After Decades as the Nation’s Leading Health Columnist, Jane Brody ’62 Retires

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By Beth Saulnier

Jane Brody 9 in front of a waterfall
Brody (seen at Victoria Falls during a CAU trip to Africa in 2020) remains active in her 80s. (Photo provided)

“When my friend Michael and his brothers cleaned out their 92-year-old mother’s house in Florida after she died, among the many multiples they found were eight identical jars of mustard, five dozen cans of pineapple chunks, 72 rolls of paper towels, 11 walkers, and four wheelchairs,” Jane Brody ’62 wrote in a recent New York Times column about the physical and psychological hazards of household clutter.

As she went on to observe, with (literally) mordant wit: “I’d like my family to have better things to fret or chuckle over when I die.”

The column was classic Brody—combining a news hook (the pandemic-era craze for decluttering) with revelatory details, personal anecdotes, observations by experts, and concise advice for healthier living. Published in December 2021, it’s just one of the more than 1,700 columns the CALS alumna produced over her decades-long tenure at the Times, which ended with her retirement in late February.

She covered a dizzying variety of topics. Just in her final months at the paper, Brody devoted her 1,100 weekly words to such subjects as accuracy in death certificates; early warning signs of pancreatic cancer; negative impacts of stress and of poor sleep; early-onset dementia; common medications that raise blood pressure; low HPV vaccination rates in teens; how to become more resilient during trying times; and advice for patients’ families on navigating the ICU.

“I get a kick out of talking to people in ways that, on a personal level, help them live a better life,” says Brody, speaking with Cornellians from her home in Brooklyn just days after the publication of her final column.

Over the years, she notes, “many, many people wrote in to say that what I wrote saved their lives. That was the most satisfying kind of feedback I could possibly get.”

A biochemistry major on the Hill, Brody is in the middle generation of a Cornellian family: her father (Sidney Brody) was in the Class of 1931, and her twin grandsons, Stefan and Tomas Engquist, will graduate in May—just two weeks before their grandmother’s 60th Reunion.

Jane Brody with her twin grandsons
Brody with grandsons Tomas Engquist ’22 (left) and Stefan Engquist ’22. (Photo provided)

Brody caught the writing bug as an undergrad, becoming editor of CALS’ Cornell Countryman magazine. She went on to earn a master’s in science writing from the University of Wisconsin, then worked at the Minneapolis Tribune before moving to the Times in 1965.

She launched "Personal Health"—which would go on to become the paper’s longest-running column written by a single author—in 1976. She has also penned numerous books on health and wellness (including volumes on allergies, battling cancer, cold and flu prevention, and end-of-life planning), as well as several cookbooks.

Jane Brody's yearbook photo
Brody in the 1962 Cornellian yearbook.

As Tara Parker-Pope, founding editor of the Times’ “Well” section, wrote in a tribute upon Brody’s retirement: “Jane was among the first journalists to recognize that better health doesn’t happen in the doctor’s office—it’s rooted in the small decisions we make every day, like the foods we eat, the amount we sleep, and whether we wear a bicycle helmet.”

And as Parker-Pope noted, Brody was a taboo-breaking trailblazer: not only a pioneering woman journalist, but the first writer to get the term “sexual intercourse” on the newspaper’s front page (in a story about cervical cancer).

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More than a half-century later, Brody still seems irked when she recalls how she wasn’t allowed to report on Human Sexual Response—the landmark 1966 publication by researchers Masters and Johnson—because she’s a woman. Says Brody: “They gave the assignment to write about that seminal work to a culture writer.”

(And don’t get her started on the kerfuffle over her insistence on using specific terminology in her coverage, 10 years later, of The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality.)

Jane Brody and her dog
Brody’s Havanese dog, Max, got occasional mentions in her column. (Photo provided)

Brody was also ahead of her time in sharing details of her own life and experience, in an era when newspaper writers were expected to keep themselves out of the story. The approach—humanizing health and wellness issues, while remaining firmly rooted in science and the latest research—proved immensely popular.

In service of illuminating often-complex topics, Brody chronicled everything from family trips abroad (with detailed advice on, for example, how to avoid digestive upset) to the challenges of recovering from double-knee-replacement surgery.

When her husband of 43 years died less than two months after being diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, she shared that, too—in honest and unsparing detail. As she wrote: “There was no asking ‘Why me?’ Richard knew very well why. He’d been a pack-a-day smoker for 50 years. Although he quit for good more than 15 years ago, it was far too late.”

Jane was among the first journalists to recognize that better health doesn’t happen in the doctor’s office.

Tara Parker-Pope in a Times tribute

Now 80 and still living in the house she and her husband bought in 1967, Brody remains active and fit—a fact that will hardly surprise her readers, to whom she long espoused the benefits of regular exercise and moderate eating (and decried fad diets, quackery, and extremes of self-denial).

She takes daily walks with her dog—Max, an 8-year-old Havanese—around her neighborhood (Park Slope) and regularly rides her bike to the pool, swimming being her primary form of exercise these days. “I am not a paragon of virtue,” she insists. “I don't do everything right; I have shortcomings. But I do stick to a basic approach to living that will keep me as healthy as possible.”

