Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Century Ago, a Plus Size Was Perfect ; Ideal Woman of 1912 Carried Burden of Fame, and Weight, with Grace

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Century Ago, a Plus Size Was Perfect ; Ideal Woman of 1912 Carried Burden of Fame, and Weight, with Grace

Article excerpt

A full-figured "Cornell Venus" became a celebrity when she was chosen as the womanly ideal in 1912. Now, she would be considered overweight, but even then the burden of fame was heavy.

Elsie Scheel was the "perfect" woman.

A century ago, at age 24, Scheel was the subject of a spate of worldwide 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 an article in The New York Times.

By today's standards, Scheel would have been overweight. At 5 feet 7 inches, or about 170 centimeters, and 171 pounds, or about 77 kilograms, she would have had a body mass index of 27.

Yet in a study of nearly three million people published last week, researchers found that those whose B.M.I.'s ranked them as overweight had slightly less risk of dying than people of normal weight. While obese people had a greater mortality risk over all, those at the lowest obesity level -- B.M.I.'s of 30 to 34.9 -- were not more likely to die than normal-weight people.

So whatever happened to Scheel? As it turns out, she lived a long life, dying in 1979 in St. Cloud, Florida, three days shy of her 91st birthday. But though it may be tempting to conclude that Scheel's longevity exemplifies the benefits of a not-too-low B.M.I, her case suggests that other factors may have been much more relevant.

According to family members, she was a person who valued being active and athletic, and had a confident attitude. As a daughter of a doctor and a mother of a doctor, she may have been steeped in healthy habits. "She never took an aspirin or a Tylenol," a granddaughter, Karen Hirsh Meredith, of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, said in an interview last week. She kept up hobbies like stamp collecting and wrote pieces for the St. Cloud newspaper.

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 Scheel, who was Elsie Hirsh when she died, had been a "practical nurse," though Ms. Meredith said the family believed she did not work after she had children. In 1918 she married Frederick Rudolph Hirsh, an architect who was a widower with two children. He died in 1933 at 68, leaving his wife to raise the two children they had together. She moved to Florida in the 1940s and never remarried.

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. 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 Scheel was. She participated in many sports, playing basketball at Cornell. "I play a guard, where my weight helps," she told a newspaper. She was an "ardent suffragette" and, The Times article said, "doesn't know what fear is. …

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