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Dr. M. Powell Lawton, 77; elder statesman of gerontology
M. Powell Lawton, Ph.D., 77, of Haverford, PA, formerly of Collegeville, PA, senior research scientist and director emeritus of the Polisher Research Institute of Philadelphia Geriatric Center (PGC) and one of the country's leading figures in aging research died January 29, 2001 as a result of a brain tumor.
A behavioral psychologist whose entrée into the field was guided by his Quaker ideals of humanitarian service, Dr. Lawton joined PGC's research institute 38 years ago as its first director. The late Arthur Waldman, executive director of PGC's predecessor agency, the Home for the Jewish Aged, recruited Dr. Lawton who was working as a research psychologist at Norristown State Hospital at the time, to the position. Mr. Waldman, a visionary himself, recognized Dr. Lawton as the person he needed to create the first research center focused exclusively on older people. It took him three years to convince Dr. Lawton to join the agency. In 1964, just a year after Dr. Lawton assumed his new position, he led the nation's first symposium on Alzheimer's Disease under the auspices of the Home for the Jewish Aged.
Dr. Lawton gained national attention in the early 1960's for his pioneering investigations into the psychological and social aspects of aging. During his prolific career, he was the first to recognize the importance of designing living environments for the elderly, particularly those with Alzheimer's Disease. His groundbreaking studies of the needs of Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers, as well as his continuing interest in probing areas of health and well-being in aging, have continued to play a major role in enhancing the quality of life of the elderly.
Dr. Lawton's work influenced both the design of services and the facilities at Philadelphia Geriatric Center. His scientific achievements influenced the way medical, social, and psychological care are provided to the frail elderly cared for by PGC to this day. His insightful research into how environmental factors affect the aged led PGC to develop the nation's first nursing home specifically for the elderly with Alzheimer's Disease, and continues to influence the design of the facilities on PGC's new campus slated to open in October in Horsham, PA.
According to Frank Podietz, PGC president and CEO, Dr. Lawton laid the foundation within the gerontology community upon which all scientists and planners think about the unique needs of people afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease. "Through his research, writings and teachings, Dr. Lawton provided a beacon that has guided and influenced public policy to enhance the quality of life of seniors. We are grateful for his extraordinary contributions and we will dedicate ourselves to perpetuating his legacy as a mentor, innovator, pioneer, and visionary," he said.
Over the years Dr. Lawton's research efforts have included: the environmental psychology of later life, assessment of the aged, the psychological well-being and quality of life of older people, caregiving stress, and evaluative studies of programs for the aged and for the mentally ill. Much of his recent work involved the study of affect, or emotion, in later life and the quality of life of older people in declining health.
Dr. Lawton, who has been widely published throughout his career in a host of scientific journals, authored three books and contributed book chapters or edited scores of others. He was the recipient of numerous grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Aging, the Alzheimer's Association, and other leading agencies and foundations.
His research resulted in the development of pacesetting geriatric assessment tools including the Multilevel Assessment Instrument, an instrument to measure functioning in areas such as health, social interactions, time use, environment, and psychological well-being, as well as the Morale Scale and the Affect Scales which were designed to measure various aspects of well-being. He most recently developed the Observed Emotion Rating Scale which, for the first time, enabled researchers and health care professionals to interpret the non-verbal communication, and thus the emotions, of nursing home residents with Alzheimer's Disease or other dementias.
Dr. Lawton was also involved in the development of the Professional Environmental Assessment Protocol, which is designed to assess the physical aspects of nursing home environments.
Both nationally and internationally renowned, Dr. Lawton was frequently called upon to lecture or consult with a wide variety of aging service providers throughout the world. Locally, this included the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and the Boettner Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.
