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A Retrospective on Gerontologist
Charles Asbury (C.A.) Stephens


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“Science wastes creeds as the warm spring torrents melt the ice of winter.” C.A. Stephens - Immortal Life

Charles Asbury (C.A.) Stephens, born in 1844 in Norway, Maine, was an independent investigator in gerontology. While he is primarily known as a prolific writer of stories for young adults, his lifelong goal was to catalyze the foundation of a research institute focused on understanding, and indeed eliminating, the problem of human aging and death.

Early History

Stephens graduated from Bowdoin College in 1869 and then began a long career writing for an American family-oriented magazine, The Youth’s Companion, eventually becoming its assistant editor. Many of his stories were apparently rooted in his own childhood experiences growing up with a large extended family on a rural American farm. His fictional books included When Life was Young, Lynx Hunting, The Knockabout Club Series, Off to the Geysers, and many others. In spite of the fact that he wrote many of his hundreds of stories under a pen name, his prolific publication record eventually made him a legendary figure in late 19th century America.

What remains so compelling about C.A. Stephens is the manner in which he personified the American spirit of his day with his practical and analytical mindset and exuberant love of life. In When Life was Young, a book from his “Old Squire” series, Stephens recounts what was perhaps the actual personal experience that sparked his life’s goal of salvation by science, that is, the scientific conquest of death itself. In the story, the narrator describes his state of mind after his initial encounter with the reality of human death at a relative’s funeral.

 

"I felt that there was something, some question … which I must solve, or settle, before I could feel right again. I had never seen a person lying dead before; I tried not to think about it and in part succeeded, when there were a good many other things going on, yet all the time I knew that it was there in my mind and must be thought about before long. When I was very tired and first shut my eyes, on lying down at night, I would see that man in his coffin so plainly that I would fairly jump in bed, and then have to turn over several times and begin talking with Halstead, some-what to his annoyance, for without quite understanding it, I suppose, he yet perceived that it was not a genuine conversational effort."

"During the days following… this impression of death which had entered my mind began to assume more definite limits, and grew pertinent to my own status. I had heard that the average age of man was thirty-three years, and granting that I should reach that age, I could expect to live a little over twenty years more. That was a long time, to be sure, twenty years; but it would pass, and at the end of it I should have to die and look as that man looked, and be buried in the ground. The thought of it caused me to gasp suddenly, and filled me with a sense of terror and despair so awful that I could scarcely restrain myself from crying out." (pp.204-205)

 

Years after this childhood experience, Stephens acted in his characteristic pragmatic manner to respond to the problem at hand. First, he received a medical degree from Boston University in 1887. While it is commonly stated that his medical education was motivated by a desire to write more accurately about medical matters for The Youth’s Companion, given his persistent drive to understand and intervene in the process of human aging, it would seem more plausible that this ambition to achieve life extension was the true motivation for Stephens to complete the degree in medicine.

Stephens – The Gerontologist

In addition to his obtaining a medical degree, Stephens launched his own independent studies in the biology of aging. He did this for the most part without any affiliation with established research institutions. During those years, he authored several books, including the following, that documented his research into the mechanisms of mammalian aging.

  Living Matter, 1888
Pluricellular Man, 1893
Long Life, 1896
Natural Salvation, 1903
Salvation by Science, 1913
Immortal Life, 1920
 

In Living Matter, Stephens describes his early model for the mechanisms of human aging.

 

"There is a time in the young life of every fairly fortunate and normally healthy human being when existence is a joy, a well-nigh unalloyed sense of happiness; when earth seems wondrously fair and all nature a source of gladness to the eyes and laughter to the heart. That time, that season of joy, is when the living matter within our bodies is just reaching the adult condition, expanding and as yet unoppressed by the after-load of life’s accidents and scars, the clearly apparent result of biogenetic health, and as yet undiminished fullness of the living element in all the tissues."

"Such an estate of life is attainable, then, an estate when life is indeed a joy and worth living, at least once in our lives, and hence is one of the possibilities of living matter on the earth. That we decline from that condition of health and joy is, as I have attempted to show, the result of (1) minute mechanical and chemical injuries within the tissues; (2) injuries from a continuous series of physical accidents which befall the organism, internally, from imperfect food and faulty assimilation; and (3) the mental, or vital recoil and reaction from all these injuries, exhibited in discouragement and world-weariness."

"These injuries may at time suddenly effect the death and dissolution of the organism, or, working slowly and in conjunction, may occasion the gradual decline of the living matter in the tissues, and in time induce the condition known as “old age”."

 


Nearly a century later, many of Stephens’s writings may seem unscientific. But it is important to note that views of vitalism and spiritism were popular among his contemporaries, including many in the scientific community. Thus, his common references to sentience permeating all of nature should be regarded as a reflection of commonly held views of the time. Indeed, Stephens’s gerontological observations are on par with those of his contemporaries, as described in Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov’s The Prolongation of Life (1903) or Charles Manning Child’s Senescence and Rejuvenescence (1915). After a considerable amount of research of his writings and after interviewing people who knew Stephens personally, the medical historian Gerald Gruman wrote thoughtful and complimentary reviews of Stephens as a gerontologist1, 2.

