Obituary: Betty Ford

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionPeter Bowes looks back at the life of Betty Ford

Betty Ford's name is synonymous with her Center for the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction, illnesses she experienced herself during her time as America's first lady.

Many of the clinic's former patients have claimed Betty Ford to be their personal saviour but she always said, "We are each responsible for ourselves."

Nevertheless, her center has given thousands of patients the chance to overcome their need for alcohol, painkillers and other substances, making it one of the country's foremost institutions, and its founder an influential humanitarian.

Surprise move to Washington

Born Elizabeth Bloomer in Chicago and raised in Michigan, the young student showed her altruistic spirit early on, developing a dance company for handicapped children, and showing them the value of rhythm and movement.

A gifted dancer herself, she studied at the Martha Graham dance school in New York

She married Gerald Ford, her second husband, in 1948, two weeks before he was elected to Congress. For the next 25 years of her husband's political career, Betty Ford lived in Virginia, supporting women's rights, raising her family and planning a quiet retirement with her husband.

The Fords' plans changed in 1973, when Spiro Agnew's resignation meant Gerald Ford became Vice-President. Eighteen months later, the Watergate scandal forced Richard Nixon's departure, and propelled Ford into the White House.

Ill health

Image caption An unexpected presidency

Betty Ford proved a radical first lady, speaking out on such controversial topics as abortion, marijuana and premarital sex, and using her knowledge of women's issues to work towards the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

She later regretted that her candour may have hurt her husband's 1976 campaign to stay in office.

The shock of entering what she called "the proverbial fish bowl existence" of the Executive Mansion took its toil on her health, too.

Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer during her husband's presidency and spoke openly about her mastectomy, encouraging other sufferers to do the same.

Frequently absent from public occasions, the first lady also took the unprecedented step of admitting, while her husband was still president, to her depression, and dependence on alcohol and painkillers.

Award from Congress

Image caption Receiving the Congressional Gold Medal

This illness would provide Betty Ford with her greatest cause. After receiving treatment herself, she persuaded her wealthy friends to help her create a clinic that would give proper attention to female addicts.

Since opening its doors in 1982, the Betty Ford Center has seen much of its good work overshadowed by its reputation as a health spa for the sick and famous.

Nevertheless, its strict regime and intensive therapy have been credited with helping uncelebrated patients from all over the world.

In 1999, both Betty Ford and her husband received the nation's highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal.

Making the presentation to Betty Ford, President Bill Clinton said, "I know what it's like to see good, fine people stare into the abyss of their own personal despair and will be forever grateful. She showed them it was not wrong for a good person and a strong person to be imperfect and ask for help."

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites