The Early History of International Nutrition at Cornell
by Professor Malden C. Nesheim, PhD

In a Presidential white paper[i] in 2012, Cornell President David Skorton pointed out that Cornell since its founding has been international in scope and aspiration.  He called on Cornell and other US universities to increase their international involvement even further and to develop a new type of Marshall plan  that would reduce global inequities through capacity building  in developing countries.  He  recognized that internationalization is important in every aspect of higher education to prepare students for global citizenship.

Few programs at Cornell exemplify this commitment to international work  better than the international activities in nutrition over the past 50 years.   I have been privileged to be both an observer and a participant in these programs during that period.    From this perspective, this paper reviews  the international nutrition accomplishments over this period to illustrate the impact Cornell's programs have had on global nutrition.  The science of food and nutrition has been a feature of Cornell's academic programs from the early days of the University. The evolution of nutrition programs at Cornell is outlined by a recent publication[ii].   This review concentrates on the global reach of Cornell's nutrition programs.

Early Years

One of the first faculty to become involved in nutrition programs internationally was Flora Rose.  She had come to Cornell in 1907, to help Martha Van Rensselaer teach in a winter course in Home Economics.  She had been a graduate student at Columbia in nutrition.  Together with Martha Van Rensselaer, she led the development of Home Economics at Cornell for more than 30 years.  

During World War I the German army occupied Belgium in 1914, causing major disruption of agriculture and food supplies there.  A Commission for Relief in Belgium was formed led by Herbert Hoover that raised funds to send food to occupied Belgium that kept the country fed for nearly 4 years. After the war, the Commission had funds to carry out other programs to help in the recovery of Belgium.    One of the uses of the money was to " provide such education toward protection of child life". To determine the part nutrition should play in such education programs, Flora Rose led a survey of the health and nutrition status of Belgian school children.    This was an extensive survey, involving some 4619 children, ages 5 to 15 years.  The data collected included height, weight, food consumption, and health status.    The data collected by Flora Rose was used for her PhD thesis at Columbia University Teachers College.     For her work in Belgium she was awarded the Insignia of the Order of the Crown by King Albert of Belgium[iii]

Cornell was involved in providing training in practical skills to Christian missionaries working abroad by a program that ran from 1930 to 1960.   The program was a four week course in January and February where practical training in agriculture and rural life was provided to missionaries home on furlough from their overseas posts.  Nutrition and health were part of the curriculum taught first by Mary Henry and later by Hazel Hauck, from the Food and Nutrition Department in the College of Home Economics. 

Hazel Hauck, who had joined the Cornell Faculty in 1936, was one of the first Human Ecology Faculty members to do research overseas.   With the support of a Fulbright fellowship, she served as a nutrition specialist for a Cornell Project in Thailand.  She carried out a study of the food habits of the people of Bang Chan, a rural Thai village in 1952-1954.   Later she served as a consultant for a program in Eastern Nigeria, under the auspices of the Unitarian Service Committee where she worked to introduce groundnuts into the diet of villagers to provide nutrients lacking in their usual diets[iv]

L.A. Maynard joined the Cornell faculty in 1915, and became the most important figure in the development of nutrition programs at Cornell until his retirement in 1956.   Maynard began work in Animal Nutrition in the Animal Science Department and later was the founding Director of the School of Nutrition, Director of the US Plant Soil and Nutrition Laboratory and the first head of the Department of Biochemistry.  In 1934 Maynard took a sabbatical leave to serve as a visiting Professor at the University of Nanking in China where he studied the nutrition of farm families. 

The academic nutrition community began to develop interest in the nutrition problems of developing countries in the 1930's highlighted by the reports of the English Physician, Cecily Williams, working in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) West Africa, who described a condition in children, called Kwashiorkor an edema she attributed to a protein deficiency in very young children.  Though much further work was interrupted by WW II, the recognition of widespread nutrition problems in much of the world lead to the development of international efforts to study and relieve problems of nutrition internationally.  L A Maynard, reported in the School of Nutrition Newsletter, his attendance at a joint FAO/WHO meeting on kwashiorkor in the Gambia in 1952.  After WW II, Maynard was heavily involved in international efforts that lead to the development of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.  He served on many FAO committees, and served as US delegate to many international nutrition meetings during the recovery after the war.   Maynard served on the scientific advisory committee of the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP) during its early development. He served as Chairman of the Standing Committee on Nutrition of the 9th Pacific Science Congress in Bangkok Thailand in 1957 and Chairman of the Organizing Committee of the 10th Pacific Science Congress in 1961[v].  

