Part 1 – Ruth Came First
Editor’s Note: This post is by Points Managing Editor Emerita Emily Dufton. She holds a PhD in American Studies from George Washington University and is the author of Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America. Email Emily at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @emily_dufton. Welcome back, Emily!
There’s something about the topic of drugs that can invite great writer couples to tackle the subject together. Going back nearly a century, spouses Dr. Charles E. Terry and Mildred Pellens co-authored their 1,042-page opus The Opium Problem in 1928. In 1996’s Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, Dan Baum (who passed away from brain cancer last year) dedicated the book to his wife Margaret, who was his “reporting and writing partner” and “a genius at wrangling meaning from a sentence.” “My name is on the cover,” Baum acknowledged, “but the book is equally Margaret’s.”
The same can be said of Ruth and Edward Brecher, who, for 25 years, shared a byline on more than 200 articles and several books about science, drug use, and public health. Their commitment to researching complex topics and presenting them in a clear way to the general reader was so strong that, when the American Psychiatric Association presented them with the Robert T. Morse Writer’s Award in 1971, the Brechers were hailed as “scholarly crusaders for a better life for all Americans.”
For Points readers, Edward is surely best known for his 1972 book Licit and Illicit Drugs (LID), one of the most progressive and avant-garde reports ever written on the use, politics, and potential future of drugs in America. Brecher wrote LID with the editors of Consumer Reports, but the influence of Ruth, who had died in 1966, is clear.
In the quarter-century he spent writing with Ruth, Edward developed the progressive, research-heavy, and historically-oriented voice that brought him greater renown after LID’s publication. Ruth was a woman of commitment—to her Quaker religion, to social justice and progressive causes, and to objective journalism—which transformed Edward from an academic philosopher in college into the notable, plainspoken, and forward-thinking science writer we remember him as today.
Understanding their biographies sheds light on these quiet radicals, whose bookish approach to often-taboo topics increased Americans’ understanding—and often acceptance—of previously unimaginable ideas.
Edward was born on July 20, 1911, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The son of Hans, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, and Rhodessa, a native Minnesotan, Edward was raised Jewish. His parents took their religion seriously—his mother was a high ranking member of a women’s Zionist organization—but Edward had little more than a passing secular relationship with Judaism for the rest of his life.
In 1928, Edward enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Experimental College, a short-lived great books liberal arts college established in 1927 and closed in 1932. There, Edward was exposed to what founder Alexander Meiklejohn called “the most radical and significant educational experiment in America”: “a college run without classrooms, lectures, or textbooks; founded on a theory of education the purpose of which is to find and to teach a new way of life.”
For two years, freshmen and sophomores worked with Advisers (as teachers were known) and were tasked with reconceptualizing liberal arts education in a way that would best benefit the future of the country. Courses of study, methods of teaching, even social arrangements were all open to investigation, and students quickly became known as free-spirited outsiders, debating Advisers, reading books, and living outside the university’s traditional ways.
After he finished his two years at Wisconsin, Edward transferred to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania where he majored in philosophy. Originally a Quaker institution, Swarthmore offered Edward a place to continue his non-traditional learning. He participated in the honors program where junior and senior-level students attended weekly seminars rather than traditional classes, and he graduated after passing an oral exam at the end of his senior year. Edward was one of only five students to receive highest honors and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society when he graduated magna cum laude in 1932.
Perhaps the most influential aspect of Edward’s time at Swarthmore, however, was his meeting Ruth Ernestine Cook, the daughter of Dr. Ernest Fullerton Cook, a pharmacist and professor at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, and his wife Marguerite, a homemaker. Armed with Edward’s same uncanny intellect, Ruth was interested in anthropology and history.
Her thesis, “The American Indian Dance,” was supplemented by research she did at the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, and it won her Swarthmore’s $500 Lucretia Mott Fellowship in 1933. In announcing Ruth’s award, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that the requirements for the fellowship “were so strict that only two other girls qualified for the competition.”
Ruth and Edward were romantically linked at Swarthmore, but their relationship was controversial for Ruth. She came from old stock American Lutherans and had personally converted to Quakerism, but it was frowned upon for her to be involved with a Jew—no matter how secular. After graduating, they both left Pennsylvania to separately pursue graduate work.
