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"Over a thousand papers on alcohol research arepublished every year. I'd think we'd be done and there'd be more papers."

 

BOOK CIRCUIT
An Unintended Authority
Working at Hopkins is an education in itself. Just ask the writer of Alcohol and Women: Creating a Safer Lifestyle.


"My father insisted I learn typing and shorthand so I would be ready to do something," says author Virginia Bennett, who majored in English at the College of William and Mary and worked as a secretary for Colonial Williamsburg for three years after graduation. "He was right. Those skills are in any career you want to take."
In 1969, Virginia Bennett arrived at the School of Medicine convinced there was no way she'd take the job. With two daughters in school and a life in the suburbs, all she wanted was part-time secretarial work. She interviewed for the opening mainly to avoid offending the friend who'd told her about it.

That's when she met Thomas B. Turner.

"He's very charming," says Bennett of the Hopkins legend she's now been assisting for more than three decades, "very personable. He was only in his 60s then, and he'd just retired from being dean of the medical school. We talked a lot. I majored in English, but I've always been interested in medicine. So, I agreed to work for him. I've been here ever since."

Turner-who celebrated his 100th birthday in January and continues to work in his 1830 Building office two days a week-had ended only the latest chapter in his career. Still to come were two books, not to mention the creation and leadership of a private foundation to support alcohol research. At Turner's side in all these endeavors was Ginny Bennett.

"Not long after I started," she says, "he asked me to edit his book Heritage of Excellence [a history of the Hopkins medical institutions]. He's a very good writer, and he could see that I didn't murder the king's English. I helped with his construction of it-I remember I shifted chapters around-and the language. I would take a chapter home every night. I enjoy that kind of thing. I also helped edit Part of Medicine, Part of Me [Turner's autobiography]."

But the project that eventually would turn Bennett into an author herself was Turner's work with the United States Brewers Association, which wanted independent medical advice about the health effects of alcoholic beverages. "He'd never done any alcohol research," says Bennett, "but he was a good investigator. He looked for every paper he could find, but he only used ones that gave specific amounts. He taught me early on, How much are you talking about? How much can you drink before you get in trouble? I abstracted the papers and together we wrote papers on measuring alcohol-related effects and the beneficial side of moderate alcohol use."

As the scope expanded-Turner also had recruited physicians outside Hopkins to his advisory group-Bennett was writing grants, attending international meetings and managing the proceedings. When Turner's committee and the brewers association launched the Alcoholic Beverage Medical Research Foundation (still in existence, with headquarters in Towson), Turner became its president and Bennett, its secretary-treasurer.

Along the way, Bennett got to know Christopher Gilson, another layperson whose job had provided a solid education about the medical and behavioral effects of alcohol. Gilson, a public relations consultant who helped pioneer alcohol education programs in the 1970s, became especially intrigued by findings that women differ from men in their response to alcohol. In 1996, he asked Bennett to help him write a pamphlet on the topic that could be put in physicians' offices.

"I told him, You should get an M.D. to be your co-author" says Bennett. "It would carry more weight. He said, No, I want you. Then I stuck my neck out. If you're gonna go to all that trouble to write a pamphlet, I said, why not do a book?"

Some four years later, the two published Alcohol and Women: Creating a Safer Lifestyle, which Bennett says "is a solid scientific review written for the layperson, sort of like a how-to book. We had three premises. First, alcohol is legal and pleasurable, and you're not gonna get rid of it-you can make it in your kitchen if you want to. Second, 60 million American women drink to some extent. Third, women react to alcohol differently than men."

Though that may seem obvious-drink for drink, most women can't keep up with most men-Bennett says the reasons aren't generally recognized. For one thing, it wasn't shown until the late 1980s that women reach higher peak blood alcohol levels because they have a lower percentage of body water to dilute it. Furthermore, thanks to a difference in what's called first-pass metabolism, women metabolize less alcohol through the stomach than the liver, also increasing not only the blood alcohol level but the risk of liver damage.

According to Bennett, all those years of attending meetings and reading and summarizing medical literature made writing the book relatively easy. The hard part, she says, turned out to be stopping. "Over a thousand papers on alcohol research are published every year. I'd think we'd be done and there'd be more papers. They kept coming. Chris and I are both interested in the subject, and we wanted the book to be up to date. And not being doctors, we thought it important that it be well-documented. Finally, Dr. Turner said, You've gotta call a halt and just cut it off."

Still, she says, "My greatest satisfaction is that I think we did a good job in targeting the medical and behavioral aspects of alcohol in women. People are gonna drink whether you like it or not. You might as well give them the facts."

-Mary Ann Ayd


Alcohol and Women: Creating a Safer Lifestyle (Fusion Press, $14.95) is available on Amazon.com, BN.com, Borders.com and Authorlink.net, or by writing to Alcohol and Women, P.O. Box 1251, Pasadena, Md., 21123-1251.

 

 

 

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