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Creativity and the End of Life: Aging and Suicide

for the Health Care and the Arts Lecture Series, "The Creative Response to Pain and Suffering," University of Texas, Houston,
School of Public Health Auditorium, Noon, Tuesday, April 2, 1996

by John H. Lienhard
Mechanical Engineering Department
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-4792
jhl [at] (jhl[at]uh[dot]edu)

Today I want to talk about creativity and the end of life. Death is the great event that circumscribes all we do and all we are. Sherwin Nuland's marvelous book, How We Die, sat on my desk for a year before I finally sat down and faced it a couple of weeks ago. After I'd been subjected to a hit-and-run murder attempt I knew it was time to look the grim reaper in the face.

And so with Nuland as a guide, I took on the most forbidden topic of all. Society lets us talk about politicsand sex as long as we're careful. But talk of death remains taboo.

Nuland is a surgeon and medical historian. His book deals with a primary dilemma. To be a doctor is to fight death. Yet death always wins in the end. Doctors, armed with spectacular new technologies, engage in a combat they cannot ultimately win. It is a situation that becomes more paradoxical all the time.

Nuland begins by explaining death itself. And it isn't pretty. Death is invariably caused by a lack of oxygen brought on by a hundred different scenarios of system failure. It's seldom a matter of passing gently over the Great Divide. In a harrowing sequence of chapters he explains how our bodies fail from heart disease, cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, and more.

For those of us old enough to know our time is limited, Nuland's book is frightening at first. But it grows reassuring as he demystifies death. He takes it out of that place where things go bump in the night. He puts it where it can be seen and understood.

Nuland is saying essentially what Matushka said to you last Thursday. He says "Look! Don't turn your face away, but look. When you really look, what was terrible and terrifying can become beautiful." That's a message we need to hear about so many things. Death, aging, and those wounds and imperfections that we all bear, one way or another.

Nuland also deals with another seldom-discussed aspect of death. It is that the old usually reach a point where they accept it. Nuland quotes Jefferson who, at 71, wrote to John Adams, then 78.

Our machines have been running seventy or eighty years and we must expect ... here a pivot, there a wheel, now a pinion, next a spring will be giving way; ... There is a ripeness of time for death ... when it is reasonable we should drop off and make room for another growth.

Nuland's main concern in his remarkable book is with doctors and their machines -- with their compulsion to win the unwinable fight with death, with the trouble they have talking candidly to patients about it.

He tells of the reflex need to fight for a patient's life long after there's any profit in it for the patient. He tells how he cheated his own brother of the chance to deal with his death by cancer. He offered empty hope instead of joining him in grieving the inevitable end.

In the poignant apogee of the book, Nuland quotes the hopeless words doctors tell each other when they fail to level with a patient: "I could not take away his hope." Then he adds,

Unless [we're] aware [we're] dying and ... know the conditions of our death, we [can't] share any sort of final consummation with those who love us. Without this consummation, no matter their presence at the hour of passing, we will remain unattended and isolated.

Others have certainly raised questions about the technologies of preserving life. But Nuland, coming from the very center of those technologies, tells us what every technologist in every field should understand.

It is that we cannot let the objective purpose of our machines become ends in themselves. The true purpose of any machine can only be shaped by the people it is meant to serve.

Now: On to the matter of death and creativity. Last week we talked about creativity as deviant behavior. I pointed out that creativity must be antisocial at some level. I said that any creative idea is an idea at cross purposes with the accepted ways. In the end, I asked you if it was possible to be creative and live a normal life.

We can go round and round on that question. But let me introduce another angle to the question -- something very important we didn't talk about last time. It is that all creativity is, at some level, social.

All the great creative people -- Edison, Bell, Newton, Leibnitz, Einstein -- they all thrived on intellectual stimulation and contact with other bright people. The myth of the lonely inventor is just that. It is pure myth.

Can we be creative and live a normal life? No, of course not. But can we be creative and still be bound together with those around us? Can we have that part of life that we all so crave? The answer to that is, we cannot live a creative life without a supportive community.

We also talked about suicide. Not in any general terms, but we spoke of suicide driven by the creative daemon. One more of those stories before we move on to the question of aging.

This is the terrible story of Wallace Carothers. It is a story I neither like nor understand. Maybe it's the story of a mind too large to fit the world it lived in.

Carothers was born an only child in Iowa, in 1896. He was three years younger than my father. He did his bachelor's and master's at Tarkio College in Missouri and at the University of Illinois.