Stephens advocated the view that aging was best studied on a cellular level. This in itself is significant in that while the cell theory in general was being vigorously defended by the well-known German naturalist August Weismann in those years, even this basic level of understanding of the importance of cells in biology was not yet a consensus. To his credit, Stephens clearly situated himself in the cell-theory camp and furthermore, he focused his research on understanding human aging on a cellular level which few, except perhaps Weismann, had done previously. In Immortal Life, he addresses the debate surrounding the “cell doctrine”:

 

"Since the days of Schleiden and Schwann, the “cell doctrine,” as it is often celled, has been alternately attacked and defended. For a time all organisms were regarded as cell communities, after the analogy of the citizen and the nation; the intelligence of the cell was much exaggerated. The intellect of a man was deemed to be an aggregate of the cell intellects resident in the brain."

"The opposed contention, typified by biologists, … held that the animal organism manufactures and collocates its component cells, not the cells the organism. As late as 1916, we find a physiologist confidently discounting the importance of the cell in the human organism, his idea being, apparently, that cells are incident merely to animal life, and might even be dispensed with altogether, without greatly affecting that life!"

"That the general organism produces new cells, except by proliferation of existent cells, or extrusion of cell germs, from cells already in situ, is an assertion at which any competent histologist must smile. New cells come into existence only from existent tissue cells, the germs of which were transmitted in the embryo from parent organisms."

"This fact alone, when properly comprehended, establishes the paramount importance of the cell to the organism. No embryonic cell, no organism; no means of replacement of the daily wear and tear of life; no means of transmitting offspring. The nucleus of the embryonic cell contains what, of late, is termed the heredity-germ of the entire organism. It is to the future organisms what the package of seeds is to the future garden. "(p8-9).

 

Much of Stephen’s published observations are microscopic studies of histological changes in aging tissues, minute observations of morphological alterations in aging neurons and vascular cells, and speculations as to the causes of these events.

The Laboratory

Stephens argued that mankind should strive for “immortal life”, which he defined as “prolonged personal life, possessed of all its faculties, not limited by death”. He refused to speculate on the advisability or practicality of infinite longevity, but appeared to be more of an advocate of “prolongevity”. Recognizing the daunting task of understanding and intervening in aging in his lifetime, Stephens advocated for an international collaboration united in this common goal. He named this collaborative effort Gens Scientiae et Vitae (League for Science and Life), and he worked diligently to translate his vision to reality. At what was likely considerable personal sacrifice, he converted his residence in Norway to an extended facility for medical research, which he simply called “The Laboratory”. Images of his home before and after the expansion are shown in Figure 2 below.

In Immortal Life, Stephens describes the scope of these efforts, which were accompanied by substantial obstacles.

  "All this was hoped for when the Gens Scientiae was first proposed ten years ago. The laboratory here was enlarged to afford facilities for fifty associates, with housing accommodations and necessary adjuncts."  

 

The response to the invitation was adequate, but involved many preliminaries and delays. Then came war with its distractions, followed by the untimely death of the two associates on whom the enterprise largely relied. Other drawbacks have occurred. The lives of most men, even ardent students of the sciences, are too circumscribed, too much bound to the wheel of personal necessities, to be able to join, effectively, in such an endeavor. Questions of salary, travel, and domestic ties stand in the way of active participation. Many, the most in fact, are too busy getting a living, too much enslaved to family life, procreation and its attendant duties, to co-operate in a larger effort. They would like to do so, but their ménage engrosses them and holds them back.

It is at this stage of abeyance to temporary obstacles that the quest for deathless life stands at present writing. (p244).

 

In 1994, I was honored to speak in Stephens’s hometown of Norway, Maine in a celebration of the sesquicentennial of his birth. While there, I gazed on the hill that once supported his vision of a league of nations confronting mankind’s greatest enemy. For some inexplicable reason, this magnificent building was demolished after his death, despite the wishes of his wife Minne.

By reading Stephen’s stories, it is easy to discern that he was a person humor and optimism. Stephen’s biographer Louise Harris titled one of her books A Chuckle and a Laugh. In explaining this title she wrote:

  "Perhaps you are wondering about the title of this book. A CHUCKLE AND A LAUGH! That, my dear readers, is “our beloved” C.A. Stephens sitting in his rocking chair at his home in Norway, Maine while writing his famous stories, not only about the farm, his cousins and grandparents, but his entire life. He loved to rock, write, and chuckle over his reminiscences! That is where he felt safe!"  

That now empty chair is shown in Figure 3. Following my talk in Norway, members of the Friends of C.A. Stephens Society told me that as Stephens approached the end of his own life, the terror he foresaw as a youth was realized in anything but a peaceful end. One is afforded a glimpse of this personal confrontation with death that Stephens artfully penned in “At The Darkest Hour”, from Salvation by Science. Stephens acknowledges his likely defeat, the period at the end of life’s sentence, and the agony of knowing that he would not be enjoying the thrill of unraveling the mysteries of the biological clockwork governing human aging. That thrill would be left to a future generation. Stephens continues to have friends from the future, friends that recognize a man with a warm heart and a practical and applied mind that, perhaps, saw the light of day but a century too early.

References

  1. Gruman, G.J. C. A. Stephens; a pioneer of American gerontology. Geriatrics 14, 332-336 (1959).
  2. Gruman, G.J. Doctors afield: C.A. Stephens (1844-1931); popular author and prophet of gerontology. The New England Journal of Medicine 254, 658-660 (1956).


 
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