100 this month: the woman who wouldn’t let abuse prevent her getting an education

When Zulee Samuels says she had ‘a very hard childhood’ it is a huge understatement. She faced poverty and an abusive father but overcome them to become a professional dressmaker before finally, after a 45 year struggle, completing her college education. She turned 100 this month (December).

Her humbling story is living testimony to the power of determination, which other centenarians have also cited as key to their long lives.

Samuels grew up in poverty in South Carolina in the care of her abusive father, a Baptist evangelist preacher.

She can remember working to can peaches until two in the morning, only to be woken four hours later by her father and told to get up and cook breakfast. When she stayed in bed, he tore a branch of a bush and beat her with it. ‘He came in an pulled back my bedclothes and my gown midway to my thighs and started whipping me, and I was screaming.’

The abuse simply drove her on, she says.

Her father also refused to let her complete her education. From the age of 8 she was kept out of school to plough fields and plant crops. When she did attend school she performed well and her grandmother, who had been born into slavery, wanted her to become a teacher. ‘But my father, even though he was a minister, said I didn’t need any more education,’ she remembers. ‘I said I’m going to get an education, regardless of that,’ she says. ‘I just kept trying and trying’.

After a number of false starts, that effort finally paid off in 1983 when she graduated from college, alongside students 40 years younger than her. She was even chosen as Homecoming Queen, carried into the auditorium on a float and presented with a dozen red roses.

After graduation, Samuels worked as a literacy tutor and part-time teacher.

She says her only regret is that she couldn’t go to college earlier and teach full time. ‘It was in my heart to teach’.

A remarkable woman.


Source: Centenarian refused to let hardships, abuse keep her from an education

Secret no.28 Surviving the 1918 flu epidemic

3031443773_316088e415_oNoeleen Hughes, who died recently in New Zealand at the age of 102, survived the worst pandemic in human history.

The ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic of 1918-19 was a genuine disaster, infecting one in every five people in the world and killing between 20 and 40 million of them. It was more virulent than the plague and, unusually, hit hardest at healthy young adults. It struck a world still recovering from conflict, killing ten times as many Americans as had died in the first world war and depressing life expectancy for a decade.

Noeleen caught the virus but recovered and her son-in-law believes that this was the reason she had such a long and fruitful life – she raised three daughters, taught for over two decades and lived on her family farm.

So is it possible that he’s right?

Plausibility rating: 3 out of 10. We do know now that surviving the ‘flu would have helped Noeleen in one way: it gave lifelong immunity against a recurrence of the virus. Over 90 years after the pandemic, a study found that antibodies extracted from its survivors still protected mice exposed to virus for the first time.

However there’s no reason to believe that it would have offered any greater protection against other illnesses and ageing. And we would know if it did because, despite the huge death toll, surviving the virus was still the norm. Though it was far more virulent than other strains of the flu, the virus still ‘only’ killed 2.5 percent of those infected. And there’s nothing to suggest that the hundreds of millions who survived had extended lives (though it means that Noeleen was in some exalted company – other survivors included Walt Disney, David Lloyd Georgee, Franklin D Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Haile Selasse I and the artists Edward Munch and Georgia O’Keeffe).

So Noeleen’s relatively brief but surely traumatic experience in her teens is very unlikely to have been the reason to her long life.

Son-in-law Philip does however have other possible candidates. ‘Hard work‘ we’ve already covered and surely sometime soon we’ll consider his other explanation, ‘having no vices’.

photo credit: From 1918 Influenza Outbreak via photopin (license)

Secret no.23 Determination

16580443996_8c5efb0e6aDetermination is the secret to a longer life, says 101-year-old Beatie Johnson – and her opinion is worthy of respect since Beatie must have needed lots of determination in a far-from-easy life.

Beatie’s mother had TB and spent a lot of time in hospital, tragically dying when Beatie was just nine. Beatie was separated from her younger sister and brought up by her grandparents. She went to work aged 14 and married a local lad, Geoff Obrey. But the Second World War intervened when a bomb blew the roof off their home (Beatie was pregnant at the time with their son, David, and only survived because she had taken cover in a garden shelter). Then Geoff was posted to the Far East, leaving Beatie alone to bring up their child. Tragically a second child, Clive, was born prematurely in 1944 and died four days later. Husband Geoff died in 1979, though Beattie married again to a childhood friend, Leslie Johnson.

Beatie now lives in a nursing home and its deputy manager, Michelle Pilgrim, says ‘Beatie is living proof that if you are determined you can achieve anything you want’.

But can a personality trait like determination help you live to 100?

Plausibility rating 8 out of 10: There’s a fair amount of research to suggest that personality does influence lifespan. Psychologists differentiate five personality traits – the Big Five*, as they are rather dramatically known. Of these, the trait that comes closest to determination is ‘conscientiousness’ – defined in this article as ‘self-discipline, achievement striving, reliability, and similar traits related to diligence’. And, would you know it, study after study links it to longer life. Even more importantly for our interest, this study found that the facets of conscientiousness most associated with longer lifespan were the qualities you and I would probably include in our definition of determination – ‘persistent, industrious, organised, disciplined’. Just one word of warning: when determination turns into obsession, perfectionism or compulsion be prepared for a shorter life, not a longer one.

Psychologists are less clear exactly why conscientiousness/determination might lead to longer life. Part of the answer may be in diligent adoption of healthier behaviours. But that doesn’t explain most of it so it’s been suggested that ”conscientious people are better able to anticipate and prepare for future consequences of potential adversities, more organized, and self-disciplined. These qualities could prevent stressful situations from escalating and could also enhance coping.”

Which sounds remarkably like Beatie, doesn’t it?

*The full Big Five are: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience. Of these, there’s some evidence that openness to experience is also linked to longer life. So too is extraversion, provided it doesn’t lead you to smoke.

photo credit: Ayn Rand – Who is going to stop me via photopin (license)