James E. Birren, Ph.D. (4 April 1918 – 15 January 2016) was an American gerontologist. He was one of the founders of the organised field of gerontology since the 1940s (although the term itself dates to circa 1903). He was president of The Gerontological Society of America and author of over 250 publications.[1]

Personal life

Birren was born on 4 April 1918, in Chicago. With the original intent to study engineering, he enrolled in Wright Junior College to study technical subjects. He changed his mind due to the Great Depression in America and decided to transfer to Chicago Teachers College to pursue what he thought to be a more practical career. It was there he took his first course in psychology, and he was encouraged by his professors to attend graduate school at Northwestern University.

He was strongly influenced by his time as a graduate student studying experimental psychology at Northwestern University. He married his wife, Betty, in 1942.


Birren was known for defining ageing as three distinct processes: primary, secondary, and tertiary. He was the founding dean of the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and founding director of the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, and after his retirement from USC was associated for many years with the UCLA Center on Aging. A leading gerontological theorist in the area of neurocognition and psychology, Birren established much of the framework of modern gerontological theory, such as "quality of life" as a multidimensional concept involving biological, psychological, and sociocultural domains.


Birren was considered "one of the reigning pioneers of gerontology," by the American Society on Aging.[2] He was instrumental in the growth and expansion of the field of gerontology in the 1950s, and his career spanned six decades.

He received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University and began his research career at the Naval Medical Research Center. In 1947, he joined the U.S. Public Health Service in Baltimore and did research on ageing at the Gerontology unit. He attended the very first meeting of the GSA in 1948. In 1950, he joined the National Institute of Mental Health and created the first section on ageing. In 1964, he became the Director for the Program on Aging for the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development. He moved to the University of Southern California in 1965 where he remained until 1989. There he was the founding director of the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center. In 1989, he moved to UCLA, where he remained as the Associate Director of the UCLA Center on Aging until he retired in 2003.

His early research had an experimental base and he studied cognitive change and aging. Since developing the course Guided Autobiography more than thirty years ago, he has devoted much of his time and energy in the area of autobiographical studies.

Birren was also known for serving as a mentor and founding schools in gerontology to promote research on ageing. In 1965, he moved to California to pursue a new career with The University of Southern California. There, he became the founding dean of the USC Davis School of gerontology. In this position, he flourished as a teacher and a mentor, offering degrees in gerontology at the undergraduate, masters, and PhD levels. Throughout his career, he produced over 200 PhDs in gerontology, and many of his students dedicated their careers to publishing literature in the field of gerontology. He also continued publishing literature in the field of gerontology. While the Davis School of Gerontology flourished and gained international recognition, Birren produced multiple editions of the Handbooks of Aging series, including The Handbook of Mental Health and Aging, The Handbook of Psychology and Aging, and The Handbook of Theories of Aging. These compilations include relevant research on the issues of ageing and contributed to the development of gerontology as a science. One of Birren’s lasting contributions to the field is these compilations of research on ageing.

When Birren became emeritus of The University of Southern California at the age of 71 in 1989, he went on to establish another institution of gerontology. Birren developed the Borun Center for Gerontological Research at University of California, Los Angeles. He eventually became the Associate Director of the Center for Aging at UCLA, and he continued publishing until he retired from the position in 2003.


  • Telling the Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiography Groups (2001), J.E. Birren & K. Cochran. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Guiding Autobiography Groups for Older Adults (1991), J.E. Birren and D. Deutchman. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Where to Go From Here (1997), J.E. Birren & L. Feldman. Simon and Schuster.


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