He taught for a year at the University of South Dakota, then did a chemistry Ph.D. at Illinois. 1928 found Carothers teaching at Harvard. He was only 34. He'd already done brilliant work on the electronic nature of molecular bonds.

Then he made a career lurch. He left academia to become a research director at du Pont. He took charge of an organic chemistry group there.

R & D labs were well known by then. But a well-supported facility doing academic research in industry -- that was a radical new idea in 1928. It was an opportunity for Carothers.

He began stringing chains of molecules together. Those molecular chains made a tough new material. Du Pont began producing it commercially in 1939. They called it -- nylon.

Next he worked on acetylene polymers. As early as 1931, du Pont was producing the result. It was commercial neoprene. After that, Carothers's work led to synthetic rubber.

The supply of Asian silk and rubber dried up in WW-II. Carothers saved our lives with synthetic tires. Some women thought nylon stockings had saved their lives as well.

A picture of Carothers comes down to us. We wish we'd known him. "Modest to the point of shyness" says one biographer. He tells of Carothers's "personal warmth," his "generosity of spirit," and his "sense of humor." But he also says that Carothers suffered mounting manic-depressive mood swings.

During nine years at du Pont, Carothers finished his 62nd technical paper and filed his 69th patent. He changed America. He touched your life.

Then, in February, 1936, he married. By April of the following year, he'd committed suicide. He was 41. His widow gave birth to a daughter, Jane, seventh months later.

Carothers was a creative shooting star. I want to explain this unreasonable death away, so it'll be gone. He was a gift we were all privileged to receive. I want him to have been content with his brilliance.

Nuland says that, one way or another, we all die from a lack of oxygen. Why then was Wallace Carothers ultimately unable to breathe? I think the answer is to be found among the aging -- among those who sustain creativity. If the creative daemon ate Wallace Carothers alive, what about those who forge a lasting peace with the beast of creativity? Let's talk about growing old.

Last spring it was my great pleasure to give the graduation address at Berkeley, where I went to school long ago. The ceremony was in the Greek theater there. The last time I'd been in the Greek theater was in 1960, when I went there to hear Konrad Adenauer speak.

Adenauer was the first chancellor of post-war Germany. He was then 84 years old with three years to go as chancellor. They called him Der Alte -- The Old One.

So I talked to the new graduates about Adenauer -- how, if we keep our head in the game, the game will play much longer than we expect.

The great Old-People all show us that the mind is the last organ to go -- well, one of the last. A friend recently told me about an evening reception for Linus Pauling, near the end of his long and distinguished life. He swore this really happened.

The talk drifted, as evening talk does, to matters slightly risqué. A young woman finally said to Pauling, "I hope you won't think me brash, but I want to know what will happen when my husband and I grow old. I'd really appreciate it, Dr. Pauling, if you'd tell me: When was the last time you had sex?"

Pauling said, "Oh, why let's see. It was nineteen-fifty." The woman gasped, "So long ago? Oh Dr. Pauling, I was hoping it would've been more recent." "Why, I hardly see the problem," Pauling answered, looking at his watch. "It's only 21:30 now!"

So the old have their secrets from the young. The old know things the young do not. They really do.

In my student days I'd go to swim in the Berkeley pool. There, every day, was the noted chemist Joel Hildebrand, then over 70.

I thought he was in the twilight of life. How wrong I was! By the time he published his last paper, decades later, he was 101. And for all I know, he was still swimming in the U.C. pool. Like Adenauer, Hildebrand kept his head in the game.

So what is the secret that old people know but don't often tell? Is it the furious and highly-informed ferment of thought that the old don't often talk about? Thought, of course, shifts away from the focused problem-solving of youth to a broader kind of integration.

Or is the secret that the emotional engines of the old run at startling intensity? The old really keep quiet about that.

Actually, the most tightly held secret of the old is a surprise that really should be no surprise at all.

The simple truth of the matter is that the most important change -- the change that really defines the old -- is the imminence of death. The real secret is death. And the reason we keep it a secret is that the young find it so frightening.

I used to ask older friends what it meant to be no longer young. They'd give me the usual fuzz -- stuff like, "You're only as old as you feel."

Then, three years ago, I found an article by Audrey Hepburn. Down through the years I'd watched Hepburn's exquisite face on the screen. Now that face was lined -- and more compelling than ever.

As spokesm'n for The Children's International Emergency Fund, she'd been to Somalia. She'd been with death, filth, and suffering. The rescue was still being thwarted by chaos and corruption -- thwarted by the very starvation it tried to stem.

