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Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson - Personal Retirement Story

Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus, Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Stony Brook University
Visiting Scholar, Institute for Advanced Study, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

Retirement as opportunity—how my wife and I worked out ways to use our talents                                                    
I turned 65 in 1996 and thought how fortunate I was that I did not automatically have to retire. I also thought, this might be a good reason to think about retiring. I had my TIAA-CREF but never thought about how that would turn into a monthly retirement or supplemental nest egg. In fact, I was a Platonic scholar who ignored practical things and had never invested anything for the future, at least not consciously. I assumed I would die in the house I lived in about a mile from the Stony Brook University campus.

I also felt that my life as a scholar was focused on scholarly writing, on teaching, and the service I provided the university. I was Master of the Honors College for eight years and before that I spent about 20 years on the medical admissions committee, both activities very time-consuming but very rewarding. I taught large classes – Biology 101-102 which had several hundred students each semester, Biology 300 (Biology of human sexuality) also about 300 students, and medical genetics for first year medical and dental students (about 250 students).

At 65 I was in good health and did not feel burnt out or a need to ease up. I was well-regarded by my colleagues and by the students and until I hit 65 I had no reason to think of ever retiring. Being a professor was like being in paradise.

retirement story 

I spent five years planning my retirement. I went to a retirement workshop the University provided for those who turned 65. My wife Nedra, and I went to the TIAA headquarters (then in Manhattan). I had my son John, an actuary, compute and evaluate various retirement plans and what I should do with my TIAA-CREF funds. We took a short one-week course on financial planning offered at our local high school. We went to the Social Security office on Long Island and I got my Medicare insurance counseling.

My second task was what I would do if I retired. I decided I wanted to do something different. I did not want to teach after retiring although I held the title of Distinguished Teaching Professor. I enjoyed writing and already had written several scholarly books. From my various courses I had lots of ideas to write books. But I felt that was a long shot and I didn’t know if I could make writing books a full-time occupation. I decided I would use the next five years to free up a small amount of time to write a newspaper column on science. I called these essays (one sheet of paper, single spaced, about 550 words) Life Lines. I wrote about a dozen of these and sent these to the local newspaper, The Village Times. I got no response and thought I was out of touch with the readers I hoped to find.

About six months later I got a call from the publisher, Leah Dunaieff, and she apologized that my envelope with essays was buried on her desk. She loved the essays and asked if I would like to do the column. I agreed. It would appear every other Thursday. That’s about 25 per year and I easily was a year ahead of deadline. I learned, however, that I would never run out of ideas and this was my “bully pulpit” for interpreting science for the public and introducing science as one of the liberal arts. To write these articles I had to read Science and Nature every week and make visits to the local library to read the popular magazines on science.

I also worked on a book that traced the history of “unfit people” from antiquity to the present. I tried several publishers and a literary agent but none thought the book would sell. Fortunately, I attended a talk of Jim Watson’s at Cold Spring Harbor on the history of CSHL Press. He felt scholarly presses should publish books that won’t sell well but are important to scholars. I went up to him (we encountered each other over the years) and asked him if he would be interested in a book I wrote on the prehistory of the eugenics movement. He did and the next thing I knew the director of the press called and said they would like to publish it. The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea came out in 2001. While it was my first retirement book, I wrote most of it during that five year period between turning 65 and making the plunge into retirement in December 2000.

We stayed in Stony Brook until 2009. What made us think of leaving was first Nedra falling down the stairs from our kitchen and then my falling. We decided our house was too big and we should consider a ranch house without flights of stairs to negotiate. We also thought it would be cheaper to move than stay in a very expensive part of the country. Nedra and I met at Indiana University where I got my PhD and she got her BA, both our degrees awarded in 1958. She retired from her work as an IVF embryologist, making babies for infertile couples. Nedra was a Hoosier and had relatives in northern Indiana. Her mother was frail (she lived with us for about ten years on Long Island) and we arranged for her to go to an assisted living facility in Frankfort, Indiana. We drove down to Bloomington, liked the way the University had grown, worked with a real estate agent, and chose a limestone ranch house. We sold our home in Setauket, NY and used the equity to pay off the mortgage and what remained we used to buy the Bloomington house outright. Our property taxes shifted from $19,000 per year to $1,900 per year. I had converted 60% of my TIAA-CREF funds into a monthly retirement for Nedra and me for our lifetimes and the remaining 40 percent I invested in an IRA nest egg for emergencies.

When we came to Bloomington, I requested an unpaid appointment as a Visiting Scholar in the Institute for Advanced Study at Indiana University (IU) because I had once spent a sabbatical year as a Fellow of that institute. That gave me faculty privileges for parking. I regularly attend monthly lectures at Emeriti House, an on-campus facility for retired IU faculty (they also include persons like me who are academics who chose Bloomington for a retirement place). They also offered a workshop on memoir writing and I much enjoy listening to these accounts of colleagues who experienced war and the Great Depression while growing up, some escaping from Europe in its bleakest times.

Nedra volunteered to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity, which has an active chapter in Bloomington. Nedra also joined the Bloomington Quilter’s Guild. She is a world-class quilter and has had some of her quilts win juried shows. We both joined the local YMCA to take courses in tai chi for balancing.

I have used the IU libraries to write books. Since my retirement in 2000 CSHL Press has published, in addition to The Unfit, Mendel’s Legacy: A History of Classical Genetics Times of Triumph, Times of Doubt: Science and the Battle for Public Trust Neither Gods Nor Beasts: how Science Is Changing Who We Think We Are, and Mutation: History of an Idea from Darwin to Genomics. I also used the Kinsey Library for Sex Research to do a book that will appear in November 2012 with IU Press called The 7 Sexes: Biology of Sex Determination.

Besides the books, I continue to do my Life Lines column (over 300 since they began appearing in 1997) for seven North Shore papers that Dunaieff publishes.

At age 80 I consider myself lucky to have had a fulfilling career as a geneticist, teacher, and historian of science. Nedra and I enjoy living in a small college town and neither of us feel bored or in want of things to do. Retirement has given me freedom to write as much as I want and even if half the books I write never get published, I will just keep on writing more until my health gives out.


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