From Biochemistry to Chicken Farming & Beyond

Reading Judith Warner’s “Ready to Rejoin the Rat Race,” New York Times Magazine”, August 11, reminded me of my own journey in the world of work, and the stumbling blocks along the way.

When I graduated from Hunter College in 1952 with a biology degree, I was offered several jobs throughout New York City. I accepted a position in Steroid Biochemistry at Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, where I traced radioactive Carbon 14 in extracts of cancerous tissues. I thoroughly enjoyed the job and the work environment.

Yet there were employee relations, not acceptable in the workplace today, that weren’t questioned then.  For example, one morning, as I exited the subway, I heard someone say, “hi, Babe.”  I turned around only to see my boss behind me. We shared a laugh and walked to the laboratory together. I was not offended. He was a wonderful person and always respectful.

It wasn’t in the cards for me to become another Marie Curie. I was a biochemist for less than two years when I met Martin Klein, through a mutual friend at SKI. When we married I didn’t wish to commute from Madison, Connecticut to New York on what was at that time, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railway and left the job. There were opportunities for employment at both Yale and St.Raphael’s hospitals in New Haven, but the pay was considerably less than what I earned in New York. My husband convinced me to work on our poultry farm with him, assuring me that we would enjoy a rich life together.

So I morphed from a research assistant to a chicken farmer. The closest thing I did that resembled laboratory work was vaccinating chickens against diseases, hardly under sanitary clinical conditions. I also helped Marty treat a hen with an abscess. She survived!

It was most exciting when we received a shipment of baby chicks. My children stayed home from school to help unload the chicks and get them settled under gas brooder stoves. Marty and I were rarely apart. We were partners in the business and attended conferences on raising poultry together. We packed, sold, and delivered eggs. I was in charge of all the bookkeeping, finances, taxes and insurance. I purchased merchandise and supplies and hired farm workers. When we expanded the business I introduced a line of gourmet and health foods to our retail operation.

While my two youngest children were still toddlers I worked part -time in a chemistry research lab at Yale University, School of Medicine. This position was short lived because I was unable to find a nanny. Reliable day care was scarce or non-existent.

Years later, when I was in my late forties, I started thinking about expanding my career. My laboratory skills were rusty and I was more interested in improving the delivery of health care than working with test tubes. I explored several graduate programs relating to health care and volunteered to serve on many boards of agencies that worked toward expanding health services for the underserved.  I remember going for an interview with the head of the department of a graduate program, and was asked if I wanted to spend my life as a volunteer, when he read my resume. It was the same story of how does one get experience if nobody will give you the chance.

After I earned a Master’s degree in Health Care Management, I was hired as a senior planner at the regional office of the federal Health Systems Agency. My specialty was Certificate of Need Review; my function was to establish new, much needed services, and also eliminate needless, costly duplication. Unfortunately this position didn’t last. The federal government didn’t consider investing in health planning necessary. Does this sound familiar? The organization was downsized while undergoing restructuring. Since I was the last hired, I was the first fired. Within a few years the Health Systems Agencies were eliminated.

During the early 1980’s we closed our farm and “retired”. Our partnership did not end when we gave up farming. We served in the Peace Corps as a team. Marty and I also provided technical assistance as agricultural volunteers, on assignments with AID, Aid to International Development. We worked with farmers in South America, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, West Africa, and the U.S. We were involved in our community, sitting on several boards and active in politics. Both us were elected to public office; I was a member of the Board of Selectmen from 1975-1977 and Marty was elected First Selectman from 2005-2007.

 Of our many experiences, one of the most rewarding was working for Vista, Volunteers in Service to America, now known as Americorps.  Marty and I helped develop community gardens in the inner city of Hartford to enable the gardeners to have fresh vegetables and stretch their incomes. We provided greenhouses, sought contributions of seed, plants and tools, and used our truck to deliver this to the gardeners. I learned to use a computer and wrote the press releases for the garden newsletter, “The Green Thumb.”

When either of us held public office we could depend on the other for help. Several years ago we gave our farm a facelift and a new purpose. With our son, we are currently the proprietors of a golf driving range, developed on the site of the farm. We continue to have lunch together every day.

The search for employment and fulfillment didn’t begin with the “Baby-boomers”. We pre-Boomers also tread that path.

Marty as Vista volunteer

Marty as Vista volunteer

Community Gardens

Community Gardens

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14 thoughts on “From Biochemistry to Chicken Farming & Beyond

  1. A remarkable life life Barbara. Despite having been “family” for better than 50 years, there were still many things I never knew about my sister-in-law. Really enjoyed reading your blog.

  2. Hi Barbara, Thank you for the “blog.” Your C.V. Is impressive and reveals an interesting, challenging life combining scientific research, political activism and public service with the more down- to -earth obligation of running a successful chicken farm and egg business. Sounds like book material to me! But, you have left out other roles with their challenges-being a great wife to a highly intelligent husband, who, for reasons of which we are aware and which were excusable, nevertheless did not have an easy relationship with your parents, but at the same time being the most loving and devoted daughter and performing both roles seemingly effortlessly. Also you were amazing as a mother- raising four great children, dealing with the tragic death of a child and now being equally supportive and loving as a grandmother. Maybe the subject of another book! Lastly, you are a such a fine writer and a great cousin!

  3. Wow, Barbara. You’re something. This is a fascinating bio.I loved imagining you at all your jobs. My favorite is the young woman researcher at Sloan Kettering. Bet you were a knock out of a worker and as a young woman!

  4. you were a woman ahead of your times and a role model for all those who don’t know what to do after retirement…..volunteer and share your knowledge…thank you.

  5. Barbara–
    I enjoyed following along your retrospective. I find it illuminating and inspirational that you seem to have always found fulfillment and purpose in your endeavors, whatever they’ve been.. I know personally that at least one of your offspring is another testament to the value and success of your life (thus far). 🙂 Looking forward to more, Judith (friend of Madeline’s)

  6. Pingback: Chicken Coop Epidemiology | bestofbarbara

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