Hepburn, who'd known hunger as a child in German-occupied Belgium, wrote, "I keep sane by saying it is not my job to solve all the problems." She couldn't heal all the pain in the country or even all the pain in one tent. So she closed her mind to the vastness of that ocean of pain. She spent her last years doing what shecould do. And that proved to be a great deal.

Hepburn spoke with a voice of age that made sense. She was resigned. She was beyond ambition and beyond fear. It was only later that I found she was living under a death sentence from cancer. And there, suddenly, I saw what my elders wouldn't ever tell me. It was how little they had to lose.

The world is still filled with good things and possibility. But good is there to admire, not to possess. There's little to lose because there's nothing you can keep -- not possessions, not prestige, not even life itself.

Still, too many of us react to age with caution instead of abandon! I talked with a friend about Hepburn, and she said, "You have to look at Hepburn's whole life. She came out of WW-II willing to take chances. She danced to her own drum. If you risk only when there's nothing left to lose, that's cheap."

And so it is. Having nothing to lose is the real gift of age. But it's a gift we can't claim if we've trained ourselves to lives of caution. If I don't invent when risk is dangerous, can I really expect to suddenly turn creative when risk is gone?

So Hepburn died. She wasn't really very old, but her death was in sight. And that, to my mind, is what defines age.

In her last days Hepburn made us see the plight of those children -- a plight that'd once been her own. She finished her life working calmly, with utter determination, and without avarice or ambition.

They hardly mentioned her film career at the funeral. In the end her true beauty was writ in her freedom, and in the healing that flowed from it. She'd understood creative risk from the start. That's the whole reason she was able to use her life so well -- when she finally had nothing left to lose.

That same theme of courage marked two Victorian women I want to tell you about. Actually it marksanyone who makes a good job of growing old. But I want you to meet Caroline Herschel, born in 1750, and Mary Fairfax Somerville, born in 1780.

Obviously neither of them started out as a Victorian lady. Victoria wasn't even born until 1819. But bear with me.

William and Caroline Herschel were brother and sister, born in Hanover. Both trained as musicians, and William moved to England when he was 19 to find work as an organist.

Caroline's father assured her she wasn't pretty enough to marry, and her mother discouraged her bookishness. In 1771 her brother brought her to England, where he'd become a well-established musician.

William turned her loose to study, and study she did. She learned English, more music, mathematics and accounting, and together they studied astronomy. William also forced her to learn the artifices of English society. She complained that English flower shows were

a subject on which the wondrous female mind ... for months before and after, is absorbed in ecstatic contemplation.

Within a few years Caroline was making her own way as a professional singer. But she and William were more and more seriously involved with astronomy. By 1774 William had built his own state-of-the-art telescope, and together the two of them set out to map the heavens. By 1781 he'd discovered the planet Uranus. The next year he was made King George's court astronomer.

It was five years later that Caroline, then 36 years old, was added to the payroll. But long before she received any salary, she'd discovered 14 new nebulae including Andromeda and Cetus. She was the first woman to discover a comet. Before she was done, she'd identified eight of them.

The full sweep of Caroline Herschel's work is even grander than that. William died when she was 72, andshe went right on ordering a vast accumulation of astronomical data.

No error has ever been reported in her computerlike calculations. When she was 75, the Royal Astronomical Society voted her a gold medal for her catalog of 1500 nebulae. Her last honor was the King of Prussia's gold medal for science, awarded on her 96th birthday. She died shortly before her 98th birthday in 1848.

The great Scottish authority on math and science, Mary Somerville, was 30 years younger, but she knew Caroline Herschel. Actually, Somerville was a good friend to William Herschel's son -- the scientist John Herschel.

Somerville had been born Mary Fairfax in a small town on the Firth of Forth. Without a school to go to, she ran wild -- chasing sea-birds -- gazing at stars. Her education was catch-as-catch-can.

Then she found out about algebra and geometry. That was a match in a tinder box, and her parents were horrified. A passion for mathematics could drive a teenage girl insane.

Her self-education began in earnest when she was 27 -- after her first husband died and left her some money to live on. Six years later, she wrote a prize-winning paper on diophantine algebra. That's the kind of mathematics that includes Fermat's famous Last Theorem. She also married an English surgeon who held no stock in 19th-century attitudes toward women.

By the time Mary Somerville reached her late forties, the French had come to the end of a brilliant period of mathematical work. The British were far behind.

