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Ideas about ageing and old age within research on ageing in Swedish medicine during the 20th century.

Research project During the 20th century attention on old age and the elderly increased. Ageing successively became a medical issue. What are the causes for ageing, is it possible to control, and how are the elderly to be taken care of – were some of the questions the researchers addressed.

Different historical views and notions on aging and old age have to some degree been uncovered by historical research. An ambiguous attitude towards old people has existed throughout the history of Western culture. On the one hand old age has rendered respect and old people have had a lot of power. On the other hand old people have in some respects been devalued. Historical research concerning aging and old age has in various ways tried to explain the often strikingly negative associations towards old age. One explanation has been found in the fact that old people in some periods and contexts have had a lot of power, on an institutional, economical and a symbolic level and that this has created generational tensions. In a Nordic context the traditional rural living arrangements have been discussed as a possible reason for devaluation and tensions between the generations. The aim of this study is to focus on notions and theories about aging within the medical sciences during the 20th century, mainly the period after 1946, the year when the Swedish Society for Research on Aging, was formed. It is noteworthy that during the same period similar societies for “gerontological” research were formed in other Western countries and the slogan “Add life to years, not years to life” became a gathering guiding star. In the study I will draw on the Swedish pathologist and aging researcher Folke Henschen (1881-1978). Henschen will be used as a point of departure, a kind of prism, to shed light on the research on aging during the mid and late part of the 20th century. The focus will be on Swedish research but as the scientists at this point in history were quite internationalised, international comparisons will be done. So far the empirical material on Henschen supports my assessment of him as quite representative for his time and scientific context. Some of the issues Henschen raised may be analytically associated to both theories of knowledge within the History of science and to gender theories.

Project overview

Project period:

2007-01-01 2008-12-31

Funding

Finansår , 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

huvudman: Anders Brändström, finansiar: Vetenskapsrådet, y2003: , y2004: , y2005: , y2006: , y2007: , y2008: , y2009: , y2010: , y2011: , y2012: , y2013: , y2014: , y2015: , y2016: , y2017: , y2018: , y2019: , y2020: ,

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious studies

Research area

History of ideas

Project description

Different historical views and notions on aging and old age have to some degree been uncovered by historical research. The main sources for knowledge of these differing notions are literary, religious and legal texts, but information is also to be found in documents from ancient disciplines like philosophy and medicine. An ambiguous attitude towards old people has existed throughout the history of Western culture. On the one hand old age has rendered respect and old people have had a lot of power. On the other hand old people have in some respects been devalued (Minois, 1989; Parkin, 2003; Thane et al, 2005).

Historical research concerning aging and old age has in various ways tried to explain the often strikingly negative associations towards old age. One explanation has been found in the fact that old people in some periods and contexts have had a lot of power, on an institutional, economical and a symbolic level and that this has created generational tensions. Another reason for the historical devaluation of old age may be the perfectionist body ideals from ancient Greece and Rome which in different ways have influenced the view on the “ideal man” in the Western society. In a Nordic context the traditional rural living arrangements have been discussed as a possible reason for devaluation and tensions between the generations (Gaunt, 1996).

Within the realm of History of science the rather gloomy image of how old age has been valued, is confirmed when it comes to scientific doxa on aging (Achenbaum, 1995; Katz, 1996). For instance the Danish historian of science, Henning Kirk, has shown that ancient rather negatively formed conceptions that stemmed from Galen prevailed for centuries and still existed when physicians during the 19th century formulated scientific theories. Aging was generally seen as a pathological process and according to Kirk 19th century’s researches underestimated the capacities and possibilities of old age (Kirk, 1995).

The aim of this study is to focus on notions and theories about aging within the medical sciences during the 20th century, mainly the period after 1946, the year when the Swedish Society for Research on Aging, was formed. It is noteworthy that during the same period similar societies for “gerontological” research were formed in other Western countries and the slogan “Add life to years, not years to life” became a gathering guiding star. It is obvious that the institutionalisation of research on aging in Sweden was slower in comparison with other countries. The Swedish historian Birgitta Odén has drawn attention to the fact that societal and political interests were very much at hand when research on old age in Sweden became institutionalised (Odén, 1990; Idem., 1993). The relationship between scientific milieu and political realm, is therefore one of the interesting areas to investigate when it comes to the study of scientific research activities.

In the study I will draw on the Swedish pathologist and aging researcher Folke Henschen (1881-1978). Henschen will be used as a point of departure, a kind of prism, to shed light on the research on aging during the mid and late part of the 20th century (Söderqvist, 1998). The focus will be on Swedish research but as the scientists at this point in history were quite internationalised, international comparisons will be done. So far the empirical material on Henschen supports my assessment of him as quite representative for his time and scientific context. Some of the issues Henschen raised may be analytically associated to both theories of knowledge within the History of science and to gender theories.

Proceeding from the epistemological presumption that scientific activity is strongly related to social and cultural processes, and that scientific knowledge can be used as a tool for societal power (Longino, 1990; Tuana, 1993) my claim is that gerontological research can not be understood beyond a societal and cultural context. Scientific knowledge production and historically established notions on aging are assumed to be related to one another (Katz, 1996). The status and the claims of truth in scientific knowledge can furthermore be a factor of power when effectuated in social reforms and in elderly care. As a theoretical guide mark I will therefore use theories from the fields of sociological and historical studies of sciences, where science is socially and historically theorised and contextualised (Fleck, 1997; Nowotny, 1991; Shapin, 1994).