In this issue
Memorial to James E. Birren, PhD
By K. Warner Schaie, PhD, ABPP
I am writing this brief memorial to recount my long relationship with Jim Birren, whom I consider to be the father of American geropsychology.
I first met Jim at the 1951 annual meeting of the American Gerontological Society, which met jointly with the 2nd International Congress of Gerontology in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time, I was a junior with a major in psychology at the main campus of the University of California at Berkeley. My advisor was Reed Tuddenham, who had encouraged me to pursue a directed study in which I pursued the question of whether Thurstone's mental ability structure determined in school children could also be shown to hold in adults of various ages. I was able to recruit a small sample of older adults from the geriatric practice of my family physician, who encouraged me to submit my results for presentation as a paper at the gerontology meeting (Schaie, Rosenthal, & Perlman, 1951).
Jim Birren, in 1951, directed internal and external gerontology research programs in the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). He was an inspiring speaker at the meetings, and he encouraged me to submit my paper for publication in the Journal of Gerontology (Schaie, Rosenthal, & Perlman, 1953). The paper was accepted and was probably largely responsible for my being accepted as a graduate student in clinical and developmental psychology at the University of Washington.
I renewed my acquaintance with Jim at the 1953 Gerontological Society meeting in San Francisco, but really got to know him much better while spending a day of the 1955 APA meeting with him and Jack Botwinick, showing them around the sights of the San Francisco Bay area and discussing with them my continuing interest in the psychology of aging. I had by then obtained an NIMH fellowship and been appointed executive secretary for a faculty committee on gerontology at the University of Washington.
In my first academic job, at the University of Nebraska, I primarily taught clinical assessment, but retained my interest in the psychology of aging and conducted my first longitudinal follow-up of the Seattle Longitudinal Study. Jim, at that time, was the aging chief of a section within the Institute of Childhood and Human Development. Hence, when I moved to West Virginia in 1963, I resumed extensive contact with Jim and, with his encouragement, organized a Div. 20-sponsored conference in which I paired substantively knowledgeable psychologists in early and adult development for the first West Virginia Conference. Jim also encouraged me to propose a lifespan developmental training grant, with the aid of which I was able to bring Hayne Reese, Paul Baltes and John Nesselroade to West Virginia.
Shortly afterwards, Jim moved to the University of Southern California (USC), and he invited me to teach in one of the summer workshops at the new Andrus Gerontology Center. Then in 1973, he recruited me to join him at USC, first as associate director for research, and then as director of the Research Institute within the Andrus Gerontology Center. As a member of the USC developmental psychology faculty, I also served as liaison between Jim and the psychology department and, during his sabbatical, served as acting dean of the Andrus center. Jim and I also shared several doctoral students working for advanced degrees in developmental psychology, with specialization in gerontology (e.g., Reedy, Birren, & Schaie, 1981).
Shortly thereafter, Jim decided to expand his earlier “Handbook of Gerontology” to a three-volume series, and he invited me to join him as the co-editor of the psychology volume. I remained in that role for the next five editions and much enjoyed this intensive and truly collaborative effort to influence and move forward the field of psychological gerontology. I have taken on the major editorial responsibility of the senior editor of the “Handbook of the Psychology of Aging” since Jim's professional retirement, with the help of Sherry Willis as the co-editor. Jim and I also published an undergraduate textbook together with Kinney and Woodruff (Birren, Kinney, Schaie, & Woodruff, 1981).
Given the work on successive editions of the handboook, Jim and I continued to interact closely even after I left USC to join Sherry Willis at Penn State and take on the leadership of their Gerontology Center, and after Jim retired from USC and moved to University of California, Los Angeles.
Birren, J. E., Kinney, D., Schaie, K. W., & Woodruff, D. S. (1981). Developmental psychology: A life-span approach . Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. Also serialized in Psiche, 1986, No. 46-75
Reedy, M. N., Birren, J. E., & Schaie, K. W. (1981). Age and sex differences in satisfying love relationships across the adult life span. Human Development, 24, 52-66.
Schaie, K. W., Rosenthal, F., & Perlman, R. M. (1951, July). Mental deterioration in later maturity. Paper presented at the Second International Congress of Gerontology, St. Louis, MO.
Schaie, K. W., Rosenthal, F., & Perlman, R. M. (1953). Differential deterioration of factorially "pure" mental abilities. Journal of Gerontology, 8, 191-196.