My Grandma’s Generation of Health Heroes

March is National Women’s History Month! It goes without saying that women rock in so many, many ways, but historically-speaking, women have been on the forefront of keeping humanity healthy. Of course men got most of the glory, but women weren’t out here slouching.

Marie Curie

There have been some undeniably impactful women in this realm: Marie Curie (1867 – 1934), anyone? Despite her groundbreaking discoveries and research that we still benefit from today, she faced barriers to even being heard, much less listened to. For example, she wasn’t allowed to attend university in her native Poland or speak at an event held in honor of one of her discoveries, because she was a woman. At that event, her research partner and husband, Pierre, was allowed to speak, and thus gave “their” speeches.

Marie Curie remains the only human (man or woman) to have won two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. Radiation treatment for cancer and the ability to x-ray may not have been possible had it not been for her unassuming, dedicated work. She ultimately gave her life to further science, passing away at age 69 from the effects of radiation poisoning.

Florence Nightingale

Another woman who changed our health forever was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). The mother of modern nursing was once forbidden from following such “fanciful” endeavors as helping the sick, because it would bring shame to her high-class family. When have we ever known a well-behaved woman to make or change history? Never. One must be assertive, passionate, and persistent.

In these realms, Florence did not disappoint. Despite helping train nursing students, raising the status of the nurse within society, basically creating modern evidence-based medicine, and establishing standards of care and cleanliness that have saved millions of lives, by age 38, her own health had declined to the point where she became mostly bedridden. She had also shown, through data, that more soldiers died in the Crimean War from disease and poor hygiene than enemy bullets, which simultaneously gave the British government a black eye and a desire to stifle her work. Did that stop her from making an impact though? If you answered “No”, you would be right. She would go on to write books and consult, often from her bed, until her death, at the age of 90.

These two now famous examples, Marie and Florence, show that persistence in the face of obstacles allowed them to contribute to the health of all future generations. There are doubtless thousands of women currently following in their footsteps, working on saving the world from our present viral threat.

But there is a whole generation of women who continued in this spirit behind the scenes, contributing to the health of future generations without anyone even noticing until now.

After Marie and Florence

I’d like to introduce you to my grandmother’s generation: The one that came after Marie and Florence.

My grandparents, Ellen (Garland) Waldo and Glen Waldo, and three of their eventual eight children.

Born in the early 1900s, they lived to see Typhoid Mary, women get the vote, the Spanish Flu, survived through World War I, Prohibition, the Great (stock market) Crash of 1929 and its’ aftermath; the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, World War II, men returning from the war and taking all their jobs, Ticky Tacky houses, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the introduction of the USDA Nutrition Guidelines, microwaves, J-E-L-L-O recipes, and the HIV and AIDS epidemic. At the risk of sounding like a Billy Joel song, I list all of this to say that in the span of less than 100 years, this group of women survived by knowing how to make the best out of less than ideal situations.

Remember the persistence in the face of obstacles and passion I mentioned earlier? They had it in spades. They also nurtured and raised families, kept their homes, always had cookies baked, and even looked good while doing it. My how my generation has fallen. And my, how I digress.

Their Impact

So how did their work contribute to the health of future generations? There are so many ways, but I’d like to highlight the one that has impacted most of us in hidden ways: Nutrition.

This generation knew health secrets we’ve since forgotten, in the name of convenience, and are just now re-learning, in the name of renewing our health. They knew how to locate, preserve, and prepare local, organic, and non-GMO foods. No labels, fancy degrees, or research needed. They learned domestic techniques passed down literally from their ancestors – through their mothers and grandmothers: canning, fermenting, milling, gardening, harvesting, cooking, and baking. These tasks were undertaken with love, lots of lard and butter, and ingredients grown, harvested, or butchered, in their own backyard. And, surprise, surprise, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease were rare. Though life expectancy may have been slightly less than it is today, their quality of life was unsurpassed. They ate deliciously and they didn’t see nearly the levels of chronic disease that we now spend most our lives suffering from.

I say that we, as a society, have a lot to learn from this generation of women. The sooner we take the time to re-learn their ways and means, the sooner our health will begin to improve and the sooner we can truly turn the tide and get back to impacting, for good, our future generations. Long story short, our general health (and demeanor) as a society is directly correlated with the amount of butter we eat. Let’s get cooking!


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