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Dr. Elinor Fosdick Downs, memoirist and early World Health Organization physician, dies at 108

Dr. Elinor Fosdick Downs at the 75th reunion of her Smith College class.

Having experienced the upheaval a century of living can bring —including world wars and the death of her husband when she was 33 — Dr. Elinor Fosdick Downs knew what it was like to push through tough times.

“When difficult events occurred, I tried to solve them or see them as adventures,” she said in a video interview, at age 107. “Not all adventures are happy, but at least you don’t know how they’re going to come out and you can deal with them.”

And though by then a stroke had slowed her somewhat, she added: “Be positive about all the bad things that happen. Turn them around. Make adventures out of them.”

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A physician since 1937, and isolated because of safety precautions prompted by the pandemic, she decided in April that it was time to cease the difficulties of eating and swallowing and “go on to the next adventure,” said her daughter, Dr. Patricia Downs Berger.

Dr. Downs was 108 when she died April 13 at her home in the Springhouse Senior Living Community in Jamaica Plain.

The bright light of her creativity had been a beacon during what most might consider sunset years. Dr. Downs self-published book after book from her 90s onward; one memoir ran nearly 300 pages.

“It’s addictive,” she said of her writing in a 2015 Globe interview. “It’s a chance to discover yourself.”

She was an artist in later years, too, and her watercolor “A Senior Learning Moment” was part of an exhibition when she was 98. It depicts an elderly woman’s hand resting atop an opened book — “Computer Manual for Beginners” — with a magnifying glass at the ready.

In her artist’s statement she asked: “Has this elderly lady finally and courageously decided to respond to family urging and attempt to enter cyberspace?”

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For her, the answer was yes, as it always was during a lifetime of eagerly sought experiences. “As my 100th birthday approached I began dropping hints that perhaps I was now ready to try an iPad,” she wrote in an autobiographical story.

That willingness to stride into the unknown never surprised anyone who knew her.

In the late 1940s, as a physician and a widow with two children, Dr. Downs wanted to participate in larger efforts to improve the lives of others after World War II.

Hearing from her sister about the then-new World Health Organization, she applied for a job and was sent to Switzerland in 1949 as a medical officer.

“At the World Health Organization I was exposed to an entirely different way of looking at health, a broad and deep perspective reaching across national, social, and religious boundaries,” she wrote in “Who Am I?” — a 2005 memoir. “It was mind-boggling and inspiring.”

As a woman in medicine when the field was dominated by men and gender bias, she forged a career that opened doors for those who followed.

She was 30 when she and her husband, a physician, opened a practice in Connecticut on Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.

While subsequently serving in the Navy as a physician, Dr. Roger Downs collapsed and died in February 1945, during a time when he was participating in training as a diver.

Initially relocating to New York City to be near her parents, Dr. Downs joined the World Health Organization staff and lived with her children in Geneva, returning to the United States after two years.

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She then worked with the American Public Health Association, focusing her research and writing on issues such as polio prevention, mental health, and children with disabilities.

At the outset of the 1960s, she began teaching at what is now the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, where her work included maternal and child health programs. As a research fellow, she also did field work in Arab refugee camps in the Middle East, in nutritional epidemiology, and eventually became associate dean of the school.

Upon leaving public health work at age 70, she crafted a version of retirement that had nothing to do with kicking back.

“She was an accomplished doctor and professor in public health, something to brag about especially as a woman, but she never did,” her granddaughter Shana Berger of Somerville wrote in an e-mail. “She hung her diplomas in her bathroom! When she retired, she studied archaeology and published papers!”

Steve Downs of Selkirk, N.Y., said his mother seemed to perpetually seek situations in which “she didn’t know what the outcome would be. Pat and I used to joke about this: Mom didn’t have a word for a disaster. All disasters were adventures.”

Elinor Whitney Fosdick was born in Worcester on Sept. 19, 1911, and grew up in Montclair, N.J., and New York City.

Her father was the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a prominent 20th-century minister and founding pastor of Riverside Church in New York, who wrote the words for the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory.”

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Her mother, Florence Allen Whitney, was a graduate of Smith College, from which Dr. Downs and her younger sister, Dorothy Fosdick, also graduated. The papers of all three are in Smith’s collections.

Dorothy went on to be a foreign policy adviser to US Senator Henry Jackson. While working for the US State Department, she helped develop plans for organizing the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Dr. Downs attended Horace Mann High School in New York before graduating from Smith in 1933 and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1937.

During a hospital internship in Rochester, N.Y., she met Dr. Roger Downs. They married on Mouse Island off Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in 1939. After he died, she raised their two children as a single working mother.

Throughout her life she crossed paths with historical figures. As a 14-year-old, she met inventor Thomas Edison. As a medical school student, she conducted summer research for Dr. Sidney Farber, for whom Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is named.

“She gave us the tools to have our own adventures,” said her granddaughter Margot Downs of Yarmouth, Maine.

Dr. Downs provided guideposts for her children, five grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren through her life as a physician and her extensive travels to the Arctic Circle, Antarctica, Africa, the Amazon basin, China, and the Middle East.

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“She gave us so much and was such an inspiration to so many people,” said her daughter, who lives in Brookline. That continued through those final years at Springhouse.

“She knew that all the people at Springhouse looked at her as an inspiration because she was upbeat and kept doing everything as long as she could,” her daughter added.

A celebration of the life and career of Dr. Downs will be announced after limitations on the size of gatherings are eased.

As Dr. Downs went about writing her memoirs, at different points her granddaughters Margot and Shana helped out as assistants — including making extra copies to replace the ones that repeatedly weren’t returned to the Springhouse library.

“She always said, ‘If you don’t write your own story, somebody else is going to do it, and they’re probably going to get it wrong,’ ” Margo recalled.

And yet, Dr. Downs also “wanted to be present for other people’s stories,” Margot added. “She felt that was just as important as writing your own: to be witness to other people’s stories.”

When Dr. Downs passed 100 and finally gave up driving, writing those stories became a way to travel back to her beloved Maine, to other decades in her life, to moments of daring throughout the world.

“Happiness, for me, is adventuring,” Dr. Downs wrote in one memoir, “especially when the outcome of the adventure is unknown or unexpected.”

Correction: This obituary has been updated to correct Dr. Elinor Fosdick Downs’ date of death.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.