Jane Brody, Beta Xi - Cornell University

Best-selling Sister

When internationally renowned author, speaker and columnist Jane Brody speaks – on health, medicine, science and more – people don’t just listen. They act.

September 1, 2010

JANE BRODY STRIDES TO THE PODIUM like someone who’s done this a thousand times before – probably because she has. She stands there a moment, smiling as applause in the massive auditorium fades, then wastes no time launching into an in-depth, no-frills presentation on the many irrefutable reasons you should embrace a healthy lifestyle. Starting today. Starting this minute.

There’s no video, no PowerPoint. There’s no need. The audience is riveted by her sense of purpose, her passion to pack as much information as is humanly possible into one hour – all the time she has today to convince you face to face that it’s never too late to start taking responsibility for your health so you can achieve your fullest potential.

At age 69, Jane (Beta Xi at Cornell University, ’60) speaks with the wisdom of a woman who has researched, written about, lived, breathed and advocated better living through healthy life choices for more than 45 years.

Each week, millions turn to and swear by her New York Times syndicated health and science column. She’s a treasure trove of facts and studies, and one of the few reporters in the United States and even the world who has covered her beat so extensively, she is a trusted authority – so much so that by 1986, she had already been dubbed the nation's “High Priestess of Health” by Time magazine.

Today, as the author of a dozen books, including two best-sellers ("Jane Brody’s Good Food Book" and "Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book"), she’s the rare journalist whose opinion on news is, in fact, news – and whose words have such impact that physicians, researchers, politicians and bloggers regularly follow and comment on them.

Controversial authority

As you might expect, not everyone agrees with her reports or unique brand of advocacy journalism. Time and again, in letters, online discussion forums and Q&A sessions following her speeches, people try to shoot holes in her beliefs or hammer home supposed flaws in her facts.

She’s controversial precisely because she reaches her own conclusions about medical procedures, end-of-life decisions, vitamin supplements, health-care reform, childhood-development issues and much, much more – then shares her observations, backed by research she trusts, with the public in her books, PBS specials, magazine articles and, of course, while speaking on the road.

Watching her interact with fans and detractors alike, you get the sense Jane always stands her ground – politely, matter-of-factly. She’s willing to hear differences in opinion. She’ll consider conflicting evidence carefully. But in the end, she is a Rock of Gibraltar weathering a tidal wave of medical, health and science “news” that often can’t and shouldn’t be trusted in today’s society.

“There’s a lot of garbage out there,” she says, warning people to be smart about what they read and believe. “And there’s more and more garbage all the time. I’ve done my homework, so people consider me trustworthy – a reliable source, even if we disagree from time to time.”

Public-health passion

Jane hadn’t begun her career with the goal of earning such national, even international, acclaim. She had a strong interest in science, a natural curiosity about the world around her and a desire to do her best in her career and life.

Born and bred in Brooklyn, she attended Cornell University, studying biochemistry there at the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. While at Cornell, she joined Phi Sigma Sigma (for the same reason many sisters throughout the years have cited: that her own friends had done so).

Afterward, she pursued a master’s degree in science writing at the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism, then spent two years working for the Minneapolis Tribune (around the same time she met her husband, noted Broadway lyricist Richard Engquist).

In 1965, she accepted a job at The New York Times and eventually took on the Personal Health column that’s vaulted her to fame and fortune, is virtually synonymous with her name and at one point was published by more than 100 newspapers.

You might call it the bully pulpit from which she has preached to the public for decades on specific ways to live well through the intelligent, purposeful pursuit of better health.

“Public health became a passion for me very early on,” she says. “What occurred to me was, ‘Why are we talking about treating illnesses when they can be prevented if people have the information they need to stay healthy?’”

Her view: People can and should take control of their own health by embracing active lifestyles, eating well and educating themselves on best practices and emerging science that can impact their quality of life. (Note: That's where she comes in.)

Jane practices what she preaches by exercising daily (swimming, walking and hiking are among her favorite ways to stay fit), limiting her intake of meat and eating a balanced diet filled with vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

Small wonder, then, that for a woman approaching her 70s, she appears much younger when you meet her - perhaps in her late 50s, early 60s tops. She's a walking billboard for the power of personal responsibility.

Art meets life

When she tackled her most recent book – “Jane Brody’s Guide to the Great Beyond” - it was with much the same purpose: to help educate and empower people to make good choices about critically important, but often taboo, end-of-life issues. Few, if any, books have delved into the topic, she explains.

The book was well received, acclaimed by Publishers Weekly as the "essential travel guide for the journey toward the inevitable. ... (T)his volume belongs on every family's bookshelf."

“Of course, I had no idea I’d have to put those principles into practice so soon,” she says.

Earlier this year, with almost no warning, Richard - her husband of nearly 44 years - was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within a matter of weeks, he passed away. But because they’d already decided how to handle end-of-life issues long before, the process was more “natural” and less traumatic. Instead, they could focus on the quality of her husband’s life and saying good-bye, rather than feeling beset by the emotionally draining and difficult decisions that overwhelm most people in the same situation.

Jane wrote about her experiences in her column - and readers responded. Condolences poured in from around the world. She credits the kindness of fans and lifelong friends with helping her through the grieving process.

Says Jane of her closest and most loyal friends (among them, one of her Phi Sig sisters), “They’ll always be there for me, and I’ll always be there for them.”

New book

As she moves into the next phase of her life, she’s already preparing to write yet another book (under wraps – but she acknowledges it’s a sequel to “Great Beyond,” a signed copy of which has been added to our archives at our international Headquarters).

So will she ever retire?

“I shouldn’t say it hasn’t occurred to me,” Jane says, adding that her life is full of many blessings, including spending time with her twin sons, Erik and Lorin, and her four grandchildren, enjoying walks with friends in the heart of New York City, gardening at her summer home in Woodstock, and taking hiking trips to exotic, fascinating places like Peru and Ecuador.

“But I still love my job. I love staying on top of this subject," she says. "With every column, I learn something new – and that’s how you keep your mind alive: by challenging it with new information.

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