In a 1905 speech marking his departure from the Johns Hopkins medical faculty, the revered William Osler offered that he had “two fixed ideas” about age. The first of these “is the comparative uselessness of men above forty years of age”, evidence for which, as he saw it, was the paucity “of human achievement in action, in science, in art, in literature -” arising from men above that age. He went on, “[t]he effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between ages twenty-five and forty – these fifteen golden years of plenty, the anabolic or constructive period, in which there is always a balance in the mental bank and the credit is still good.”
Osler’s second fixed idea “is the uselessness of men above sixty years of age, and the incalculable benefit it would be in commercial, political, and in professional life if, as a matter of course, men stopped work at this age.” Osler quotes Donne stating that in ancient Rome, men at age sixty and beyond were denied the vote and were referred to as Depontani “because the way to the senate was per pontem [by way of the bridge], and they were not permitted to come thither.” He then cited – tongue firmly in cheek, I believe – Anthony Trollope’s novel “The Fixed Period” where that author advocates for “the admirable scheme of a college into which at sixty men retired for a year of contemplation before a peaceful departure by chloroform[!]“.
I retired – at Osler’s prescribed age 60 – from a very busy practice of urology. Part of my motivation was that the specialty was undergoing a sea change in surgical technique – to a much more laparoscope-based approach. I expected this would take me a good 3 or 4 years to master, just about in time to retire anyway. Better to make room for younger people brought up in the new surgical environment.
- “The Astronomer” by Vermeer
But no chloroform exit for me! In fact, enjoying a “comfortable” retirement has given me a sense of what it must have been like in 17th and 18th century Europe when men of means, who did not have to work for the next meal, could spend their mental energy immersed in artistic, literary or scientific endeavors. And thus it’s been for me in the intervening 10 years: I’ve researched and written some history and some commentary, In 2003, I founded the Society for the History of Navy Medicine to serve as a scholarly home for people interested in research, study and publication in the history of maritime medicine. For the last 2 years, I wrote a nearly weekly blog on various medical history topics (I just “retired” from these last two endeavors, on my 70th birthday). And then, there is “Community Involvement”: a Rotary club presidency, reorganizing the Fleet Admiral Nimitz Chapter of the Association of the United States Navy after decades of unconscionable silence; leadership in historical organizations both local and national; and recently, chairing a committee to establish a Poet Laureate program for my city.
One of the saddest things I observed in my practice were men whose lives essentially ended with retirement. With no “purpose” in life, these men descended into sometimes dreadful depressions. But for no reason! I believe that, in any community, all one has to do is let it be known that one is retired, and the phone will ring off the hook with offers of opportunity for community service. This is often joyful work, done alongside other people of good will who are doing it simply because they want to!
So, at age 70, at the beginning of the “third half” of my life, my calendar is “booked” right up through my 75th year. If I were to die tomorrow, I’d do so satisfied with a life well lived – but really pissed because there’s so much more I want to do!
This article was originally posted to my blog “Of Surgeons and the Sea” on 30 April 2013
©2013, 2014 Thomas L Snyder, MD