«Date:_ Approved: _ Priscilla Wald, Supervisor _ Cathy N. Davidson _ Karla FC Holloway _ Barry F. Saunders Dissertation submitted in partial ...»
The Age of Obsolescence:
Senescence and Scientific Rejuvenation in Twentieth Century America
Erin Gentry Lamb
Department of English
Priscilla Wald, Supervisor
Cathy N. Davidson
Karla FC Holloway
Barry F. Saunders
Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of English in the Graduate School of Duke University ABSTRACT
The Age of Obsolescence:
Senescence and Scientific Rejuvenation in Twentieth Century America by Erin Gentry Lamb Department of English Duke University Date:_______________________
Priscilla Wald, Supervisor ___________________________
Cathy N. Davidson ___________________________
Karla FC Holloway ___________________________
Barry F. Saunders An
of a dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of English in the Graduate School of Duke University Copyright by Erin Gentry Lamb Abstract Growing “old” in contemporary American society often means being seen as a problem: you threaten the stability of Social Security and Medicare; cutting-edge science seeks a cure for what ages you; cosmetic companies and health magazines sell you products and strategies for holding on to your youth as long as possible. The Age of Obsolescence: Senescence and Scientific Rejuvenation in Twentieth Century America traces the emergence of these attitudes toward old age back to the turn of the twentieth century when a publicly shared conception of aging was emerging in relation to advances in science and medicine, industrialized labor practices, a slowly developing welfare state, demographic observations of increased life expectancy, changing gender roles and expressions of national identity. During that time, the quest for the fountain of youth shifted from the stuff of legend to a driving motivation behind modern science.
In the four chapters of this dissertation, I bring literary critical methods to bear on literary and scientific texts, public health tracts, journalistic accounts, advertisements and public records. Through this survey of science, government and popular culture, I document the formation of several cultural narratives of aging—or, formulaic ways of addressing aging produced by repeated metaphors, imagery and story lines—that circulated with reciprocal influence through all of these spheres, determining attitudes toward, and experiences of, aging at that moment and into the present. After briefly exploring our contemporary “anti-aging” culture, the four chapters of The Age of Obsolescence address the framing of a moral responsibility for aging individuals to “take care of themselves” as a duty to their nation; the association of aging with obsolescence and its influence on worker’s experiences and industrial practices; the scientific and
proposed “cure” for this problem of aging: scientific rejuvenation, particularly the glandular rejuvenation fad of the 1920s. My conclusion traces this fervor for scientific rejuvenation into the present, showing how the turn-of-the-century cultural logic of aging has become a taken-for-granted framework of American popular culture today. In illuminating the historical moment when the “problem” of aging was located in the bodies of aged individuals, I point toward solutions that may arise not from scientific discovery, but from rewriting these cultural narratives of aging and old age and restructuring the national practices that stem from them.
For Mildred Nelson, Mildred Brooks and Carolyn Gentry, who taught me so much about the older woman I want to be.
And for Julian, with whom I look forward to growing old.
List of Tables
List of Figures
The Way We Age Now
The Age of Obsolescence
CHAPTER ONE Natural/National Salvation: Aging and Biological Citizenship
The Message of Science
Health Reform and Aging in 19th Century America
The Youth’s Companion and C. A. Stephens
The Youth’s View of Old Age
National Needs and Moderate Measures
The Aging Biological Citizen
The Natural Salvation of Biological Citizenship
CHAPTER TWO Efficiency, Obsolescence and the Human Scrap Heap
Fixing the Value of Old Age
The Rise and Fall of Aging Workers
Taylorism, Efficiency and the Human Scrap Heap
“Only Persons Under Forty Need Apply”
The Burden of Age
Taylorizing the Aging Body and Twilight Sleep
CHAPTER THREEDisease or Decay? The ‘Nature’ of Old Age and What to Do About It..................144 Disease, Degeneration and Disciplines
Strange Bedfellows: Disease and Optimism
The Paradox of Natural Degeneration
The Thin Line Between Hubris and Quackery
The Negative Net Worth of Old Age: Irving Fisher and the Report on National Vitality
Instituting Life Extension: The Fountain of Youth in One Annual Exam..................191 Dueling Narratives: The LEI vs. the AMA
CHAPTER FOURThe Grandular Grail: Scientific Rejuvenation and the ‘Cure’ for Old Age............214 Fads, Frauds and Physicians
Glands of Destiny
You’re Only as Old as Your Glands
The Youth Doctors
Manly Monkey Men
From Myth to Medicine: The Scientific Fountain of Youth
Into the Twilight
The Scientific Fountain of Youth through the Twentieth Century and Beyond........289 The Denial of Age
Relocating the “Problem” of Aging
List of Figures Figure 1: Beard’s "Law of the Relation of Age to Work"
Figure 2: "Stages of Man's Life from the Cradle to the Grave." (Nathaniel Currier, New York, c. 1848). "Stages of Woman's Life from the Cradle to the Grave." (Nathaniel Currier, New York, 1850).
Acknowledgements I owe debts of gratitude to so many people for the pages that follow.
