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Jane Brody: the story and success of her health & science writing

Scott Beale

If you're a journalist covering medicine and science, writing for The New York Times could be considered the pinnacle of professional success. But to write on personal health at the paper for over 50 years is an unparalleled achievement.

This week, “Take Care” talks with a columnist for The New York Times of 50 years, Jane Brody, on how she became a widely published and known author on health and science topics. Her column on personal health is published in The New York Times every Tuesday, and also in many other newspapers across the country. She is also the author of over a dozen books, including “Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book” and “Jane Brody’s Good Food Book.

Although Brody emits success as a writer, she didn’t always know she wanted to be one. As a kid, Brody loved animals and had the idea that she would go to Cornell University to become a veterinarian.

“However, by the time I got to college age I had decided I wanted to better understand the underpinnings of health and medicine, and so I majored in biochemistry with the idea of becoming a biochemical researcher,” Brody said.

After earning a degree in this however, Brody realized she did not want to spend the next several years of her life stuck in a lab.

“I latched onto the idea of writing about medicine and health instead of doing it. It gave me an audience I could communicate with directly and not through a test tube,” Brody said.

Although Brody had figured out what she wanted to do, she lived in a time (the 1960s) when women writing in general was a rarity, let alone about science. But this stigma didn’t stand a chance against Brody, as she saw it as an opportunity instead.   

“There were no women to compete with to get a job, and any institution that was interested in furthering the cause of women’s equality would be happy to latch onto somebody like me who came and said ‘this is what I want to do,’” Brody said.

With this attitude, Brody got a job at a daily newspaper right out of grad school, where she studied scientific writing. From there, Brody went on to get her current job at The New York Times. But it didn’t end there.

After writing for The New York Times for three years, other publishers became interested in Brody and she was prompted to write her first book on nutrition. Once this was published, her name became known nationwide, making room for her column to grow.

Brody began writing her health column on personal experiences, which made the column more relatable, bringing up everyday health issues. For example, her most recent column was on travel health, having just come back from a trip herself.

Along with her personal experiences, Brody also gets many of her ideas from developments in medicine that may not always be on our radar, or that require attention. For example, child vaccination, which recently has been a controversial topic and has developed new guidelines, according to Brody.

Another big way Brody gets her ideas is simply from day-to-day life, whether it’s someone stopping her on the street to give her an idea or someone she knows with a sickness that she feels people would benefit from advice on.

For example, Brody once wrote about how people choose to be gluten-free even if they don’t have a medical need to be, while a smaller number of people have been diagnosed with Celiac disease. People with the disease must be gluten-free or they destroy their digestive tract, says Brody.

“I just happened to have known about one of my grandson’s friends, who, after many, many, many months of being increasingly ill and not knowing what was wrong with him, was finally diagnosed with Celiac disease, and because it was so advanced at the time of final diagnosis, it’s taken a year of his life to recover from this,” Brody said.

Brody also mentioned a column she wrote on the health benefits of knitting and crocheting, something you might think only older women do, but in fact, it has been shown to reduce stress. Brody describes it as “a meditative exercise, but you have something to show for it when you’re done.”

With 50 years of experience at The New York Times already, there is still much more to come from Brody. For one of her next columns she plans to write about how she trained her dog to be a therapy pet, and brings him to the hospital to visit patients and staff.