Matilda White Riley (1911-2004)

Soaring: Celebrating Matilda White Riley (1911–2004)

by Ronald P. Abeles, National Institutes of Health

Matilda and John (Jack) Riley adopted me into their extensive family of scholars, scientists, co-workers, professors, students, and friends in June 1974. At the time I didn’t know that my first acquaintance with them at this second session of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Committee on Work and Personality in the Middle Years (chaired by Orville G. Brim, Jr.) would change the direction of my professional and personal life. I had just joined the SSRC’s staff, and this committee session was my introduction to the Council and its activities. What an introduction it was! The subject matter was completely new; the committee members were world-renowned; the meals were delicious, and the fellowship was congenial. Matilda and Jack welcomed my wife and me warmly to their dinner table, and there began 30 years in their “convoy of social support.”

During that dinner and the subsequent five years of SSRC conversations, the outline of Matilda and Jack’s joint lives emerged. It is impossible to speak of Matilda’s life or Jack’s without mentioning the other. They were childhood sweethearts in Maine and spent their lives together until Jack’s death in 2002. Jack informed me of Matilda’s life and accomplishments, and Matilda recounted Jack’s. Together they regaled their listeners about life at Harvard, where Jack was a graduate student and she was a research assistant (1932-33) after graduating from Radcliffe College (magna cum laude) and marrying Jack, both in 1931. They serenaded us auf Deutsch with folksongs from their 1933 study-year at the University of Vienna and their bicycle tour of Germany. Jack reminisced about their canoe trip with Freud’s son, who schemed to strand Jack on shore in order to be alone with lovely Matilda! They recounted their misadventures of the early ASA annual meetings when Matilda was its first Executive Officer (1949-1960) and she carried its records in a box from her home to the meetings. They described Matilda’s experiences as the Chief Consulting Economist for the U.S. War Production Board (1942-1944) and alluded imprecisely to Jack’s wartime service in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). We learned of Matilda’s success in establishing, with her father, the pioneering Market Research Company of America (1939-49), where she developed and applied sophisticated sampling and survey techniques based upon her sociological methods and knowledge.

We heard of Matilda’s productive career at Rutgers University, progressing from Research Specialist to University Professor (1950-73), where she authored a research textbook that introduced combining theory and methods and where she began her scholarly interest in age and aging. She continued her pioneering work in the sociology of aging at the Russell Sage Foundation (1974-77), based on her classic volumes on the age-stratification paradigm and aging society perspective. They spoke of their “final” career and geographical move back to Mere Point in Brunswick, Maine, where Matilda became the first woman full professor (1973-81) at Jack’s alma mater, Bowdoin College.

They entertained us with stories of camping trips with their two children, including the time they became snowbound in the Grand Tetons! They expressed pride in the accomplishments of their son, John W. Riley, III, as a physician, and their daughter, Lucy Sallick, as an artist. (Later they shared stories of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren!) They made us laugh with the tale of being locked out of their rented home at Stanford while skinny-dipping one night. In the buff, gallant Jack had to ask a neighbor for the house key in order to retrieve their clothing.

In 1979 at the age of 68, Matilda embarked on a 20-year career at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIA’s founding director, Robert N. Butler, and the NIH Director, Donald Frederickson, invited Matilda to establish the NIA’s granting program on Social and Behavioral Research (SBR) as well as to guide the expansion and integration of these disciplines throughout the NIH. During her first year at the NIA, she and Kathleen Bond (one of her former graduate students) developed and implemented a multidisciplinary vision for research on aging that integrated the aging of individuals into societal structures. This program emphasized the influence of social structures on the lives of individuals (Matilda exclaimed often, “People don’t grow up and grow old in laboratories—they grow up and grow old in changing societies.”) and the lives of individuals on social structures. This vision extended to the biological sciences, for Matilda recognized the need for a biopsychosocial understanding. The publication of this blueprint as a NIH program announcement set the course of NIA’s program and influences its direction even to this day.

