Date: February 1st, 2001
A Profile in Character, Courage, and Commitment
Any facet of the late Alan Cranston's life would be enough to fill a profile:
- His career in California politics, where he virtually reinvented the state Democratic Party and was a two-term state controller.
- His four terms as U.S. Senator from California (1969-1993) and 7 consecutive terms as the Senate's Democratic whip.
- His leadership of the Global Security Institute, which he founded together with former Soviet President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev to advance the cause of abolishing all nuclear weapons.
- His major role in catalyzing biomedical research into the aging process.
Although not generally recognized for his contributions to human longevity research, Senator Cranston did play such a role. In fact, he helped found the Alliance for Aging Research.
His involvement in aging issues grew out of his work on committees in the Senate that were responsible for overseeing the National Institutes of Health. Cranston also was instrumental in modernizing the Veterans Administration hospital system. In the early 1970s, American soldiers sent to Vietnam were benefiting from improvements in field hospitals and emergency transport systems in the combat zones, but VA hospitals back home were crumbling. Cranston created a civilian system of emergency medical services to bring that know-how to help all Americans. With Cranston's help, VA hospitals in the U.S. became medical school laboratories for training physicians in geriatrics and aging research.
Cranston helped shape and comprehend broad public support for aging research. He was one of the architects of legislation creating a National Institute on Aging in 1974, as part of the National Institutes of Health. A few years later Cranston became convinced that the private sector should get involved in aging research, infusing research into aging with greater innovation, urgency and willingness to take scientific risks.
"He was interested in forming a private-sector entity that could bring wider attention to new scientific knowledge about the aging process in humans, and to apply that knowledge potentially to benefit every American," remembers Alliance executive director Daniel Perry. "Senator Cranston realized that, while there were powerful groups speaking on behalf of the current elderly, there was no one organization focused specifically on the long-range future of aging. He envisioned scientific and technological advances in the coming decades that could dramatically re-write the script for human aging, with great potential to increase health, vitality and productivity over the life span. He saw that this could and should be a conscious goal for the nation in preparation for the aging of the Baby Boom generation." Perry said. "That was pretty far-sighted 25 years ago; but he was absolutely correct."
Cranston and others in Congress - including Senators John Heinz (R., PA.), Chuck Grassley (R., IA), John Glenn (D., OH) and Rep. Claude Pepper (D., FL) - endorsed the concept of a non-profit private group that would propose a broad agenda of scientific research to achieve more active lives for people as they age. The Alliance for Aging Research was officially launched in 1986.
"This is something he did largely outside his official role as a U.S. Senator," said Perry. "It was something for which he saw an urgent need: at that time there was no organized push for a scientific research strategy on aging. Sen. Cranston and a few others saw that even their fellow legislators didn't appreciate fully how age-related disabilities on a mass scale could grow to pose serious economic and social threats to the nation. His commitment to mobilize science and to pave the way for its successes in modifying human aging was important to the subsequent development and current importance of the field," said Perry.
Alan Cranston died December 31, 2000 in his home in Los Altos Hills, CA, at the age of 86. "He was traveling, planning conferences and various anti-nuclear weapons activities - going full bore - when he literally dropped in his tracks," said Perry. "Part of the key to successful aging is a mental youthfulness, and he certainly had that. Alan never lost his playfulness, curiosity and almost-boyish enthusiasm for his causes. He kept that mentality and that love of life and its possibilities right to the end. It is an example many should strive to emulate."