Updated: May 1, 2020
Commemorating International Women’s Day by Helena Trigueiro
The notable increase in the number of human nutrition studies in the early twentieth century can be linked to the entry of women into academia. This is mainly because food and nutrition were considered to be a ‘woman’s issue’. Even until the late 1950s, there were few professional opportunities for the few women who were fortunate enough to study. These scientists, visionary researchers, and leaders in nutrition policy founded a resilient legacy for other nutrition scientists (men and women) to follow and honour. In this article we aim to remember some of these women and their outstanding contributions to nutrition.
One such woman was Dame Harriette Chick, born in 1875 in Victorian England. At a time when women and did not even have the right to vote, Harriette was the first to take an assistant position at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. During the First World War she focused on studying soldiers’ rations in order to prevent vitamin C and thiamine deficiency, and ultimately scurvy and beriberi. At the end of the war, Harriette travelled to Vienna to share her knowledge on vitamins, in a country where there was a serious public health problem. The results of her intervention were notable, and it was considered by some as the peak of her career. Harriette was then director of the nutrition division at the Lister Institute, and continued to study vitamin deficiency until close to her death, at the age of 101.
Another remarkable scientist, whose contribution was vital during wartime, is Elsie Widdowson. As a result, she is considered to be one of the most relevant British scientists of the 20th century. Her basic training was in chemistry, which allowed her to study the chemical composition of food during her PhD at her Imperial College, London. Somewhat controversially, she questioned the value of carbohydrates in fruit, previously presented by Robert McCance. This audacity paid off, and he later became her mentor. Elsie realised that nutrient composition tables were an essential tool and that there was a lack of information and clarity in those that existed at the time. Widdowson and McCance published the acclaimed publication, ‘The Composition of Foods’, in 1940. During World War II, Elsie's work was essential to study and predict the effects of food rationing on the nutritional status of the English population.
Harriette and Elsie’s scientific contributions in Nutrition are an example of innovation born out of adversity during such dark times.
Another example of a career full of exceptional research, alongside multiple conflicts and difficulties is that of Agnes Fay Morgan, born in 1884. After completing her PhD, Agnes agreed to teach nutrition at Berkeley, for an annual salary $600 lower than what was paid to her equivalent male colleagues. She experienced first-hand the difficulty of finding people who were willing to finance projects that were conducted and thought of by women. In her personal notes, she describes her purpose as establishing a solid scientific basis for the practices in nutrition taught at the time. This purpose was realised, as her studies allowed us to gain a better understanding about the effect of micronutrients on health, such as the role of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D in bone health, and Vitamin B5 in skin and hair pigmentation.
Further related to the study of micronutrients, other important contributions were made by women involved in nutrition science, specifically in the establishment of recommended daily intake (RDA) values. We remember the work of Doris Howes Calloway, who always defended RDA’s based on the amount needed to guarantee the optimal health for the individual. Doris was born in 1923 and became the Director of the Department of Nutrition Sciences, Berkeley, as well as the president of numerous professional associations, where she always fought for equal opportunities for women and minority groups.
Another scientist who fought for women was Icie Hoobler, a biochemist born in Missouri in 1982. She prioritised maternal care and showed the impact of nutrition on infant development, establishing a correlation between access to pre-natal care and the subsequent growth and health status of children. She faced already established sexism and reported in her notes: “This was traumatic at times, until I regained my self-respect and gathered courage and determination to demonstrate to the class that a woman chemistry teacher was capable of teaching, even grown men just back from war.”
More names could be added to this list: Ellen Swallow, Isabella Leitch, Hazel Stiebeling, Dr Lydia Roberts, and many more. These pioneering women scientists opened the door for the women leading nutrition sciences today, and they should be remembered and cherished for this.