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Who's Who
Catherine Hennessy
University of Plymouth

Catherine Hennessy is Professor of Public Health and Ageing at the University of Plymouth. Catherine was Deputy Director of the UK National Collaboration on Ageing Research and the ESRC Growing Older Programme. She is currently Principal Investigator on the Grey and Pleasant Land project, part of the New Dynamics of Ageing (NDA) programme.



Describe yourself in three words

Determined, friendly, inquisitive.

How did you get here today (i.e. career/research)?

In the 1970s I did a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Florida under the supervision of Otto von Mering, who was a pioneer in the area of ageing within social anthropology. With Florida being a main destination for retirees in the U.S., I was in the right place at the right time, gerontologically speaking. The University had an excellent gerontology centre with lots of post-graduate funding at the time, so I was able to combine my degree with a certificate in gerontological studies. The Centre also sent me to attend the Cross-Cultural Summer Institute on Ageing at the University of Hawaii in 1977. This was a somewhat misguided move on their part, because once you’ve been there, you want to stay, which I did! I subsequently got a master’s degree in public health gerontology at the University of Hawaii, and then worked at the Hawaii State Department of Health doing service planning for older adults. I later got my doctorate in public health at the University of California, Berkeley. I’ve always been deeply interested in culture in relation to health and the experience of ageing, and I’ve had the opportunity to do research in some rather far-flung and interesting places--public housing for older people in Honolulu (see photo circa 1979), a long-term care programme in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and American Indian reservations in the southwest U.S. I worked in public health research on ageing at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for 10 years before moving to the UK in 2001.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Actually it was an observation someone once made about me rather than a piece of advice. I was told that I had the ability to talk to anybody, and that really resonated with me. I felt that it reflected how I felt about myself and endorsed my chosen vocation to find out about other people’s experience.

Who’s the most influential person in your life and why?

In terms of my career and aspirations, it would be Otto von Mering, my academic mentor. He passed away at the age of 88 on the last day of 2010, still writing and publishing up until the end. He had a very philosophical turn of mind and I learned how to think about things from him.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

As an influence on my work, Erving Goffman’s ‘Stigma’ (1963) and ‘Asylums’ (1961) had a tremendous effect on forming my perspective about how we view and manage differences in the human condition, including old age.

What do you do when you are not doing ageing research?

Being an American (although soon to get my UK citizenship!) I try to spend time doing those things that are part of my Miss Marple/Noel Coward fantasy about the country--visiting National Trust properties, teashops, gardens and the amazing countryside.

What’s the future for ageing research?

I think that ageing research will give us an increasing understanding of the multiple influences right across the lifecourse that shape our prospects for later life. Interdisciplinary science will show us, for example, the processes by which social and psychological factors affect the process of senescence down to the cellular level, and will (hopefully!) encourage us as a society to create environments that support healthy ageing.
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