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Sociology Trailblazer Matilda Riley Mourned

Dr. Matilda White Riley, 93, renowned sociologist and pioneer in the study of aging and society, died on Nov. 14 at her home in Brunswick, Maine.

At age 68, when many people have retired, Riley embarked on a 20-year term at the National Institute on Aging. Dr. Robert Butler, National Institute on Aging founding director, recruited her to set up and direct NIA's Social and Behavioral Research Program. She served NIA as associate director for behavioral and social research (1979-1991), senior social scientist (1991-1997) and scientist emeritus (1998-2004).

Dr. Matilda White Riley
Riley challenged scientists, policy makers and students to think of aging as a sociological and psychological as well as a biological process. She argued that the realities of aging were far more positive than the prevailing stereotypes. Under her guidance, NIA's program became one of the largest supporters of behavioral and social science research at NIH.

In addition, she served as senior NIH spokesperson on behavioral and social sciences issues, encouraged cooperation among institutes, oversaw the production of numerous reports to Congress on behavioral research here, provided advice to several NIH directors and initiated the behavioral and social sciences seminar series on campus.

Born in Boston on Apr. 19, 1911, she was raised in Brunswick by her grandmother, who adopted her following the death of Riley's uncle and grandfather in the sinking of the Titanic, according to a Maine newspaper obituary. She graduated from Brunswick High School, where she met John W. Riley, Jr. They married in 1931, and during their 69-year marriage shared an extraordinary professional life. In 1931, Riley graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. In addition to being the mother of two, she worked as a market researcher and as chief consulting economist for the War Production Board during World War II before beginning her career in sociology at Rutgers University and later at Bowdoin College.

Riley held leadership positions in numerous professional societies. She was elected president of the American Sociological Association and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Riley published extensively on many topics but was probably best known for her two-volume Sociological Research (1963) and three-volume Aging and Society (1968-1972). She often said, "People don't grow up and grow old in laboratories — they grow up and grow old in changing societies."

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