gender, Public Health/Nutrition
Comments 2

Helen Atwater: The First Lady of American Nutrition You’ve Never Heard Of

Helen Atwater. Credit:  Copyright American Assn. of Family and Consumer Sciences records, No. 6578. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Helen Atwater. Credit: Copyright American Assn. of Family and Consumer Sciences records, No. 6578. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

History often tells the tales of “first men,” but where are all the first women? When I wrote a post on the history of food guides, I came across one of the earliest resources, “How to Select Foods,” published in 1917 by Hunt and Atwater. I at first assumed that this Atwater was Wilbur Olin Atwater, the man so often called “The Father of American Nutrition,” but I was wrong. It was Helen Atwater and a little digging revealed that she was Wilbur Atwater’s daughter, who had grown up alongside his research and, as much as possible given the gender politics of her day, followed in his footsteps.

As is too often the case with histories of male-dominated fields, Helen’s name, story, and contributions are relatively absent from accounts of the early days of American nutrition science. As I began researching, I was happy to find the work of Melissa Wilmarth—Assistant Professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at the University of Alabama, who wrote her masters thesis and an article in Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal on Helen Atwater—as well as many of Helen Atwater’s published works (like this, this, and this), digitized by libraries across the country.

March is both Women’s History Month and National Nutrition Month, so my Zester piece last week told the story of this first lady of American nutrition that no one has really heard of, but should, for her contributions to science, women’s higher education, and American food.

I’d be delighted if you would read it, and as thanks, enjoy this gallery of World War I posters for “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays,” campaigns that Helen Atwater worked on during her time in the USDA’s Office of Home Economics.

2 Comments

  1. docyost says

    Great post, thanks for sharing! It’s surprising to me that there have not been more female leaders in nutrition, when women have traditionally been the ones to cook the meals, and stay at home with the kids. In a more modern world, we are beginning to understand that proper diet is a necessary skill for all genders and ages! I also appreciate the retro pictures that allow me to better understand the way food was viewed by people 100 years ago.

    Like

    • emilycontois says

      You’re so right! The gendered divide between “public” and “private” has often shaped women’s opportunities, not only in science, but also in the professional food world of chefs, where many, for so long, were men, despite women being conventionally responsible for cooking in the home. Thank you for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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