Edward first returned to Minneapolis, where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota in 1934, and that fall, he received a junior fellowship to study philosophy at Brown University. Though he pursued two years of graduate work in Providence, he stopped short of receiving his doctoral degree and never finished his dissertation. Edward abandoned his graduate studies for two reasons.
First, the era’s rampant anti-semitism was apparent even on the campus of the Ivy League’s most “progressive” university. After his first year of study at Brown, a senior professor asked Edward about his future plans. Upon hearing that Edward hoped to get his Ph.D. and become a philosophy professor, his advisor discouraged him by naming the only three Jewish philosophy professors in the United States. Edward dropped out the following spring.
But Edward might also have left Brown, because other topics—and less-academic audiences— had grabbed his interest. By the late 1930s, Edward worked as a freelance journalist, publishing nationally syndicated newspaper and magazine articles on everything from glass textiles to the Mayo Brothers to Mark Twain.
He had also moved to Washington to work for the federal government. From 1938 to 1941, he first served as a research supervisor for the United States Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce, and then, from 1941 to 1946, he was a research supervisor and assistant to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Ruth initially followed a different, more domestic, path. After studying in Bern, Switzerland, for a year, she pursued graduate work in American history at Radcliffe. While in Cambridge, she met Earl Stilson, a Harvard graduate then working as an Instructor at his alma mater. She also stopped her studies short of completing her dissertation, and she married Stilson in fall 1934.
While Stilson taught courses in international law, Ruth raised their son William (who went by his middle name Earl). The next few years seemed quiet until tragedy struck in the summer of 1940. Six weeks after after a serious car accident, Stilson died suddenly of a coronary embolism at a family reunion in August. He was only 33.
Stilson’s untimely passing allowed Edward and Ruth to reunite. According to the couple’s youngest son Jeremy Brecher, however, their relationship remained controversial. In his recent book Common Preservation, the younger Brecher relates that Ruth’s “decision to marry a Jew caused an uproar. Her deceased husband’s family hired a lawyer and threatened to challenge her custody if she went through with the marriage. When she visited the distinguished professor who had been her mentor at Harvard, he advised her not to marry a Jew.”
But Edward and Ruth were not ones to heed unwanted advice, and the couple married on December 27, 1941. Edward adopted Earl, and over the next five years the couple had two more sons, John Samuel and Jeremy Hans. It may have been a shocking marriage, but it was also a happy one. Despite being raised in the tumultuous fifties and sixties amid the rampant racism and anti-semitism apparent even in the pleasant suburbs of New York City and in rural northwestern Connecticut where they lived, Jeremy remembered his youth fondly. “I had a loving family,” he writes, “and a childhood filled with many joys.”
After Ruth and Edward reconnected, Ruth joined him at work as a researcher at the FCC. But Edward hated the job. The stress of working for high-ranking commissions caused him to suffer migraine headaches that lasted for days. The independent streak fostered by his unusual education also did not mesh well with straightlaced federal work. Years later, Jeremy described the situation: “I was too young to understand what the problem was, but I do remember being told, ‘Edward doesn’t like having to work for a boss.’”
Ruth and Edward counteracted work stress by freelancing articles on the side, and by June 1944, their Harper’s article, “These Railroad Wrecks,” generated major attention. Based on Edward’s experience with the Senate committee investigating railroad commerce, the Brechers argued that, despite the country’s forward momentum into the “railroad age,” riding trains was unnecessarily dangerous.
Even though safety devices were available, accidents and pile-ups had resulted in a heavy loss of life in 1943. There was just one problem: market interests stood in the way. “Basically, the railroad safety problem is an economic one,” they wrote, showing how two railroad monopolies—citing cost concerns—had blocked improved safety measures nationwide. If these monopolies could be dismantled, the Brechers concluded, the entire train-riding public would benefit, and survive.
With “Wrecks” and stories like it, the Brechers’ honed their voice. Ruth and Edward realized that they could bring their Ivy League graduate-level research skills and their knack for clear language to investigate and explain problems affecting real people—train accidents, poverty, racism, disease—and that major publications were interested in their work. They also found that they enjoyed the process. Jeremy described their writing style in Common Preservation:
“My mother was more the researcher, editor and typist, while the original writing was more my father’s work. But for the fact-oriented writing they did, her role may well have been equally important; in any case, every word and every sentence they debated and revised together.”
