. medical school and received the Pulitzer Prize for his seminal book on healthy aging, died Sunday at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. He was 83 and had leukemia.

“Not only was he the leading voice on issues related to longevity and the study of aging, but he was a moral voice who insisted that society value our elders in its public policies and programs,” Michael J. Burgess, director of the New York State Office for the Aging, said Tuesday in a statement.

The United States has undergone a transformation that he explained in his recent book on the phenomenon, “The Longevity Revolution.” In the last century, the average American gained 30 additional years of life, an increase greater than that achieved during the previous 5,000 years of human history. Expected life span grew from 47 years in 1900 to more than 77 today, but medicine has not kept pace with that growth, he argued.


Butler chose medicine as a career because he was profoundly affected by the death of his grandfather, who had helped raise him, and he planned to be a hematologist. But he was shocked by what he viewed as the callous disregard for the elderly among his medical school professors.

Those professors frequently referred to older people as “crocks” because they viewed their older patients as being as fragile as a piece of crockery. “I had grown up with my grandparents, and it seemed quite disrespectful to me,” Butler later said. Those experiences led him into geriatrics, a branch of medicine that is still woefully understaffed.

After his internships and residencies, he joined the National Institute of Mental Health, where he eventually became the lead investigator on the first study of healthy aging. Previously, researchers had examined many of the diseases that afflict the elderly, as well as the elderly who were institutionalized, but had performed little research on normal aging.

That study reached the then-remarkable conclusion that most frailties of the elderly were caused by disease, socioeconomic adversity and even personality. Aging was a risk factor for many problems of the elderly, such as senility and Alzheimer’s disease, but not the cause. That conclusion led to a breakthrough in our thinking about aging, Butler said, and laid the groundwork for future studies about healthy aging.

The 10-year study resulted in the landmark book “Human Aging.” Its results were also the core of Butler’s book “Why Survive? Being Old in America,” which won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

In 1968, Butler coined the term “ageism” to describe what he felt was bias against the elderly. He saw the need when many residents of his neighborhood complained vociferously about the purchase of property by outsiders to provide housing for the elderly. “There was no term to explain this prejudice, and so I decided, analogous to the terms sexism and racism, we could use a new useful term, which I called ageism,” he said.


He later led a task force that addressed the prejudice, producing the 2006 report “Ageism in America.”

In 1975, Butler became the founding director of the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. He left the position in 1982 to establish and chair the department of geriatrics and adult development at the Mount Sinai Medical School, the first such department in the country.

In 1990, he established what is now the International Longevity Center-USA at Mount Sinai. It subsequently became an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting healthy aging, with branches in 11 countries.

Robert Neil Butler was born Jan. 21, 1927, in New York. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1949 and his medical degree in 1953, both from Columbia University. He is the author of several other books and received numerous awards.

Butler had three daughters, Ann Christine, Carole Melissa and Cynthia Lee, with his first wife, the former Diane McLaughlin. He married his second wife, Myrna I. Lewis, in 1975, and they had one daughter, Alexandra Nicole. Myrna died of cancer in 2000.