The prospect of formal retirement has got me wondering. It is imminent and both beckons and looms. The looming bit is underlined in Roget’s Thesaurus. The index asks: which meaning of ‘retire’ do you have in mind? It then lists these grim options: "cease, be quiescent, regress, recede, depart, run away, relinquish, resign, not retain, be modest". The word ‘retirement’ offers a similar menu, but chucks in, "leisure, resignation and seclusion" as well.

In search of something closer to what I had in mind, I even paid a quick visit to the websites of two greeting cards manufacturers: Clintons and Hallmark. What gloss might their ghost writers put on retirement? My expectations, never high, now plummeted below zero. The caption on one of the better, if more lurid, cards said: "as a special treat for your retirement it's been arranged for you to go to the place where the pineapples and bananas come from"

Breckenridge can have the Bananas: I have no intention of leaving my work or principles behind, there is still nearly everything to do. I have spent over thirty years studying the world of medicines, and regret to say that the more I learn, the more shocked I feel. For all the triumphs and miracles, I fear that we are heading blindly in the general direction of Pharmageddon.

I shall be marking my retirement with further thoughts about this, but it’s not going to be easy. Pharmageddon is a gold-standard paradox: individually we benefit from some wonderful medicines while, collectively, we are losing sight and sense of health. By analogy, think of the relationship between a car journey and climate change – they are inextricably linked, but probably not remotely connected in the driver’s mind. Just as climate change seems inconceivable as a journey outcome, so the notion of Pharmageddon is flatly contradicted by most personal experience of medicines. Definition is therefore almost impossible, so it will take time to unravel and explain. [See update, July 2007]

Otherwise the meaning of my retirement is mostly about the beginning and end of two important relationships. The beginning one is to do with gently handing over the corporate reins to an academic, environmental activist, less than half my age. I feel very happy about this: Tim Helweg-Larsen seems to me just the right person at the right time: he is keenly aware of the risks of chaos but level-headed and undaunted too. I have as much to learn from him as he from me.

The relationship that is formally ending is with the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker charity distinguished both for its deep heart, and for its innovative commitments to tackling the root causes of major social problems. The JRCT as good as founded us and then nurtured our work for the best part of 35 years, so naturally I feel quite sad. However, I'll not be grieving, because the good bits are enduring and the loss is far outweighed by what has been founded and found.

My indebtedness to the Trust, and gratitude to the many good people who are part of it, is huge; naturally I mean to commit all future work to the principles it stands for and serves. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust painstakingly and generously laid the foundations of my independence: what I make of this impending liberation is down to them, but now up to me.


Charles Medawar
26 February 2007

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