By the early 1950s, the Brechers had generated enough interest in their writing to quit their day jobs and to focus on freelancing full-time. It may not have been not the wisest financial choice. Jeremy remembered that, ”They sold about one article a month, and paying that month’s bills depended on selling that month’s article.” But Ruth and Edward were committed to the job. “We’d rather worry than commute,” Ruth quipped.
Some of their article ideas were spurred by personal events. In the summer of 1949, for example, when three-year-old Jeremy was stricken with acute nephritis and needed to be taken to the hospital in a hurry, the Brechers learned the importance of local, well-trained emergency medical fleets. The family then lived in Leonia, New Jersey, a few miles northwest of Manhattan, and the Brechers dreaded the idea of sending a young sick boy to New York alone in the back of a wailing ambulance.
Luckily, the borough of Leonia had developed a volunteer ambulance corps a few years earlier, and members of the volunteer corps took Jeremy to the local hospital, stayed with him until his parents arrived, and, according to Captain Mrs. Kay Sandmeyer, sounded the siren “whenever Jeremy wanted them to.” The Brechers wrote about Leonia’s success in their article, “How We Save Lives In Our Town,” published in the August 9, 1952, edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Their story encouraged other communities to ensure that their most vulnerable members could also get such medical treatment quickly.
For the rest of the 1950s, the Brechers published at a rapid rate. In February 1953, they wrote for Redbook about the country’s “decrepit coroner system” in “They’re Getting Away With Murder.” By November, they analyzed the alcohol consumption of young adults—again for Redbook—in “Drinking in College.” Two years later, they traveled the country interviewing genetic counselors for another Redbook article about hereditary defects. Their story ultimately urged parents not to shy away from having children.
The Brechers’s bylines—always featuring both writers and and always with Ruth’s name first—appeared constantly in Reader’s Digest, Parents’ Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s, McCall’s, and the New York Times Magazine. They covered everything from hepatitis, arthritis, and infant mortality to cigarette smoking, alcohol, and sex, among many other topics.
But their activism and journalism was not restricted to public health education. By 1953, both Edward and Ruth were involved with the Quaker community in Leonia, and they motivated the group to help others in need. The previous year, the Brechers had gone into the Ramapo Mountains to write a story about the Native American tribe often dismissively referred to as the “Jackson Whites.” The Brechers were horrified at the tribe’s living conditions, which they criticized as “lonely squalor.” With other members of their Society of Friends, the Brechers organized the “Ramapo People’s Aid Committee,” which sought to help the People—as the tribe preferred to be called—build a community center and modern housing.
Their interest in civil rights extended into the 1960s when their writing took a more pointed turn toward social justice. In their August 1963 Harper’s article, “The Military’s Limited War Against Segregation,” the Brechers celebrated the desegregated living conditions on Southern military bases. The article explained that Black and white service families lived together quite harmoniously, and these “working models for integrated living,” the Brechers argued, were “improving the lot of Negro servicemen.”
The Brechers traveled 3,200 miles across the South to conduct interviews for the story. Outside of military bases, they found they found the region filled with “the worst kinds of discrimination—decrepit housing in slums districts, Jim Crowism and segregated schools.” They hoped that by pointing out the differences between on-base and off-base life, more Americans could model the surprising social harmony they found. “Military integration changes those who experience it,” they concluded. “Negroes expect more after they leave the service, and white ex-servicemen are generally willing to yield more.”
1963 also saw the publication of the Brechers’ first book, a collaboration with the Consumers Union (later rebranded as Consumer Reports). Founded in 1936, the non-profit Union provided independent product testing, investigative journalism, and consumer advocacy to the American public. Written with the organization’s editorial staff and three other researchers, The Consumers Union Report on Smoking and the Public Interest factually presented the hazards incurred by smoking, and it offered alternatives for decreasing consumption of cigarettes.
The Report was practically heretical during this period when nearly every American adult smoked. After all, half a trillion cigarettes were sold in 1962, and a decade earlier the infamous “More Doctors Smoke Camels” campaign associated cigarettes with healthy living. Although some reports about the connections between cigarettes and health problems were just beginning to trickle in during the early 1960s—particularly in medical journals—the mainstream press, which still published thousands of cigarette ads each month, generally did not communicate these ideas to readers. So, a blockbuster report from Consumers Union, which usually reviewed toasters and cars, was quite notable.