In 1827, the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge asked her to write an interpretation of Laplace's work on celestial mechanics. The book, Mechanisms of the Heavens, established her as a great interpreter of 19th-century analysis.

She wrote four such treatises, and they helped shape English mathematics and science. But it's the last one that I want to tell you about.

The 18th-century science that Somerville first learned had given way to powerful new sciences of microscopes, microbiology, and molecular theory. She was now quite old and feeling a craving to keep moving. She looked at those new microscopic sciences taking shape around her, and she wrote:

Such was the field opened to me; but instead of being discouraged by its magnitude, I seemed to have resumed the perseverance and energy of my youth, and began to write with courage, though I did not think I should live to finish even the sketch I had made. . . . I assumed as my motto, 'Deus magnus in magnis, maximus in minimis,' from St. Augustin.

That Latin quote is interesting. It means. something like, "God is great in great things, but he is greatest in the smallest things."

So Somerville wrote her last great book. It was a beautifully illustrated two-volume treatise: On Molecular and Microscopic Science.

Now the punch line. The year was 1869. Somerville was 89 years old. She'd worked with her eye clearly set on the end of her life, and she really had nothing left to lose. By now, the name Somerville graced a College at Oxford, an Arctic Island, and several society medals. She had been the red thread through the fabric of England's rise to scientific ascendancy. Her understanding had seemed limitless.

By the way, Mary Somerville had also lived at the eye of the storm that 19th-century science created by challenging Biblical literalism. It's a testament to her authority as well as her courage that she was denounced by the fundamentalist dean of York Cathedral for her treatise on geology -- right along with the famous Victorian male scientists. That was an odd mark of gender equality.

Yet Somerville expressed her strong religious conviction when she wrote,

Nothing has [so persuaded me] of the unity of the Deity as these purely mental conceptions of [mathematics], which have been by slow degrees vouchsafed to man [and] which must have existed in that sublimely omniscient Mind from eternity.

Of course those were also the words of someone who deeply loved the mental exercise she'd enjoyed for almost a century.

She was 92 when she died. At the end she'd just begun yet another book. This one was on the subject ofquaternions. That was the 19th-century form of vector analysis. She was also reviewing a book on finite difference techniques -- a subject that would loom large in this century when we finally had digital computers.

So I have little patience with Fountains of Youth. Who wants the constraints of being young? These oldpeople are my heroes. I want to be like them. They all looked death in the face and said, "Let's run a race. The fact that you've arrived has set me free. Now let's run together to the finish line."

The old do have their secret that they keep from the young. It is a secret of freedom. It is the perfectly wonderful liberation of having nothing left to lose.

And so we're back to what Matushka said to you last Thursday. She said, in essence, "Do not turn your eyes away from what you've been conditioned to see as ugly. You will miss the chance to see beauty."

Age is not a disease. At its best it is the liberating acceptance of our own inevitable death. And that can make us free.

God deliver me from old people who want to tell me how young they still are -- Bob Dole running about with dyed hair and convictions that mirror the biggest blocs of voters. That is pissing upon the gift of age.

One last story -- a story that might seem oddly out of place, but a story of creativity and the end of life. Then I have another question for you. This one is about a French boy who lived his brief life right at the height of the Romantic revolution -- a boy whose life and death really display the workings of the Romantic mind in a Rationalist framework.

He was Evariste Galois, the underage father of modern algebra. Galois was born in 1811, and he died of gunshot wounds 20 years and 7 months later -- still a minor when his brief, turbulent life ended.

He began his career in mathematics by twice failing the entry exam for the Ecole Polytechnique because his answers were so odd. The Ecole Normale accepted him and then expelled him for attacking the director in a letter to the papers.

A few months later, he was arrested for making a threatening speech against the king. He was acquitted. Then he was tossed right back into jail when he illegally wore a uniform and carried weapons. He spent the next eight months writing mathematics. Then, just as soon as he got out, he was devastated by an unhappy love affair. I guess it'd be fair to say he was a typical bright young teenager.

For some murky reason -- maybe underhanded police work -- he was challenged to a duel on May 30th, 1832 -- a duel he couldn't win, but which he couldn't dodge, either. By then his talents as a mathematician were known. He'd published some material, and luminaries like Gauss, Jacobi, and Cauchy knew of him.

On May 29th, he wrote and wrote. That day and night he wrote a letter that included most of the 100 or so pages of mathematics he produced during his entire short life. He set down what proved to be the very foundations of modern algebra and group theory. Some of the theorems he wrote that night weren't proved for a century. He faced death with a cool desperation, reaching down inside himself and getting at truths we do not know how he found.