“Dissertation” is such a woefully inadequate word to summarize the learning and growth, the uncertainty and angst, and the magnitude of the passage through a life stage that this project encapsulates for me. It, and I, would not be here were it not for the wisdom, advice, input, support, friendship and love of many very special people.
Priscilla Wald has been my adviser since even before I came to Duke, when I asked her—as a prospective student trying to decide which grad school to choose—how “she worked as an adviser.” She wrote me: “I love teaching, and I love training people to teach, as well as shaping scholarly projects....I absolutely don't try to bring students into my areas of expertise. I love venturing into new ones….I have learned, I think, how to get into a project on its own terms and help the writer figure out what those terms are. As I said, it's pretty much my favorite part of a job that I love.” She spoke very truly, and I am incredibly grateful for the infectious passion she holds for her work, the enthusiasm with which she has ventured into the topic of aging, and for how deftly she has helped me to figure out the terms of my project. Yet she didn’t manage to fully convey the generosity of her mentorship, which has extended far beyond this particular “scholarly project,” and far beyond shaping me as a scholar and a pedagogue, to shaping the way I set my priorities, the way I approach challenges, and the person I want to be—in this profession and in the world more generally. I thank her for her abundant and sage advice, for pointing me in fascinating and fertile directions, for treating me as a person
first and a student second, and for always making me answer that all-important question:
I have been incredibly fortunate to learn from mentors and scholars who are— like Priscilla—incredibly generous, full of wisdom, and truly genuine people in addition to absolutely brilliant scholars. Cathy Davidson has been a driving force behind so many of the richly interdisciplinary programs that have made my time at Duke so fulfilling, particularly the University Scholars Program and HASTAC. She has taught me a great deal about how people work, how organizations make things happen, and—while I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to replicate it—about how to stay sane, warm and charming while performing Herculean labors. I thank her for taking me on as Director of the HASTAC Scholars Program and for nurturing my scholarship at the same time that she has nurtured my career. Karla Holloway’s scholarship and teaching have inspired in me— and modeled for me— ways to meaningfully connect with my students and my readers.
She is a paragon of grace, and I thank her for being a part of the project from its very beginning, for giving me the opportunity to meet Daniel Callahan, and for finding research funding for me during a desperately poor summer. Barry Saunders has shown me how skillfully it is possible to facilitate discussion in an interdisciplinary classroom, moving agilely between the theoretical and the applied, and beautifully distilling dense material in a way that engages enthusiastic and sustained discussion from students of all stripes. I am inspired by the way he balances practice and scholarship and makes himself legible to so many disciplines and fields, and I thank him for imparting to me— and teaching me to impart to others—the gift of multiple perspectives.
My work and teaching are indebted to many other professors and professionals whose examples and advice I have been grateful for over the years. I thank Robert Mitchell, Matt Cohen and Barbara Herrnstein-Smith for serving on my prelim committee, helping to shape the earliest iterations of this project, and teaching incredibly enriching
classes. I thank Victoria Lodewick for the amazing intellectual community of the University Scholars Program, and for her mentoring and friendship over the years. I thank Teresa Mangum at The University of Iowa for introducing me many years ago to what literary scholars have to offer the study of aging, and for indoctrinating me into academia where your professors can become your mentors and your friends. I thank Richard Johnson and Mike Featherstone at Nottingham Trent University for exposing me to a much larger world and giving me the tools to navigate it. I thank those who have helped to pioneer the field of Aging Studies and whose work, and at times personal guidance, have been invaluable to both my project and my career path, chief among them Kathy Woodward, Stephen Katz, and Margaret Gullette. And I thank the community of graduate students at Duke who have been so collegial, have served as role models, and have shared the joys and frustrations of each step of this journey, most especially those who started this journey the same time I did: Alice Williams, Melinda DiStefano and Koonyong Kim.
The biggest debts of all are to my family and my friends, who have provided unfailing support and encouragement, have listened to my grumbles and doubts, and whose love has made this journey worthwhile. To Jim Gentry and Martha Nielsen, my mother and father, I owe my love of learning, the courage to start this journey in the first place, and the joy of being in the classroom which makes this journey worth the effort.
Words can’t express how grateful I am for their unflagging belief in me, especially when I didn’t believe myself. I hope that my wonderful sister Robin Gentry knows that most everything I’ve learned about “being a grown-up,” and especially about growing stronger from adversity, I’ve learned from her. I thank Vivian and Robert Lamb for welcoming me so warmly into their family, and thank Vivian especially for her constant encouragement
and sage, practical advice. I thank Dave Milloway for all the “work sessions” and Alice Williams for all the “sanity checks;” there could be no better, truer, wiser friends.
And last, but most of all, I thank Julian Lamb. He has read every word of this project—even every footnote!—and he has been by my side for nearly every page I’ve written. He has borne my grumbling, shored my confidence, and his amazing dedication and focus have inspired me to work both harder and better. More than that, he has made me happier than I ever thought possible, and while I would have finished this “for me” someday, it has been so much more rewarding to finish this “for us.” To Julian— Thank you, and I love you.