Margret M. Baltes: 1939-1999
On January 28 1999, the voice of the world’s scientific community was significantly diminished, and with it there occurred an inestimable diminution of our collective humanity. The unexpected passing of Professor Dr. Margret M. Baltes was the loss of a scholar of incomparable creativity, incisiveness, scope, and importance; a colleague of immeasurable generosity, wisdom, and productivity; a friend of irreplaceable warmth, kindness, and sensitivity; and a wife and mother with unfathomable love for, understanding of, and devotion to her husband Paul, her son, Boris, and her daughter, Anushka.
I was her friend and I was her colleague, a mantle I cherished a quarter century. When news of her passing spread quickly across the world’s social and behavioral science community, others -- who were adorned also with the proud badge of being Margret’s friend and colleague -- spoke with one voice about the immense sense of shock, deep and painful feeling of emptiness and loss, and profound recognition that the quality of their lives had been irreparably diminished.
Margret Baltes was more than a singularly insightful and productive scientist. Her life was emblematic of the very theory of successful human development she championed across her career, She represented to her colleagues, students, family, and indeed all people of the world community to which she was such a vital contributor that, with wisdom, one can optimize all the features of one’s life that one holds dear: Spouse and children, profession, the proximal and global community, and the institutions of civil society.
Margret Baltes‘ life was marked by personal and professional accomplishment, acclaim for incomparable erudition, and world-wide recognition for the significance of her scientific contributions. For those who were privileged to know her personally, her life was also recognized as the epitome of the compassion, grace, integrity, passion, and humaneness that most people can only aspire to possess.
Margret received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Saarland, Germany, and her Ph.D. in 1973, in experimental psychology from West Virginia University. After the completion of her doctoral training she held academic posts at The Pennsylvania State University, at Stanford University, and at the Free University of Berlin. At the time of her death, she was Professor of Psychological Gerontology at the Free University.
Across these appointments she pursued a scholarly career that was marked by theoretical insight into, and methodologically rigorous research about, the plasticity of human development; the dynamics of developmental regulation, involving selective optimization and compensation, that mark successful aging; and the processes involved in implementing interventions successful in promoting positive, healthy development among the aged.
In her seven books and more than 100 scholarly articles and chapters, and through her professional contributions in editing scholarly journals and providing leadership in scientific committees and learned societies, Margret Baltes had a career that was singularly impressive in regard to its influence on the disciplines that contribute to the understanding of human development, and on the thinking and empirical scholarship of her colleagues and students. Simply, Margret Baltes’ scholarship changed the way developmental science understands the nature of human development and of the potential for positive life functioning in the adult and aged years.
Deservedly, then, she was the recipient of numerous awards and honors: For instance, she was given the "Dr.-Günther-Buch-Preis der Johanna und Fritz Buch Gedächtnisstiftung" (1994); the Distinguished Mentorship Award of The Gerontological Society of America (1994), and the Charlotte Towle Research Award from the University of Chicago (1987); in addition she received research awards from the German Research Foundation; from the Volkswagen Stiftung; from the German Federal Ministries for Research and Technology (BMFT) and for Family, Seniors, Women, and Youth (BMFSFJ), and from the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. She was a Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the Gerontological Society of America and held an Honorary Professorship from the University of Trier from 1982 until the time of her passing.
The number and range of these honors and awards attest to her singular intellectual contributions. However, it is the field and colleagues who remain now after her passing that are honored by having known her and her work. We have received a rare gift: The opportunity to learn about the essential character of the course of human life from a truly unique and far-ranging scholar, a scientist whose acumen and accomplishments set unparalleled standards of insight, quality, and research elegance for current and future cohorts of developmental scholars.
But Margret Baltes taught us much more than the substance and methods of high quality scholarship in human development. She taught us how to use our knowledge to take actions -- to intervene -- to promote the positive development of people during portions of their lives when many might believe that the capacity for continued, healthy growth was absent. And she taught us how to do science with compassion, to select foci for our work that would both advance crucially important theoretical understanding of human development and, at the same time, serve to guide us into applications that would improve the quality of life of vulnerable members of our global community.
In her seamless lining of scientific and societal contributions, Margret taught us another lesson. It was one of balance. Her life was an exemplar of integrative success, of knowing how to balance family and career, of working diligently while not ignoring the needs of colleagues, family, and friends, of finding time to serve her profession, her university, her community, her friends, and -- always most cherished by her -- her children and her husband and partner in work and in life, Paul.
One could not be a colleague of Margret Baltes without soon becoming her friend. And one could not be her friend without admiring, indeed envying, her enthusiasm and spirit for life, for work, and for people.
I last saw Margret on July 3, 1998, when I had the great honor and pleasure to introduce her Invited Address on "Everyday competence across the life-span," at the Fifteenth Biennial Meetings of the International Society for Behavioral Development (ISSBD) in Bern, Switzerland. Margret’s presentation was made in a large lecture hall at the University of Bern. The room was full. Long-term colleagues from across the world were present, a testament to the success of Margret’s scholarly and personal efforts to internationalize the study of human development and its professional network. Of course, many other scholars, both senior and junior, were also in attendance, drawn to the lecture to witness a consummate scientist present an integration of the innovative research she had done on competence in later life and on successful aging, and to learn of the new directions in which she would extend the cutting-edge of the field. All were there to listen to a person whose scholarship had so substantially shaped their understanding of the dynamics of behavioral regulation across the adult and aged years; the bases of human plasticity; and the potential and pragmatics of, and policies pertinent to, intervention programs aimed at maintaining and furthering healthy functioning among gerontological populations.
Margret’s address was the tour-de-force that the audience expected. At the end of her presentation, there was a deserved ovation for her paper and numerous colleagues came to the front of the room to speak with her. Before she departed, they wished to have a last opportunity to ask further questions, to meet her, or to congratulate her on a masterful presentation of her singularly creative theoretical and empirical contributions to understanding successful aging.
However, there was not enough time for everyone to learn from Margret all that she had to offer. There was not enough time to say all that people had wished to say in appreciation and admiration. There was not enough time for everyone to say the good-byes that they wished to convey. We all thought we would have more time to share with Margret.
Now, as do all her friends and colleagues, we must comfort ourselves with the belief that by pursuing the balance she modeled so thoroughly and consistently, and by seeking to emulate the contributions that she made to science and to society, we can in some way thank Margret for all she did to enrich our lives.