Letter from Michael Heidelberger to Morris W. Watkins, Columbia University
Written in the year of his retirement after twenty-seven years at Columbia University, this letter expressed Heidelberger's
thoughts on the policy of mandatory retirement of university professors and on research opportunities for older scientists.
Number of Image Pages:
2 (157,567 Bytes)
1956-12-03 (December 3, 1956)
Watkins, Morris W.
This item is in the public domain. It may be used without permission.
Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
"If I Have a Few More Years to Work, I'm Going Ahead": An Active Retirement, 1954-1991
I am an optimist on the subject of retirement at 65 or 68. These ages are too low for some, too high for others. A principal
function of universities is to develop brilliant young minds and provide the environment for their most effective use. This
cannot be done if the university allows its departments and laboratories to be cluttered up with the aged.
The experience and judgment of the professor who retires are not lost. There is the ensemble of his published papers and books
available to all who wish to read. He usually continues to write. The medical man or scientific worker who retires in fortunate
possession of his full faculties and health is usually offered several alternatives such as directorships of research or visiting
professorships, sometimes at a higher salary than his university paid him. There is at least one university with a retirement
age of 70 which absorbs several younger emeriti of other universities annually, granting them visiting professorships to age
70 and paying the difference between the pension already received and full professorship salary - a very profitable arrangement
for both professor and university.
I was fortunate in being able to continue research on the same scale and with almost no interruption, on an annual appointment
as visiting professor at Rutgers University. If I suddenly become senile my university hosts are under no obligation to continue
providing useful laboratory and office spaces or if I run out of ideas or get tired I am under no obligation to continue.
Columbia was very generous and allowed me to take a truckload of more or loss specialized equipment along, so that our new
laboratories were operating smoothly in an unbelievably short time. The various granting agencies, government and private,
happily have no prejudice against "principal investigators" in the emeritus category.
With regard to your specific questions, I have already answered some of them. I know of one industrial firm that has made
available a laboratory and technician to a long since retired professor of pharmacology. Another retired biochemist was a
consultant to several industries until his death.
I do not know what the universities are doing about upgrading retirement incomes to meet increased living costs. Two research
institutes that I know about have done so.
As indicated above, I think the University's mandatory retirement procedure is a just and fair one. No system should
be inflexible, and on rare occasions exceptions should be and are being made.
My twenty-seven years of pre-emeritus activity at Columbia were very happy ones and the transition to the emeritus status
was made with a tact and generosity that minimized the inevitable pangs of the physical separation. Intellectually, of course,
I remain a loyal member of the Columbia community.