Students from outside of the United States were part of the School of Nutrition student body since it inception.   In 1952 17% of the students were from outside of the United States, representing 12 countries[vi].

Maynard, retired as Director of the School of Nutrition in 1955 though he remained Director until his successor, Richard Barnes was appointed in 1956.   Under Barnes, the School of Nutrition became the Graduate School of Nutrition and  Barnes was given the title of Dean.   Barnes came to Cornell from the Merck, Sharp and Dohme Laboratories where he was Director of Biochemical Research.    Under Maynard, the School of Nutrition Faculty was largely made up of Faculty holding primary appointments in other departments in several Colleges of the University.   Barnes added several members to the core faculty of the School, particularly several biochemists.  In 1960 The Graduate School of Nutrition signed a contract with the Government of Peru for technical assistance which involved working with the National Institute of Nutrition in Lima[vii][1].  Under this agreement, Charlotte Young taught a course in Public Health Nutrition and biochemists Lemuel Wright and James Gaylor taught a course in Nutritional Biochemistry at the Peru institute. 

The modern era

The Graduate School of Nutrition made a major commitment to international work with the appointment of Andre van Veen as Professor of International Nutrition in July 1962 with the responsibility to direct the School's new program in International Nutrition and Research.   The announcement of the appointment[viii] stated that " The program is designed primarily to train United States citizens who are interested in careers in organizations dealing with international problems in nutrition, such as the FAO, World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the Agency for International Development (USAID)".  The announcement went on to say that students from other countries also have the opportunity to participate.  The program was supported by grants from NIH and the Williams Waterman Fund.  This program made a major commitment to training students for international work as opposed to past efforts by individual faculty.

Andre' van Veen came to Cornell with a unique background[ix].    He was born in the Netherlands, and received his academic training at the University of Utrecht.    In 1929, he was appointed to the Eijkman Institute in Batavia,  Netherlands East Indies.  (now Jakarta, Indonesia).  He eventually became Chief of the Biochemical Division of the Institute and Deputy Director of the Nutrition Research Institute.  The Eijkman Institute was known for its role in the discovery of thiamine in preventing a nutritional deficiency disease, beri-beri, a neurological problem being studied in patients in Jakarta in the early 1900's. As a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II, van Veen used his nutrition expertise to help many of his fellow internees survive during the harsh conditions they endured.   After the war, he helped to organize the Nutrition Division of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). He became a permanent staff member of the Nutrition Division in 1950, later becoming Chief of the Food Science and Technology Branch until his retirement from FAO in 1962. 

He began the practice of sending Cornell graduate students to carry out research in field settings as opposed to the laboratory.  He also encouraged students to use methodologies from the social sciences to study nutrition problems in communities. Until his retirement in 1968, van Veen directed programs of 15 students, studying for the Master of Nutritional Science degree or the PhD who worked in Puerto Rico, Peru, Guatemala, Ghana, St. Vincent, and Mexico

The retirement of van Veen led to the appointment of Michael Latham as the new Director of the International Nutrition program in the Graduate School of Nutrition. Latham was born and grew up in Tanzania as the son of a British medical officer of the British Colonial Administration.  He attended Trinity College in Dublin Ireland, where he was awarded both a Bachelors(1949)  and a Medical degree(1952).  He returned to Tanzania where he was a medical officer and then director of nutrition in the Ministry of Health from 1955 to 1964.   He later received a Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene from the University of London and an MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health.     For his work in developing the Nutrition program in Tanzania, he was honored by Queen Elizabeth II with the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1965.   Latham, was on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health from 1964 to 1968 when he was recruited to become Professor of International Nutrition at Cornell.   As we will see later, Latham had an enormous impact on the international program. 

From 1968 to 1974, Latham was the primary faculty member advising students and carrying out research in an international context.   In 1974, the Division of Nutritional Sciences was formed incorporating the faculty of the Graduate School of Nutrition and the Department of Human Nutrition and Food into a single academic unit .    This was a very large academic unit, with 35 faculty positions, with responsibility for undergraduate teaching, graduate programs, and public education programs in NY State through cooperative extension programs.   The field of Nutrition had been undergoing major changes since the late 1950's with the emphasis moving away from the identification, isolation, and synthesis of individual nutrients, to a study of populations, their food habits and the consequences of dietary patterns to development of chronic disease.  Concern for world hunger and malnutrition grew with the recognition that large segments of the world population were undernourished and international efforts were needed to help relieve the burden of malnutrition in the developing world. 