Jane Brody with her bike
Brody, who grew up riding a bike in the city, still cycles regularly. (Photo provided)

Asked about her plans for retirement, Brody says she’s considering writing a book of essays—not a memoir, she explains with typical candor, because “I could not come up with an overriding theme that would carry a memoir I would want to read.”

Her devoted readership might, respectfully, disagree. As Parker-Pope said in her tribute: “For more than five decades, Jane’s wisdom, wit, and writing have lifted us up, motivated us to try harder, and nudged us to be just a little better than we were before.”

Published March 8, 2022


Comments

  1. Margaret Johnston

    I will miss you and your articles, Jane Brody. Best of luck in your next chapter of life!

  2. Phyllis Toomire

    I am home economist and many years ago (soon after its publication) I bought “The Good Food Cookbook.” It has been a valuable reference to my book collection, both for its recipes and its nutrition and scientific information.

    Thank you, Jane Brody. You are surely missed and I look forward to seeing future books.

  3. Susanne Servin

    Thank you for writing about Jane Brody -I miss her terribly-have files full of her articles-I learned a lot from her even though she is younger than I -hahaha

  4. Christine Maciel

    I loved reading Jane Brody’s column whenever I could but I really like her cookbooks. I learned so much about making delicious food using healthy ingredients. My favorite recipe for bread is hers: Richard’s Favorite Bread’. I made bread with that recipe for years! Thinking about it now makes my mouth water! Thanks, Jane.

  5. Jean Davis, Class of 1969

    Jane Brody was indeed a great inspiration through her writing with that refreshing mixture of humor, intelligent insight and lots of useful information. She’s been my ‘companion’ for countless years in the health/science domain, and I wish her joy and lots of stimulating adventures in this new stage of her life.

  6. Shelley, Class of 1958

    As a retired physician, I have long appreciated Jean Brody’s well researched and cheerful columns on health and wellness—and I’ll miss passing them on to family and friends who enjoyed them too.

  7. Pam Blum

    You will be missed. Loved your writing, your wit, your truth. I also bought The Good Food Cookbook, which was filled with much information besides recipes.
    I didn’t attend Cornell, but, my maternal Pharmacist Grandfather and uncle did. Their Pharmacy was near Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. I can remember as a child my grandfather singing the Cornell song, singing with much pride!
    Enjoy this next chapter, as I wish you were still writing, you definitely deserve this.

  8. Elisa Bremner, Class of 1990

    Thank you for sharing your gifts for all these years, Jane Brody. And thank you for setting an example of healthy living in your retirement!

  9. Stephen Ploscowe, Class of 1962

    Every Tuesday I would rush to my driveway to pickup my NY Times so I could read Jane’s column. So informative and so interesting. My classmate Jane was and still is the best. Steve Ploscowe

  10. Lisa Hallee

    The Good Food Cookbook remains my favorite, well used and time worn. And it’s the second copy I bought after the first one wore out. What a treasure Jane Brody is! And when I learned that we share a Cornell connection, I was thrilled. Enjoy your well earned retirement Jane. You made an enormous difference in many lives.

  11. Marcia Wities Orange, Class of 1971

    As a Communications Arts major, “Countryman” editor (and former Brooklynite), I always felt an inspiration from Jane Brody, even if I was 10 years behind her. I had always thought she too was a Comm Arts major as well

    Perhaps I was wrong, as you reported BioChem was her major. Still I count myself among her devoted readers for decades

    • Mary Maxon Grainger, Class of 1979

      As another Com Arts alum who enjoyed working on the Countryman, I had understood Jane studied in the same department, too. Whether she was a science major or Com Arts, it is true that her use of CALS education has inspired many since communicating about science for public benefit is practically the college’s mission!

  12. anne sterling maglisceau, Class of 1960

    The column was a reliable part of our information over the years. Thank you Jane.

  13. Andrew Goldstein, Class of 1969

    Jane,
    As I re-read some of your motivating and informative articles on healthy living (I have hard copies of many of them), I relish our conversations at the CALS Advisory Council meetings some twenty years ago. May your retirement hold joyful and enlightening times ahead with family and friends!
    All the best in good health and happiness.

  14. Mike Eisgrau, Class of 1962

    Jane
    You’ve made a very “healthy” name for yourself over all these years.
    It’s been an honor to have you as a classmate—and I hope to see you in Ithaca in June for our 60th Reunion.
    All the best,
    Mike Eisgrau CU ’62

  15. Fran Stillman, Class of 1964

    Jane,
    I admired you when I was a younger sorority sister of yours at Cornell. Each week when I would read your column not only did I enjoy your writing but I also smiled at fond memories of college days. Congratulations on a life well lived. Enjoy your retirement.

  16. Cynthia Converse Gentsch

    My introduction to your columns was by way of my healthy father who followed your advice until his death at age 92. Your name was a household word. As a Cornell Cooperative Extension Agent I too was hooked and have your cookbooks autographed. It was a wonderful experience to attend your talks. Thank you Jane Brody for your work!

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