Why do some Georgia women live so long?

Late last year, when Maggie Katie Brown Kidd of Clayton County celebrated her 114th birthday, news reports described her as the oldest living Georgian, the oldest living African-American and the 10th-oldest person in the world.

She’s been moving up since then. A recent check of online resources about supercentenarians — people 110 and older — indicates Kidd is now No. 5 in the world. (Some supercentenarian lists differ slightly, depending on which records a particular organization recognizes.)


Kidd is the latest in a long line of Georgia women who have reached extraordinary ages. Sometimes it seems that such longevity is almost becoming routine. The Macon Telegraph ran an article this week about Virginia Pair Witherington, who celebrated her 106th birthday by dining out. (Why settle for delivery?) And the article noted that it’s not clear Witherington is even the oldest person in Bibb County.

Witherington at her birthday celebration

In recent years, two sets of Georgia siblings made the headlines for their combined longevity. Such joint achievements are probably signs of good genes and healthy environments, but some individual supercentenarians had nothing in their backgrounds to explain why they made it to extreme old age. The only unusual thing about them was that they kept on living.

In 2012, Georgia lost two women who had made demographic history. Besse Cooper was the world’s oldest person when she died at 116. And Dr. Leila Denmark was the world’s oldest physician when she died at 114. They were among the last survivors of the generations born in the 1800s (no such people are left today), and both women lived in three different centuries.

Otherwise, the two Georgians were a study in contrasts. Cooper spent most of her life as a schoolteacher in the small town of Between, and never attracted much public attention until she gradually began to outlive all her peers. Denmark gained national prominence early, as a trailblazing female pediatrician and author, and she continued to practice medicine until she was 103.

Besse Cooper Governor Deal GA
Then-Gov. Nathan Deal visits with Besse Cooper before her death.

One thing that Cooper and Denmark did have in common was that they were both widows in their later years. The ranks of supercentenarians contain very few males. The oldest man in the world is not even in the top 10 of longest-lived people. The longevity sweepstakes is a woman’s game.

That’s as true in Georgia as anywhere else. The nation and the Peach State recently paid tribute to Jimmy Carter when he reached the greatest age of any president in U.S. history. But he’s still only 94. Compared to Maggie Kidd, he’s just a “kid.”

Dr. Leila Denmark visits her own physician, Dr. Charles Braucher Jr., in 2008. Denmark, a pediatrician, blazed trails for other women in Georgia medicine, and her health advice became famous far beyond the state. –Photo courtesy of Mary Hutcherson

Gerdeen Dyer is assistant editor at Georgia Health News