Others had given thought to aging, of course—ancient Arabs had various special treatments just for the elderly—but no one person had drawn as much attention to theories of aging at the time as the McGill University-trained doctor Sir William Osler. Osler was the chief physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for 14 years, but his notoriety could be captured in a subhead on his 1919 New York Times obituary: “‘Chloroform at 60’ a jest.”
Osler had found unwitting global fame in 1905 after making an offhand comment during his Johns Hopkins valedictory address before repairing to England to teach at Oxford. Osler spoke of the “comparative uselessness of men above 40 years of age,” and made an apparently jocular reference to the Anthony Trollope novel The Fixed Period, which averred that man’s work was done by age 40, and that he ought to be “chloroformed at 60.”
Ironic comments sometimes fail to travel with their quotation marks. Osler spent much of his remaining years on the earth insisting that, no, really, it was all in jest, and that he actually didn’t believe people over 60 should be done in. (He was 55 when he made the speech. His Times obituary pointed out that “he reached the age of 70 himself, and his last 10 years formed a period of great activity and of his greatest influence.”)
During Weston’s 1909 walk, Osler’s accidental controversy was far from extinguished, and Weston—never averse to publicity—was happy to see his walk prompt the debate to flare anew. Discussion took place in newspapers and drawing rooms and among knots of people gathered along the roads to watch Weston pass by. Most had to agree that he looked healthy and active, and his life and vigor provided a welcome alternative to a lethal rag and eternal sleep. With his pluck and dauntless walking style, he demonstrated what those of advanced years can accomplish if they put their minds to it.
“Many physicians, of this city at least,” reported the New York Times, were watching his trip closely. “Their interest is not excited alone by the nature of the feat, though all hold it marvelous that a man of Weston’s age is capable of even attempting it; they are looking deeper, watching for the effect which this example will have in renewing the lost interest in walking as a pastime and an exercise, and for the effect they believe it will have in counteracting the theory they condemn—the theory that at the age of 50 or thereabouts a man is ‘down and out.’”
A column in the Dallas Morning News admitted that many considered Weston’s walk from ocean to ocean “foolishness” and “an idle waste of time.” But, the writer asked, was it “preferred to the needless senility into which far too many men begin to drift at the period of three score years and 10?” The writer chastised those who chose inertness when their working days were over, “lounging about in the sort of aimless apathy which benumbs the soul and closes up all the channels of sensation.” He went on: “Remember that there is mighty little excitement of divertissement in shuffling to town twice a day ‘for the mail,’” and that lapsing into indolence was “far more foolish and ill-advised than it was for Edward Payson Weston to start on his 70th birthday, to walk from New York to San Francisco.”