Two women of notable character died at the weekend on different sides of the Atlantic: World War II heroine Nancy Wake succumbed to a chest infection in a London hospital at the age of almost 99; American cardiologist and women’s health research pioneer Bernadine P. Healy died at home in Ohio of brain cancer at the age of only 67.
They came from different parts of the world, belonged to different generations and made their mark in completely different ways. One lived an incredibly adventurous and dangerous life in Nazi occupied France, for which she was subsequently decorated -- and celebrated in books and films; the other distinguished herself as a physician and administrator in late twentieth century America, battling a masculine medical culture and bureaucracy to promote reforms. Both, however, needed an exceptional amount of grit to follow their convictions.
Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand, grew up in Sydney, ran away to England at the age of 18, worked as a journalist in Europe in the 1930s, married a wealthy Frenchman, Henri Fiocca, in 1939 and could have lived a life of luxury with him in Marseilles if it were not for the Nazi invasion six months later. Having witnessed the rise of Nazism in Europe and the persecution of Jews and blacks, she had conceived a profound indignation against it and was soon drawn, with her husband, into the Resistance movement.
She set up escape routes for more than 1000 Allied servicemen and sabotaged German facilities, often under the nose of the Gestapo, and her many narrow escapes earned her the nickname White Mouse. Someone has suggested that she was too gorgeous to arouse suspicion among the Germans, who would have expected someone more “butch”. She was, however, captured in Toulouse in 1943 while trying to escaping from France over the Pyrenees, and was only released thanks to the machinations of the 'Scarlet Pimpernel of WWII', Patrick O'Leary. She then went to England where she was trained as a spy by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, returning to France to work with the Resistance in preparation for the D-Day landings in Normandy.
In one heroic episode she pedalled more than 200 km and back to replace radio codes destroyed in a German raid and necessary for drops of weapons and supplies. “The blokes didn’t think I would ever get back,” she long after recalled. “I only volunteered for it not because I’m brave but because I was the only one who could do it, being a woman. I got back and they said, ‘How are you?’ I cried. I couldn’t stand up, I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t do anything. I just cried.” She was a woman, after all.
Nancy Wake became the Allies’ most decorated World War II servicewoman. France gave her the Legion of Honour, three Croix de Guerre and a Resistance Medal. She also received Britain’s George Medal, the US Medal of Freedom, and other honours later in Australia. She was a heroine, but Nancy Wake was no Florence Nightingale. Her Australian biographer, Peter Fitzsimons, recalled in an interview this week that she had a “prickly nature” and could swear like a trooper. But he admired the “force of nature” that was like a volcano wanting to burst from her; she was a “born leader” he said; a warrior. The right woman for the time and the place where she served with such distinction.
She continued to work with the SOE after the war, working at the British Air Ministry in the Intelligence Department. In 1960 she married a former prisoner of war, Englishman John Forward, and returned to Australia to live.
In 1960 Bernadine Healy was still at high school. It would be 10 years before she graduated from Harvard Medical School, and another 12 years after that before she became a professor of cardiology at Johns Hopkins University. While Nancy Wake’s war heroism was crammed into five short, dramatic years, Dr Healy’s service to medicine, women and public administration would extend over more than three to four decades -- long enough to experience opposition as well as acclaim, failure as well as success.
In 1991 she was appointed by President George Bush the elder as the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health and during the next two or three years did all she could to make women’s health issues, particularly heart disease, more visible in that vast research organisation. “The problem is to convince both lay and medical sectors that coronary heart disease is also a women’s disease, not a man’s disease in disguise,” she wrote.
She began the Women’s Health Initiative, a $625 million study of the causes, prevention and treatment of heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer in middle-aged and older women. It was this work that eventually showed that prolonged hormone replacement therapy in postmenopausal women increased risks of breast cancer, stroke and heart attacks. She mandated the inclusion of women in clinical trials wherever appropriate.
And she did it, apparently, without fear or favour. “I am ready to go out on a limb, shake the tree and even take a few bruises,” she told reporters. “I’m not particularly concerned about being popular.” Just as well, because her cause was not broadly supported in the NIH at the time, according to the New York Times. And worse was to come when in 1999 she took over the leadership of the Red Cross, a huge, unwieldy and divided organisation that she tried to reform without success. Publicly criticised over her handling of disaster relief following the September 11 terrorist attacks, she was forced to resign.
What is really admirable is that from 1998 she was battling a brain tumour but did not let this stop her professional work. A column she wrote in the US News and World Report from 2004 to 2008 also shows the mother of two daughters (from two marriages) endeavouring to foster good values as well as good medicine.
In one piece from 2008 she speaks plainly about sexual behaviour leading to the spread of the human papillomavirus and the cancers, including cervical cancer, associated with it -- a forthrightness not characteristic of the Gardasil grenadiers. In another, headed, “On Teens and Sex: Where’s the Love”, we hear her anxiety about the lack of guidance being given young people who are risking their health and happiness with reckless sexual activity:
Sex education in schools is beset with endless debate about abstinence only versus safe sex. What's missing and sorely needed is a focus on love and ennobling sexual intimacy as immutable currents in human life. Both as doctor and mother, I can't help but believe that our anything-goes society, in which impulses are immediately satisfied and sex is divorced from love and bonding, is simply not healthy physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
Who is to say that the strength of character required to pursue one’s profession so publicly, risking unpopularity, sticking to one’s convictions over many years, is less heroic than organising escape routes and evading Nazi road blocks in occupied France? Both kinds of courage are needed at different times and the professional kind is what we need most today when the enemies of civilisation are more likely to be bureaucratic inertia and self-interested careerism than invaders armed to the teeth.
No doubt Bernadine Healy, like Nancy Wake, had her faults, but we can be grateful that both of them showed us that it is possible to commit oneself to action and see it through.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.
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