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Still Running Strong

Alumna Julia Chase-Brand: Still Running Strong

Julia Chase-Brand (Class of 1996) has never let 'little things' – like age or gender – stop her from achieving her goals.

When she graduated from Einstein 16 years ago – at age 53 – she was the oldest person to receive a medical degree at the College of Medicine. She went on to specialize in psychiatry, and today, she is medical director of outpatient psychiatry at Lawrence and Memorial Hospital in New London, CT.


Dr. Chase-Brand holds up a Life magazine photo from the 1961 road race
By the time she attended Einstein, where she knew nontraditional students were welcome, bucking typical conventions was not new to Dr. Chase-Brand. In 1961, at age 19, she had taken a stand against Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) rules preventing women from competing in running races that were longer than a half-a-mile. To do so, she suited up (in her Smith College skirted running tunic) to take part in what was then the second-most prominent road race after the Boston Marathon – a 4.75-mile Thanksgiving race in Manchester, CT.

This past November, Dr. Chase-Brand marked the 50th anniversary of her historic run by returning to Manchester, donning her Smith College running tunic and racing again. “It was,” she said, “glorious fun to come back and just enjoy the moment.”

The first time around, the race was anything but fun. She had initially tried to run in Manchester in 1960, but was denied entry. At the time, the AAU prohibited women from competing in road races, believing that running would risk their femininity and reproductive health. “The president of the AAU attempted to intimidate me based on sexuality and my feminine appeal – referencing another female runner, she told me, ‘She used to be pretty before starting running distance. You don’t want to be like her.’”

The media covering her act of civil disobedience fanned the flames further, asking the pretty co-ed, “Women don’t run. You run. What are you?” Dr. Chase-Brand recalled.

The following year, she tried again. “It was very tense,” she noted. “But I knew what I had to do; I simply had to challenge the rules.”


Dr. Chase-Brand at graduation in 1996
On the morning of the race, “Two other women had the guts to show up with me,” she continued. “I put on my lipstick, did my hair, and walked out. Officials tried to body block us, but we easily slipped around them.”

Dr. Chase-Brand finished the race in 33 minutes, 40 seconds – ahead of 10 men, then “waited for the axe to fall.” A month later, the AAU contacted her male coach offering a deal: The organization would sponsor some trial races to see if there was public appetite for female runners. In return, Julia had to promise not to defy AAU rules again and that she would not run any long-distance races.  

She reluctantly agreed. “From the sidelines I watched Roberta Gibb, Katherine Switzer and Joan Benoit,” she said, recalling some of the famous female runners who came after her. “I said OK and went on with my life. A lot of women were concerned we might lose all we had gained up to then. The threat of being banned from competition was the union’s ace; they knew none of us wanted that.”

But Dr. Chase-Brand’s outlook on life had changed. She now had “a sense of power. And freedom from conventional wisdom to choose the things that really mattered to me.”


Receiving recognition before the start of the 2011 road race
She went on to become a biologist and began teaching, first at Rutgers University and then at Barnard College, where she became a physiology professor and an expert on the vision of bats. She also married and had a son.

But Dr. Chase-Brand had always had a yen for medicine, and considered it “the path not taken.” So at age 49, she decided it wasn’t too late to realize that dream, too. “I had great fun going through medical school; I can’t imagine a better place to have gone as an older student,” she said.

“Einstein was always supportive,” she added. “They let me spread my classes over five years so I could continue to teach and tend to my family.”

Despite all she has accomplished, Dr. Chase-Brand is still looking ahead. “The women in my family generally live to 90 and don’t lose their marbles until they’re 89,” she explained, adding that she hopes she has “20 good years left.”

What are her goals for the next couple of decades? “I’m still nursing them; they’re not hatched yet,” she concluded, laughing. “I’ll figure it out as I go along, I’m still a work in progress!”

 

Posted on: Friday, February 03, 2012