As the new Division developed it became clear the evolving field of nutrition needed to consider the world a a laboratory, both to study and help relieve problems of world hunger and malnutrition, but also to study basic nutrition problems in populations and communities.   New appointments to the Division included an anthropologist, Jere Haas, who was interested in the effect of nutrition on physical performance, who had a research program in Bolivia.   Jean Pierre Habicht, a nutritional epidemiologist had been involved in basic studies on the influence of food supplements on child growth in Guatemala joined the faculty.  Diva Sanjur from Panama, one of van Veen's graduate students who was a member of the former Human Nutrition and Food department faculty began to work with students interested in international problems.   Peter Timmer an expert in international rice policy was recruited to the Babcock Professorship of Food Economics, a chair which previously had been devoted to domestic food policy.   Timmer, remained at Cornell for just 2 years before moving to Harvard, but his replacement was Erik Thorbecke, an economist interested in world poverty and malnutrition.    As Director, I also began to develop studies internationally on the influence of parasitic infections on nutrition in conjunction with David Crompton from Cambridge University and later the University of Glasgow.   As the division developed up to the present day, other faculty with international interests joined the faculty, Cutberto Garza, Rey Martorell, Rebecca Stoltzfus, Kathleen, Rasmussen,  Gretel Pelto, Lani Stephenson, Edward Frongillo, Per Pinstrup Andersen, David Pelletier, David Sahn, who carried out research and  directed student work in an international setting.   

The international program in the 1970's and 80's also benefitted from expanded support for research and training students from many parts of the world.  The USAID, World Bank, United Nations University, individual Governments, provided support for students from many parts of the world to study nutrition.  At one point in the 1980's the Division of Nutritional Sciences had enrolled graduate students from 26 different countries.  The Cornell program was well positioned to provide the needed educational experiences needed.   

The Graduate School at Cornell does not keep easily accessible records of  graduate student origins and  research sites, but from data submitted by  current faculty members  and from past faculty members records, I was able to identify 258 students, from 56 different countries who have received masters or PhD degrees since 1960 to about 2013 whose work was in an international context.   Most carried out their thesis research outside the United States, though a few worked on international data sets while not actually leaving the country.  Of these students, 155 received PhD's, some received both MS and PhD degrees, while, others completed MPS (Master of Professional Studies in International Development), MNS ( Master of Nutrition Science) and MPA( Master of Public Affairs degrees).   The geographical distribution of the national origin of the students is shown in Table 1. 

Geographical distribution of student origins doing international work:
geographical distribution of students
(photo credit: Jesse Krisher)

Although the largest number of the students came from the United States, there is a large concentration of students from Latin America, Africa and Asia.  There were no students from Eastern Europe and only 2 from the Middle East.   Five of the 12 students from Europe were from Sweden.

I was able to obtain only incomplete data as to where these student worked after leaving Cornell but the overwhelming number have worked in UN Agencies such as UNICEF , the World Bank, USAID, NGO's, government health ministries, research institutes, or in academia as faculty in US or overseas Universities.   Some went on to medical school, and others to private industry, At least 2 became government ministers.  

The international nutrition program operated as a loose confederation of faculty and students with international interests as opposed to a clearly defined integrated program.    From 1968 until his retirement in 2003, Latham taught a graduate level course in international nutrition problems.   A weekly year-long seminar in international nutrition brought together faculty and students with international interests to have presentations from faculty, students and frequent  outside speakers.   The flexibility of the Cornell graduate program, allowed students interested in international issues to minor is a wide variety of fields, including, epidemiology, sociology, education, economics, various agricultural sciences, and food science.  In later years, a course in nutrition problems of developing nations was offered to undergraduates.  


[i] Skorton, David J. Bringing Cornell to the world and the world to Cornell- A Presidential White Paper March 12, 2012.…

[ii] Nesheim, Malden C The Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University  A History and Personal Reflections.  The Internet-First University Press.

[iii] Flora Rose Papers, Cornell University Archives Box 34 and box 52. 

[iv] Hazel Marie Hauck Memorial Statements of The University Faculty Archive by The Internet-First University Press 

[v] Leonard Amby Maynard,1887-1972: A Brief Biography. 1990 The Journal of Animal Science 199:68, 1-4.

[vi] School of Nutrition News II, 2 1952.

[vii] Graduate School of Nutrition News III (2) June 1960.

[viii] Graduate School of Nutrition News IV(1) May 1962. 

[ix] Andre  Gerhard van Veen 1903-1986. 1988 Biographical article.  D. A. Roe, J. Nutrition 118:281-283.