But the Brechers made their point. A review from the Austin, Texas, American Statesman, declared that the report was “an attempt, and a successful one, to give a dispassionate, objective and unbiased account on the dangers of smoking, to face the facts squarely, to lay the cards on the table.” The review decided that “the inescapable conclusion to be drawn by any reasonable person is this: … If you smoke cigarettes, you greatly increase your chances of death from lung cancer; if you have never smoked or if you stop, you will greatly reduce the risk of lung cancer death.” A year later, the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health would argue, much more prominently, the same thing.
By the mid-1960s, the Brechers’ work gained more prestige, and, with it, some financial stability. Their article “New Clues to the Arthritis Mystery” received the 1962 Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation’s Russell L. Cecil Writing Award and won $500. In 1963, they won the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation award for their article “We Can Save More Babies” in The Saturday Evening Post. They also published another book: An Analysis of Human Sexual Response (Little, Brown, 1966), explaining the work of sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson.
And they were starting to research a new topic, beginning what would become The Rays: A History of Radiology in the United States and Canada, released in 1969. But their interest in radiology stemmed from a troubling source. In 1965, Ruth developed inoperable cancer and lived for only another 19 months. She was able to continue to work for a while, even conducting interviews with Masters and Johnson. “I was especially touched that they were able to react to Ruth as a writer and human being rather than as a terminal cancer patient,” Edward later remembered. But her final months were hard. “Her care was managed at home, in accordance with her personal wishes,” Edward later wrote, “including adequate doses of morphine and sedatives as often as she requested them.” Ruth died on October 22, 1966, at age 55.
Celebrations of Ruth’s life and work poured in from newspapers and magazines nationwide. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared:
“Ruth Brecher wrote her way into the lives of all Americans in the 55 years of her own lifetime. She and her husband, Edward M. Brecher, who survives her, formed a writing team distinguished for social consciousness, scholarly thoroughness and the skills to make difficult subjects clear and compelling. They did not choose an easy road but helped to make the road less hard for the millions on whose behalf they wrote.
Nothing the Brechers ever wrote created the stir of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring.’ Probably few of the great public they helped to educate in making democracy work are familiar with their name. They have been journalists’ journalists. Perhaps the finest measure of their worth lay in their deliberate subordination of who they were to what they were getting done.”
Edward lost both his spouse and his writing partner when Ruth died. In 25 years, the Brechers had written more than 200 articles for mass circulation magazines, and their article “How to Write a Lead” was included in 1966’s Treasury of Tips for Writers. They were one of the country’s most prominent “science writing teams,” and they had, quietly but tirelessly, built a steady career out of covering topics both mundane (arthritis) and taboo (sex).
But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was not wrong in its assessment that Ruth did not receive the attention she deserved. Throughout their career, the Brechers were often at the forefront of new ideas (connecting lung cancer and smoking, for example, or advocating desegregation), but they were rarely credited with introducing these concepts to the mainstream.
Still, her contributions were never “deliberately subordinated,” as the Post-Dispatch put it, at least not by Edward. In fact, Reader’s Digest tried to change the order of their byline because—as the editor said, “at the Reader’s Digest the man comes first”—but the Brechers demanded the magazine change its policy, at least in their case. They “trumped male chauvinism with property rights,” Jeremy wrote. “‘Ruth and Edward Brecher,’ they explained, ‘is like a trademark.’” And for a quarter century, that was their brand: Ruth came first.
Now half of that trademarked duo was gone, and for the next three decades Edward’s writing would be a solo act. Still, Ruth’s influence—her studiousness, her in-depth investigations and her commitment to detail—would stay visible in everything Edward produced from articles and books to, eventually, congressional testimony and appearances on major television shows.
As “Ruth and Edward Brecher,” the duo were quiet radicals, “journalists’ journalists” committed to building their career. But as the mid-1960s faded and the era of “the Sixties” with its concomitant focus on sex, drugs, and rock and roll began “Edward Brecher” wouldn’t remain quiet for long.
Instead, he would use Ruth’s influence to study the exact things that made the 1960s and 1970s so remarkable—sex and drugs—and he would publish in-depth analyses that made controversial arguments in favor of drug legalization and in support of homosexuality. He had lost his wife and writing partner, but Ruth’s influence lived on: Edward would transform the voice they honed into an unprecedented, and often scandalous, writing career.
(Check back soon for Part II: Edward Alone)