With the publication of a second paradigmatic program announcement, Health and Effective Functioning in the Middle and Later Years, Matilda expanded the NIH’s disease- and organ-system-oriented worldview by introducing the concept of effective functioning as an equally important concern. By this she meant that research and policy should also address social and psychological functioning, such as the performance of social roles and maintenance or even improvement of cognitive skills. A major goal should be extending the healthy and productive middle years of life as far as possible into the later years of life.

Under Matilda’s guidance, NIA’s multidisciplinary program became a substantial supporter of behavioral and social science research and exerted a disproportionate influence upon the practice of behavioral and social science at NIH. Her vision of positive aging inspired many innovative research projects and attracted talented social, behavioral, and health scientists to the study of age and aging.

While guiding the NIA, she provided leadership across the NIH in her role as chairperson of landmark committees regarding health and behavior. She was co-chair of the joint ADAMHA (Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration) and NIH Steering Committee for the Institute of Medicine’s Project on Health and Behavior (1979-1982) and chair of the trans-NIH Working Group on Health and Behavior (1982-1991). In these capacities she served as the senior NIH spokesperson on the behavioral and social sciences, encouraged coordination among NIH Institutes, oversaw the production of numerous reports to the Congress on behavioral research at the NIH, provided advice to several NIH Directors, and initiated the behavioral and social sciences seminar series at the NIH.

While at the NIA and after her departure in 1998, Matilda continued to contribute, even in her 90s, to the scientific literature on aging and the life course through a series of publications, lectures, conferences, and workshops. Over her last decade, her emphasis turned increasingly to the problem of age segregation and to the potential for restructuring social institutions to achieve age integration.

In recognition of her contributions, she received multitudinous honors and appointments. Among these were her elections as the President of the Eastern Sociological Society (1976), of the American Sociological Association (1985-86) and of the ASA Section on Aging (1989); selection to the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine; membership in the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research; recipient of the ASA Section on Aging Distinguished Scholar Award (1988); and of the Gerontological Society of America Distinguished Creative Contribution to Gerontology (1990) and Kent (1992) awards; and appointment as the only ever social Scientist Emeritus at the NIH (1998). In 2001 the NIH organized a series of lectures in her honor, titled “Soaring: An Exploration of Science and the Life Course.” The lectures highlighted some areas in which she made significant contributions: age and aging, methodology, communications, and health and behavior. The title was drawn from her first publication, Gliding and Soaring: An Introduction to Motorless Flight, which she authored as “Mat White” with her father. The publishers believed in 1931 that no one would buy a book on flying authored by a 20-year-old “Matilda” and changed her name to the more masculine sounding “Mat.”

What was it like to work with Matilda on a daily basis? Here is a prototypical experience, when she was a keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. The meetings were in Boston that August, and I was the chair of the session at which she was speaking. Matilda had planned on flying from Washington to Boston on the day of her afternoon lecture. As the date approached, she became concerned about the weather. What if thunderstorms delayed or prevented her flight? She couldn’t depart any earlier because of other commitments. Her solution was to pack me off before her with her lecture. (This meant she was finished two days in advance!) Not only did she provide me with the lecture, but with instructions for dramatic pauses and emphases as well as hand gestures to be used in describing her diagram for life course development!

This was typical Matilda. As a young adult of the Depression, she worried about everything that could go wrong and prepared to face it. The only flaw in her plan was I! As a child of the Mad Magazine generation, my approach was “What? Me worry?” and I didn’t practice the delivery of the paper. As the time of her lecture approached, I began to question the wisdom of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman. Five minutes to go, and no Matilda! Thankfully, she appeared just as I was awkwardly rehearsing the gestures required to illustrate cross-sectional vs. longitudinal aspects of cohorts and the life course.

Soaring is an apt metaphor for her professional and private lives. Creativity, vision, compassion, adventure, and enthusiasm hallmarked both. “Like many of us, I was ‘adopted’ by Matilda and feel the loss of her like the loss of a parent” (Kathleen Bond, November 16, 2004).

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