April 4, 2006

The Sun Interviews N.Y. Times Columnist

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New York Times personal health columnist and science writer Jane E. Brody ’62 was on campus last weekend for the annual meeting of the President’s Council of Cornell Women. The Sun caught up with Brody after a PCCW networking lunch with juniors and seniors in the Statler Hotel and got her take on learning and educating through science writing for The Times, and fighting to use words like ‘masturbation’ in informative stories in the ’80s.

The Sun: How did you get started?

Jane Brody: I was initially a biochemistry major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. I wrote for the Cornell Countryman, a student magazine, and just woke up one day, said – “I love this, why don’t I do this?” – and crammed in some communication courses. I then got a masters in science writing at Wisconsin. As a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, I squeezed in medical and science reporting. Then in 1965 I applied for a job at The New York Times as a science writer with a concentration in biology and medicine and I got it.

The Sun: What did you start writing about?

Brody: I wrote science stories and then started writing a column called ‘Personal Health.’ Prior to that, The Times didn’t have reporters as columnists. I started this in November 1976, and I’ve never stopped. I write 52 columns a year on any and every aspect of medicine and health including mental health, physical health and allergies.

The Sun: What has the job been like?

Brody: This is the most wonderful job because I have been paid for the last 43 years to continue my education. Every new writing assignment is a new discovery; any time I want to know about something, I can write about it. For example, Lucy Jarvis ’38, a PCCW member here at the meeting, had a daughter who died of a relatively rare disease. This disease is on the rise and is chronically misdiagnosed. She told me about it and I said, “Sure, I’ll write about it; people should know if they have the symptoms of the disease.”

The Sun: What kind of impact does your column have?

Brody: I feel that with my job I perform a huge public service by educating my readers, which include physicians. Physicians read my columns, especially to find out about subjects outside their field. Patients can read my column and say, “Gee, this sounds like what I have,” and then ask their doctor about it.

The Sun: What kind of feedback have you gotten to your column and writing?

Brody: I get feedback from physicians and patients. I was one of the first people to write about lactose intolerance. Doctors used to send women who complained of abdominal cramping to psychiatrists and thought that there was a mental problem when they were really suffering from lactose intolerance. I’ve gotten letters from people saying “You saved my life. Now I know what I have.” We give these African-American kids milk in school, but they don’t drink it because most black people over the age of four are lactose intolerant. For the same reason, sending milk powder to Africa was not a good idea. I get letters from people saying “Thank you for bringing my attention to this,” and doctors will use my column to educate their patients.

The Sun: How do you deal with making complex science stories comprehensible to readers?

Brody: [The science] is complex. In terms of genetic modification, for example, I try to explain to people that it’s been done for years in terms of crossing crops and that it’s not completely new. I keep learning new stuff; I read both sides of an argument and see which one has the most scientific basis.

The Sun: What are some of the most important issues you have covered?

Brody: Biotechnology – it is critically important that people understand genetics and how to use it safely to make this a far more sustainable planet. Sustainability, that’s the theme of the PCCW conference this year. In terms of the smoking issue, the media has played a major role in the decline of smoking. I feel like I was a big player in this; I never let up in explaining the risks, both to the smoker and non-smoker. Exercise is another key issue. You are never too young to start and you are never too old to continue. Everyone has to find a way to be physically active. Exercise is the single most important factor in continued vitality – physical, mental and emotional [life quality].

The Sun: What are some of the most dramatic changes you’ve seen while working at The Times?

Brody: The decline in smoking. There has been growth in regular exercise though about 60 percent of people do nothing. There has been an explosion of obesity, which is the downside of our labor-saving world and the accessibility of food every place you turn. For example, sugar-sweetened sodas for kids have been a disaster nutritionally.

The Sun: Do you have any funny stories from being a writer at The Times?

Brody: I was considered the ‘pubic editor’ at the Times. I was the first reporter on the Times to cover birth control and abortion, yet the Times wouldn’t use real words. For example, instead of saying ‘penis,’ the Times called it the ‘male sexual organ.’ This was in the ’70s and I fought for years to get in descriptions to make the subject matter understandable. I was also writing about cervical cancer, which is caused by a sexually transmitted disease [the human papilloma virus]. At the time, we didn’t know that it caused by was a virus, only that it was transmitted by sexual intercourse. I had to get that word – intercourse – into the story and that was a challenge. In the ’80s I wrote a column on masturbation, explaining that it is normal behavior, especially for widows and single people. It took four years to get that into the newspaper. I was a little bit ahead of my time for The Times, but things are much better now and most words aren’t a challenge anymore.

Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman
Sun City Editor