Today we take for granted that a woman can have a family and a career, but when Ann Brunswick was born in 1926, it wasn’t like that.
Again and again, in her long life, she’s defied expectations, as a brilliant researcher and scientist, raising two very accomplished daughters, and retiring to Shelter Island, where she built a house in 1979. She has lived here full time since 2010.
She was the developer and director of The Longitudinal Harlem Adolescent Cohort Study, one of the landmark social science studies of the 20th Century. Her work followed an initial group of 668 African-American adolescents for five decades, a project that began as a way to understand adolescent health, and became a natural history of the participants, documenting their wellness, substance use, homelessness and HIV infection.
The project uncovered information that helped establish, among other things, the fact of HIV infections in women, the extent of homelessness in Harlem, and the profound differences in male and female health.
Speaking about her life’s work, Ann said she was guided by the idea that a scientist must resist the human urge to fit things into patterns instead of observing and recording what you see. “You rarely find a single cause for an observed thing,” she added. “It’s not all nature or all nurture. It’s an interaction between the two. All observations that look for a single cause are wrong.”
Ann was born to a successful businessman, and “a very elegant mother” at Miss Lippincott’s Sanitarium, a Madison Avenue maternity hospital that catered to New York’s most prominent families.
At this hospital, she said, new mothers rested, and their babies were brought to them once a day. “When they came in and told my mother she had a colicky baby, she would not accept that. ‘I’m sending her home to nanny!’” she said. The family’s nanny came in a taxi to take infant Ann home, while Ann’s mother stayed at Miss Lippincott’s to rest.
An early reader, and an excellent student, Ann spent a lot of time in the kitchen of her home in the West 70s with her governess and Thelma, who worked as a maid for the family. Thelma read The Daily News, which included the comic strips, which Ann devoured.
An outstanding student, she attended PS 87, PS 6, PS 93 (Joan of Arc) and Julia Richman High School, whipping through the New York Public School system and Hunter College to graduate at 20 with a Masters Degree in Psychology from Clark College.
Her first job out of grad school was with the Anti-Defamation League, where on her first day of work she was asked to condense an article that had been rejected for publication. When it was accepted, she had her first publication credit, a major accomplishment for an academic so early in a career.
When the ADL started a research department, Ann became interested in survey research, and continued to work there until she married Peter Brunswick in 1950, and moved to Denver, Colo. with him.
Within a year, Ann and her new husband were back in New York, and she went to work for National Opinion Research Center (NORC), where she learned the scientific approach to surveys. In 1953, pregnant with her first child, she finished writing the report on an important project and was walking home to her mother’s house when her water broke.
She stayed at home for a time with her daughter Debra, and continued working at NORC through the birth of her second child, Naomi, in 1956. Debra is now retired and living in Jacksonville, Fla., Naomi is a pediatric intensive care doctor, living in New York, and between them Ann has three grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.
Ann went to Columbia University as a Senior Research Scientist in 1966. By then, she’d developed a strong sense of the right and wrong way to conduct scientific research, and it had caused her to leave a previous job as research director when she realized that the questions were loaded. “I don’t believe in rocking chair research. It has to be socially useful,” she said.
At Columbia, she began the project of a lifetime, although at the time it was meant to be a one-time survey of adolescents, to help Harlem Hospital determine the need to upgrade its services when the field of adolescent medicine was just beginning.
Combining a medical examination with a parent interview, and participant interviews, the survey sought to create a full report on the health of African-American teenagers in Harlem. “I couldn’t imagine adolescent girls talking about their periods with a male interviewer, so I matched racially, and by gender, the interviewers and the adolescents, hiring interviewers who were African-American.”
The data collection for the Harlem survey was in 1968 and 1969, and at first there was no plan to fund the project in the future. “There was so much doubt that anyone could do a survey in Harlem that I was only funded for the first year,” she said.
But the project continued to follow the original participants over five decades, gathering data from them in waves that occurred every five or six years through 1994, recording the effects of such public health crises as homelessness, substance abuse and the HIV epidemic of the 1980s.
In 1976, Ann and Peter divorced.
A year later, visiting a friend with a home on Shelter Island, Ann stayed behind to sit on her friend’s deck while the others went to the beach.
“Something grabbed me to be able to sit alone in that peace and beauty,” she remembered. “I had been married to someone who worked for an international airline. We went all over the world, but were never in one place for more than a week.”
She rented a house for July 1978, and by the end of the month, she had bought a lot in West Neck. She moved into her own home the next summer.
At first, Ann said she didn’t feel integrated into the life of the Island. “At that time, newcomers were not so welcome,” she said.
Not one to sit idle, she led an effort to establish a program for shop students at the school to receive training to work in a town program to help seniors maintain their homes. Her plan came to naught when she could not get approval from the town to launch the project, in spite of support from the Lions Club and school administrators.
“That took the wind out of my sails to do a lot of organizing,” she said, although she was an early member of the Shelter Island League of Women Voters, serving as secretary for the non-partisan organization for three years.
Over decades of living here, Ann has come to treasure some of the things about Shelter Island that have never changed. “The fact that you can charge at the drugstore. You just walk in and they know your name,” she said. “The drugstore is one of the wonderful places on Shelter Island. It still has that old-fashioned feeling.”
In August 2017, Ann experienced the nightmare that haunts many who live independently — a serious fall. While hanging something in her closet, she fell backwards, broke a bone, and was unable to move to get help. Her 50-hour ordeal ended when she failed to show up for dinner with a friend, who asked the Shelter Island police to check on her, which they did at once, rescuing her more than two days after her fall.
She recovered from her injuries, but as a close, and scientific observer of the human lifespan, Ann has seen the way human development fails to follow a predictable line, but proceeds in spurts.
“With aging, there are a lot of chemical changes, immunity changes, allergies changes, you stay level for a time and then there is a spurt of aging,” Ann said. “That concept of change applies to changes in human cultures as well. We are going through one of those big rapid changes now, a social epidemic as well as a viral epidemic.”
What do you always have with you? A tissue.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? Hay Beach, looking out at the Atlantic.
When was the last time you were elated? When I look at my trees. I prefer maples.
When was the last time you were afraid? I’m afraid of the COVID situation. It’s terrifying. We don’t really know how to protect ourselves.
What exasperates you? Artificiality and phoniness.
Favorite book? When I was 15 or 16 I read ‘The Americanization of Edward Bok.’ As he was dying and his children were around him, he told them, ‘You have to leave the country better off for your having been here.’
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? John Lewis — the opposite of what we have in the White House. He did not get into ‘good trouble’ to glorify himself.