His fright and arrogance were mixed. The letter was peppered with asides. On the one hand he wrote:

I do not say to anyone that I owe to his counsel or ... encouragement [what] is good in this work.

On the other hand, he penned in the margins, "I have no time!" When poet Carol Christopher Drake heard his story, she was stunned by it. She wrote about Galois's last night. She made it into a dialog between Galois and his God -- or maybe the voice of his desperation against the voice of his mental peace:

Until the sun I have no time
     But the flash of thought is like the sun --sudden, absolute:
          Watch at the desk, through the window raised on the
            flawless dark, the hand that trembles in the light, Lucid, sudden.
Until the sun I have no time, . . . 
I cry to you I have no time -- 
Watch. This light is like the sun
     Illumining grass, seacoast, this death --
I have no time. Be thou my time.

The next morning Galois was shot -- two days later, dead. But he'd done more for his world in one night than most of us will do in a lifetime, because he knew he could find something in that moment that he had to look inside himself.

Evariste Galois was a Romantic prototype, of course. He leaves us with a powerful example of what the Romantics meant when they told modern scientists that it was time for them to look within themselves to find truth -- and to find their God.

But he also shows us what Hepburn and Somerville did. He shows us what it is to reach a point at which we have nothing left to lose.

Now: I said I wanted to leave you with a question. How to phrase it?

The quality of psychic survival among the creative people appears to be -- and here I unabashedly use a religious turn of phrase -- it appears to be death unto self. The ability to work with nothing to lose, whether or not death is looking you in the face.

The creative daemon is really only a daemon when you let it reach into your fears and your avarices. Create for the joy of creating, and fear will no longer touch you. That wonderful imagined voice speaking to Galois,

Watch. This light is like the sun
Illumining grass, seacoast, this death --

Of course I think the answer to death and to suicide lies in creativity. I think the daemon himself can save us if we know how to put him to use.

So my question for you today is: "How do you -- or will you -- as medical professionals, deal with death? What do you think you'll do about that fear that can so corrode you and me and your patients?"


Nuland, S., How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Hill, J.W., "Carothers, Wallace Hume," Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.

Mark., H., and Whitby, G.S., Collected Papers of Wallace Hume Carothers on High Polymeric Substances, New York: Interscience Publishers, Inc., 1940.

For more on Carothers, see also, The National Inventors Hall of Fame, a brochure published by the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation, Inc., 1990. The address is Room 1D01, Crystal Plaza 3, 2021 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, Virginia 22202.

Hepburn, A., "Unforgettable Silence," Newsweek, October 26, 1992, p. 10.

Humbert, C., "Audrey Hepburn Dies of Colon Cancer at 63," (Associated Press) Houston Post, Thursday, Jan. 21, 1993, pp. 1 & 17.

Osin, L., Women in Mathematics, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974, pp. 71-81.

Caroline Herschel's epitaph, which she composed herself, is quoted in Scripta Mathematica, Vol. 21, June 1955, p. 251.

Here rests the earthly veil of
Caroline Herschel
Born at Hanover, March 16, 1750

The eyes of her who passed to glory, while below turned to the starry heavens; her own discoveries of the comets and her share in the immortal labours of her Brother, William Herschel, bear witness of this to later ages. The Royal Academy of Dublin and the Royal Astronomical Society of London numbered her among their members. At the age of 97 years and 10 months she fell asleep in happy peace, and in full possession of her faculties; following to a better life her father, Isaac Herschel, who lived to the age of 60 years 7 months and lies buried near this spot since the 25th March, 1767.

Osin, L.M., Women in Mathematics, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1974, pp. 95-116.

Stein. D., Ada, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1987.

The full text of the poem about Galois is this:


Until the sun I have no time
     But the flash of thought is like the sun
     Sudden, absolute:
               watch at the desk
     Through the window raised on the flawless dark,
     The hand that trembles in the light,
     Lucid, sudden.
Until the sun
I have no time
     The image is swift,
     Without recall, but the mind holds
     To the form of thought, its shape of sense
     Coherent to an unknown time --
I have no time and wholly my risk
Is out of time; I have no time,
I cry to you I have no time --
     Watch.  This light is like the sun
     Illumining grass, seacoast, this death --
I have no time.  Be thou my time.

                            Carol Christopher Drake
                                     Berkeley, 1957.