Obituary for Margret M. Baltes
Margret M. Baltes died on January 28, 1999, just before her 60th birthday. Acute heart failure abruptly ended her life of work, outstanding success and fulfilment. In Margret Baltes, German psychology and gerontology has lost one of its most prominent figures. Beyond this specific scientific community, many colleagues and friends in Germany and abroad feel deep grief at the death of a most lovable friend, mentor, and scholar.
Margret Baltes was inspired in her scientific work and her personal life by one guiding principle: As human individuals we experience our development and aging not passively, but we master it as active agents. She was convinced that we as psychologists in particular should promote this principle in the institutional, cultural, and interpersonal spheres in which aging takes place. Margret Baltes elaborated this programmatic approach in multiple ways. In her research on the dependency of elderly people she delineated paths to overcome institutionalized "scripts of dependency"; work summarized in her book "The many faces of dependency" (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Together with Paul B. Baltes (Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin) she developed a theoretical basis for understanding those activities and processes that help to balance gains and losses of aging favorably. The model of selective optimization and compensation is probably the internationally most renowned theoretical conception in the developmental psychology of old age. However, Margret Baltes did not limit her scientific work to the academic domain, but also reached out to practical implications and applications, particularly with regard to the organization of homes for the elderly and training programs for nursery home staff.
Margret M. Baltes also exemplified the ideal of a "vita activa" in her scientific career. After her diploma at the University of Saarbrücken she attained her Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology at West Virginia University. Subsequently, she was Assistant and Associate Professor at Pennsylvania State University. In 1984, Margret Baltes was offered a professorship at the Free University Berlin, where she directed the Research Unit for Psychological Gerontology at the Department of Gerontopsychiatry. This research unit soon gained international acclaim and generated not only most influential contributions to the discipline but also outstandingly qualified young scientists. The last major task Margret Baltes took up was to initiate and realize the graduate program „Psychiatry and Psychology of Aging." She regarded the promotion and mentoring of young scientists as a most fulfilling purpose. Her graduate students have lost a mentor who promoted their development with great personal investment and -- due to her extensive international network -- with much success, and who also knew how to motivate and thus generate enthusiasm for scientific research.
Margret Baltes received many awards. Among others, she was granted the "Dr. Günther-Buch-Preis" of the Johanna and Fritz Buch Memorial Foundation (1994), the Distinguished Mentorship Award of the Gerontological Society of America (1994), and the Charlotte Towle Research Award of the University of Chicago (1987). From 1987 to 1997 she was Honorary Professor to the University of Trier. Margret Baltes was a member in the editorial boards of several important scientific journals (e.g., Psychology and Aging, International Journal of Behavioral Development, Zeitschrift für Verhaltenstherapie, Zeitschrift für Gerontopsychologie und -geriatrie). She was also active as a consultant in many influential public policy committees, too many to list here in detail. At Stanford University, Margret Baltes spent several research visits giving and receiving inspiration in cooperative projects.
Margret Baltes’ unpretentious and straightforward attitude was expressed in both kindness and sensibility; her unique amiability brought her admiration and friendship. One is reminded of William James, who once said that each expansion of one’s self brings with it both joy and burden; the burden never seemed apparent with Margret Baltes.
Margret Baltes was at home in the life style and academic circles of
both Germany and the United States. She was an ambassador for international
understanding and integration in her field. As a scientist, a mentor, and
an advocate of the elderly, Margret Baltes has left a multi-faceted legacy.