The Long Life of the ‘Perfect’ Woman

Pam Belluck in The New York Times:

ElsieWhat did happen to Elsie Scheel, the “perfect” woman mentioned in an article in Wednesday’s New York Times that described how people considered overweight had a slightly lower risk of dying than those of normal weight? A century ago, at age 24, Miss Scheel was the subject of a spate of news media coverage after the “medical examiner of the 400 ‘co-eds’ ” at her college, Cornell University, described her as the epitome of “perfect health,” according to a 1912 New York Times article. That article and others also gave her dimensions: 5-foot-7 and 171 pounds, which would have corresponded to a body mass index of 27, putting Miss Scheel in the overweight category. Miss Scheel, it turns out, lived a long life, dying in 1979 in St. Cloud, Fla., three days shy of her 91st birthday. But though it may be tempting to conclude that Miss Scheel’s longevity exemplifies the benefits of a not-too-low B.M.I, her case is only one anecdote, of course. And, according to family members and to hints provided in early articles, she was a person who valued being active and athletic, had a strong and confident attitude, and, as a daughter of a doctor and a mother of a doctor, may have been steeped in healthy habits that were much more relevant to her survival than her weight.

“She never took an aspirin or a Tylenol,” a granddaughter, Karen Hirsh Meredith, of Broken Arrow, Okla., said in an interview Wednesday. She kept up hobbies like stamp collecting and wrote pieces for the St. Cloud newspaper. And, Ms. Meredith said, “she was still driving late in life.” Ms. Meredith said she did not recall her grandmother having any illnesses or being hospitalized except for shortly before she died, when she went into the hospital with stomach pain. She ended up having surgery for a perforated bowel and died the next day, Ms. Meredith said. A death notice said Miss Scheel, who was Mrs. Hirsh when she died, had been a “practical nurse,” although Ms. Meredith said the family believed she did not work after she had children. In 1918 she married Frederick Rudolph Hirsh, an architect who supervised the building of the New York Public Library and who was a widower with two children, Frederick Jr. and Mary. He died in 1933 at 68, leaving his wife to raise a son, John, and a daughter, Elise. She moved to Florida from Mount Vernon, N.Y., in the 1940s and never remarried. Miss Scheel’s mother, Sophie Bade Scheel, a physician educated at New York Medical College, maintained an active medical practice at a time when relatively few women did. And Miss Scheel may have benefited from good genes: her three siblings were 79, 88 and 93 when they died. Published reports from 1912 and 1913 provide glimpses of the type of person Miss Scheel was and of her immediate-post-“perfect” experience.

More here.