The Many Lives of Dorothy Nyswander

by Patricia McBroom

One of the world's pioneers in health education reached her 100th birthday last month, and her secret for a long, productive life has nothing to do with diet or exercise.

"Just enjoy life, dear. Have as much fun as you can and love people."

Such advice may have been expressed before, but few have lived it with more success than Dorothy Nyswander, whose centennial birthday on Sept. 29 brought some 150 former students, colleagues, and admirers to Berkeley from the four corners of the globe.

They came to honor a woman frequently called the "mother of health education," whose phenomenal vitality has made her a legend in her field.

At the age of 10, she wanted to be a philosopher.

At 20, with her new husband, she walked over the snowy Sierra Nevada from her home in Antelope Valley to Yosemite, happily carrying a five-pound bag of potatoes for food and a homemade sleeping bag.

At 32, she earned a PhD in psychology from Berkeley while, as a single mother, she cared for a small daughter.

At 40, she conducted a landmark study of school health that affected the lives of one million children in New York City.

At 50, she helped establish the School of Public Health here, one of three founders who built the school.

At 63, she taught the people of Jamaica how to teach themselves to control malaria.

At 70, she slept on the cement floor of a rural health center in India, with her rolled-up clothes for a pillow, and talked to the men and women about family planning.

At 99, she gave a speech to her profession, the Society of Public Health Educators, and moved the audience to tears.

The highlights from Nyswander's life only touch the surface of her productivity, which includes wartime service with the Federal Works Agency, where she set up government-sponsored nursery schools for the children of women who made the airplanes and ships of World War II.

"It was a wonderful, wonderful sight, to walk into an airplane factory and see women with their arms in oil, oiling the machinery just as through they were kneading bread," she recalled.

Nyswander has lost her sight in recent years, and she gets around with more difficulty now, but her mind is crystal bright and her spirit captivates almost everyone who has ever known her.

A few months ago, she completed a 250-page oral history for the the Bancroft Library that tells the story of her life from growing up on a ranch in Mono County in stagecoach-era California to her international work with the World Health Organization.

Of the many stories that could be told about Nyswander's life, one of the most interesting is a paradox: in spite of her great age, she is a most modern woman.

In 1906, when she was only 12, Nyswander experimented with Hindu theories of reincarnation.

She would sit by newly made graves in the cemetery at dusk waiting for the spirits to rise. They never did. "I don't know where they went, those spirits," she said.

With a growing commitment to experimental science, Nyswander put religion on the back shelf of her mind and took a college degree in mathematics, followed by a doctorate in psychology. But pure research and logical analysis were never enough for this humanistic individual, and during the years of World War II, Nyswander encountered a new philosophy that was then called "group dynamics," the process of empowering people to solve their own problems.

The principles of participatory learning collided with Nyswander's identity as "the expert," and at first she was angry.

"I said to myself, what good is it being an expert? What good is it having a PhD if you can't use it?" But within days she had abandoned the expert's role and adopted wholeheartedly Lewin's theories of learning. They would guide her for the next half century in health programs throughout the globe.

"I think this whole problem of bringing about change, change from anything, is a matter of getting commitment. The inner person has to become committed to it, in some way. And you don't become an advocate unless you participate in the process," said Nyswander.

In 1957, Nyswander retired from Berkeley at age 62. She began a new career with the World Health Organization, traveling to Jamaica, Turkey, Brazil, the South Seas, and India. If she had the time, she said, she would begin still another career, in politics.

"I would have liked to be in politics," said Nyswander. "But you don't get to do everything you want in this life." And what would she focus on in politics, Nyswander was asked?

"Childcare," she said. "It isn't as good now as during the war when we had government nurseries."


Copyright 1994, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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