"For patients and families faced with bad health news it would be hard to find a more useful and dependable support. Jessie Gruman is wise, practical and authoritative: she's been there."
— Jeremiah Barondess, MD, President, New York Academy of Medicine
Jessie Gruman was born in Kentucky, the only daughter in a family with four kids. Her mom was a musician and a psychotherapist and her dad was a Protestant minister. She grew up in upstate New York, Montana, Wisconsin and Oregon.
She was 19 years old and a student at Vassar College when she was diagnosed with an advanced case of Hodgkin's disease. She was very sick and had a lot of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. "I was not a good patient," wrote Jessie. "I was snippy to the doctors and wouldn't take my pills when I was supposed to and would go out dancing when my immune system was at low ebb. My casual misbehavior in the face of such a devastating diagnosis continues to amaze me and probably influenced my professional interests. How could I have taken such risks when my life depended on doing or not doing these few simple things?"
She graduated from Vassar College in 1975 and received a PhD in social psychology from Columbia University in 1984. Over the next eight years she worked in the private sector (AT&T), the public sector (the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health) and the voluntary sector (the American Cancer Society). In each position, she was able to work on the questions raised by her first diagnosis: How do we understand the risks for disease and of treatment? How can behavioral and social science research help us respond to our illnesses and act to prevent disease in the first place?
In 1992, Jessie was asked by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation to start a new Washington, D.C.-based policy organization to draw attention to the scientific evidence showing the influence of non-medical factors on health and disease. At this organization, the Center for Advancing Health, Jessie and her colleagues developed a particular interest in how people use evidence when making decisions about their health and their health care.
Between the ages of 30 and 59, Jessie received four additional cancer diagnoses and was hospitalized with a dangerous heart condition. "These events taught me that expertise and experience offer little protection against the painful shock of bad medical news," she wrote.
In addition to being a vital voice for the patient's experience right up until her death in 2014 at age 60, Jessie was a musician and an avid reader of poetry. She was fascinated by the interplay of foreign policy, the media and global health. She lived in New York City with her husband, a professor and biomedical researcher at Columbia University, and two lively parrots.