The recipient of numerous professional awards and honors, Dr. Lawton was a fellow and past president of the Gerontological Society of America and a founding member of the National Caucus for the Black Aged. A fellow of the American Psychological Association and past president of its Division of Adult Development and Aging, he was the founding editor of the association's journal Psychology and Aging. He most recently was the editor-in-chief of the Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics; associate editor of the Journal of Housing for the Elderly, and Contemporary Gerontology; consulting editor of the Journal of Aging and Social Policy; and on the editorial boards of Advances in Long Term Care and the Journal of Clinical Geropsychology. He was also active in the International Association of Gerontology. He was a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging in 1971 and a member of the National Technical Committee on Housing. He also served on a variety of advisory boards and peer review committees.
Throughout the years, Dr. Lawton has been a keynote speaker for a variety of prestigious organizations and institutes including the American Psychological Association, the Canadian Psychological Association, Columbia University, Brown University, among others. Last January, he delivered the first Shimon Bergman Memorial Lecture in Tel Aviv, named for a central figure in Israeli gerontology. He also served as a visiting professor or lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, Portland State University, University of Southern California, and St. Scholastica University.
Dr. Lawton was known by his colleagues and friends as a good listener, and a humble person who made everyone he met feel special. According to Elaine Brody, M.S.W., senior research consultant for Philadelphia Geriatric Center and a long-time colleague of Dr. Lawton's, his many accomplishments included the mentoring he provided for professionals entering the field of gerontology from a wide variety of disciplines including psychology, social work, anthropology, nursing, and medicine.
"He mentored dozens of gerontologists from all disciplines who are now famous in their own right. He was the kindest, most generous mentor - a Renaissance man in gerontology," she said.
Commented Barry D. Lebowitz, Ph.D., Chief of Interventions Research at the National Institute of Mental Health, "Powell Lawton was a giant. The whole field of aging stands on his shoulders and the lives of older people are better for it. He was also personally responsible for the development of a whole generation of research investigators, clinicians, and educators dedicated to improving the lives of older people."
Among the local awards Dr. Lawton has received are: the Annual Award from the Philadelphia Society of Clinical Psychologists; the Distinguished Service to Psychology Award from the Pennsylvania Psychological Association; the Distinguished Service to the Aged Award from the medical staff of Philadelphia Geriatric Center; the Good Neighbor Award from ElderNet of Lower Merion and Narberth; and the Haverford Award from Haverford College.
National and international recognition Dr. Lawton has received include: a 10-year Merit Award from the National Institute on Aging; the Novartis Prize from the International Association of Gerontology; the Kleemeier Award and the Distinguished Creative Contribution to Gerontology Award from the Gerontological Society of America; the Ollie Randall Award from Northeastern Gerontological Society; the Career Award from the Environmental Design Research Association; the Distinguished Contribution Award from the Division of Adult Development and Aging, and the Distinguished Research Award from the Division of Health Psychology, both of the American Psychological Association; the Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging; the Keston Award from the University of Southern California; the National Research Award from the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles; and the Distinguished Alumni Award from Teachers College at Columbia University.
"Dr. Powell Lawton is one of the pioneers of gerontological research and has moved the field forward in a number of areas," said Richard J. Hodes, M.D., director of the National Institute on Aging. "Most importantly, his work, with its focus on the importance of positive interactions with older people, has helped to enhance the quality of life for countless numbers of older people and their families."
Dr. Lawton was adjunct professor of human development at the Pennsylvania State University, and professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine. He held an undergraduate degree from Haverford College (Haverford, PA), and a doctorate in clinical psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University (New York, NY). He had a 30-year relationship with Norristown State Hospital, first as assistant chief psychologist and later as a research scientist. He also served with two Veterans Administration hospitals in New York and Rhode Island, as well as with Pottstown Mental Health Clinic in Pennsylvania.
"Powell Lawton was always moving and exploring new territory, and doing it well," said Carol Ann Schutz, executive director of the Gerontological Society of America. "He had great respect for science and he had a wonderful way of teaching and communicating that knowledge. He was a giant in gerontology and psychology. It's a remarkable legacy."
In commenting on his satisfaction with work and career last year Dr. Lawton said, "What I do for a living excites me, motivates me. I've been fortunate to be in a situation where personal goals can be fulfilled at work. I am also blessed to be able to continue doing what I'm doing at my age."