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Cutting Edge
BSG Founding Fellows: Remembering a Distant Meeting
Gerontologists are not used to thinking of memory as a resource. This article is all about my memory of the first formal meeting of the BSG and of subsequent events. I would describe it as formal because by the end of the meeting a committee had been appointed and I was on it. But I no longer have, or know of, any documentary evidence of the meeting. So, as a contribution to the historical record, my aim here is to report upon what I can now recall, 40 years later, of this the meeting at which the BSG became ‘real’.

First, time and place: the meeting was held in Bedford College, housed then in Regent’s Park, London. It was sometime in 1971. I’ve no recollection of the date but I don’t remember any extreme weather conditions in travelling on the train from Stoke to London.

Second, who called it? Denis Bromley chaired it, Sheila Chown of Bedford College hosted it and, as I recall, Arthur Bigot issued the invitations. I have always thought of these as the three who organised the meeting and got the Society off the ground. But, thinking about it now, it’s possible that there were others who played a less conspicuous but no less significant part.

Third, who else was there? Well, I travelled to the meeting with a colleague at Keele University, Boris Allan, who previously had been a researcher with Arthur in Nottingham. I would guess that there were another half dozen or so people there. Once or twice over the last forty years I’ve met someone who said they were there too, but now, I’m embarrassed to say, I can’t remember who they were. My recollection is that several, like Denis, Sheila and Arthur, were psychologists. Indeed there was a moment in the course of the committee being appointed, when Boris spoke out to suggest that it should include a sociologist. Up to this point let it be noted I had felt fairly marginal to the proceedings but, when Denis asked Boris who he would suggest, he answered ‘Bill Bytheway’. This was quite shock since there had been no prior discussion of such a proposal.

That is all I can report with full confidence about that day. As I have struggled to remember more, the names of Anne Gilmore, Arthur Willcocks, Ann Davies, and Pat Rabbit come to mind as possible participants. All were active supporters in the first two or three years. I have a visual memory of Boris and I sitting at a fairly narrow table in the room in Bedford College. Denis was seated on my right, towards the far end, probably next to Arthur, and Sheila was at the left hand end. I can remember her standing behind us at some point, possibly bringing in the tea. I am disappointed to say that this is all I can say about that particular event.

Following that meeting, the committee organised a series of seminars and conferences. Malcolm Johnson remembers an early one in New College, Oxford, and I vaguely remember Nottingham and East London being two locations. The next event I can clearly recall however is Arthur Bigot visiting me at Keele and leaving a box of documents with me. He was going to a new post in Cleveland, Ohio, and somehow or another it had been decided that I would take over from him as Secretary/Treasurer of the Society. I can’t imagine that I was not consulted about this, probably Denis had phoned me; I doubt if there had been a committee meeting at which the transfer was decided. My only recollection is of this rather rushed visit, Arthur dropping the files on my desk before catching the plane to Cleveland a few days later.

I would like to say a few words here about Arthur. The move to Cleveland took him away from gerontology, certainly British gerontology, and I regret that we have not remained in touch. Of the three ‘founders’, he seemed to be the primary source of energy. He had been a drummer in the legendary Dutch Swing College Band and I remember having a meal with him. Whilst waiting for the first course to appear, he had picked up his knife and fork and entertained us to a quick solo on the adjacent crockery and glassware. This typified his character and I suspect that the Society owes him a great debt in getting things done in the first couple of years. By the time he left, we were ‘up and running’.

After the initial launch, Sheila Chown moved on – I don’t recall her being actively involved. In contrast I worked closely with Denis and learnt to appreciate his commitment to academic standards and empirical research. He was keen that ageing research should not be dominated by the clinical perspective. Looking back, I suspect that he had been involved in discussions with Age Concern and the National Corporation for the Care of Old People (later the Centre for Policy on Ageing) about the need for a ‘learned society’, a body that would promote social science research. What came over to me very strongly was his concern that it should focus on, and promote, rigorous, primarily academic and scientific, research. One objective of the meeting at Bedford College had been to forge a coalition of psychologists and sociologists and, reflecting this, the new society was named the British Society of Social and Behavioural Gerontology. We realised that this was something of a mouthful but, I for one, liked the distinctive acronym, particularly when pronounced ‘B double S B G’.

Arthur had set up a routine of twice-yearly conferences or seminars which were ‘advertised’ within their local areas. For most of these events, members of the BSSBG had been encouraged to circulate details to people they knew, and similarly the committee would inform other potentially interested local organisations and researchers. Very quickly a number of founding members became tried and tested speakers and, at times, it seemed that we were a travelling circus, arriving in some distant city, setting up our tents and laying on a performance: for example, I remember Denis and I being the only two who crossed the border to participate in an event that Anne Gilmore organised in Glasgow. Another conference was held in Cardiff and this coincided with the retirement of KFH Murrell as Professor Industrial Gerontology in Wales, an event that was then seen as potentially marking the end of industrial gerontology as a distinct area of research. I also seem to remember that this conference marked the point when the important work of Alan Lipman and Robert Slater on the psychology and sociology of living spaces had an impact on the Society.

I suspect that one indirect outcome of this strategy was that we recruited a number of practitioners working with older people. Several were keen to know more about age and ageing and to support the development of the Society. Early members of the committee for example included Jim Traynor of Leeds Social Services Department and Pauline Woodard of Gloucestershire Age Concern. In contrast we failed to recruit members from within a number of well established areas of research (e.g. on pensions policies). It was also a matter of some regret that notable social researchers such as Peter Townsend had not joined. In contrast a number of medical sociologists interested in age had; Malcolm Johnson, Jonathan Barker, Eileen Fairhurst and Rex Taylor, in particular. Indeed, for a few years, efforts were made to ensure that the dates of the annual conferences of the BSSBG and the Medical Sociology group did not clash. Whilst these developments led to many stimulating discussions and debates, the psychologists in the BSSBG tended to drift away and, eventually in 1980, PSIGE, a ‘special interest group’ of psychologists working with older people, was formed as part of the British Psychological Society.

It was around this time, that the committee of the BSSBG decided to change the name to something less cumbersome. I remember thinking that the obvious simplification of leaving out ‘Social and Behavioural’ would not be acceptable. Apart from possible objections from the psychologists who had remained active in the Society, there were a number of prominent members from sociology (such as Chris Phillipson) who called themselves ‘social gerontologists’ rather than ‘gerontologists’. Despite these sensitivities, the decision went ahead. Nevertheless, since that time, gerontology has remained ‘a multidisciplinary area of research’ rather than ‘a discipline’ for which the BSG would be the corresponding ‘learned society’.

A quick survey of current members of the BSG reveals six Professors of Social Gerontology, five Professors of Gerontology but no Professors of Behavioural Gerontology. What this might suggest is that ‘the social’ has won. But the alternative explanation is that the survival of ‘social gerontologist’ as a distinctive identity reflects the continuing commitment of some to a ‘social’ academic home, and to the idea that gerontology remains a multi-disciplinary amalgam of people from different backgrounds. Whatever adjective might be attached to the noun ‘gerontology’ – industrial, critical, cultural, humanist, as well as social and behavioural, have all been added from time to time – my feeling is that it’s the noun itself that represents the shared interests of members of the BSG and that, for this reason if no other, we should now, 40 years later, feel pleased to describe ourselves as ‘gerontologists’.
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