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MIT nutrition scientist celebrates a milestone

Nevin S. Scrimshaw
Nevin S. Scrimshaw

It's not every day that one of MIT's Institute Professors Emeritus--the elite of the faculty--celebrates a 90th birthday. But Nevin S. Scrimshaw, who founded MIT's Department of Nutrition and Food Science (now disbanded), reaches that milestone on Sunday, Jan. 20. At MIT he was also the first James R. Killian professor.

Dr. Scrimshaw, who holds a Ph.D. in physiology from Harvard, an M.D. from the University of Rochester and later an M.P.H. from Harvard, began teaching at MIT in 1961 and founded the Department of Nutrition and Food Science, Course 20, at the time. He continued at MIT until his retirement in 1988. He remains very active in nutrition research, as well as advising and consulting for organizations around the world devoted to food and nutrition, including many that he helped to establish. He is president of the Boston-based International Nutrition Foundation.

"I'm pretty much as active professionally as ever," he says. He has ongoing research projects in Syria, Bangladesh and Ghana, among others, and last year ran workshops on nutrition and research management in India, Thailand, Ghana and Taiwan. He continues to publish research papers, including one last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and is doing follow-up studies on the effects of lysine supplements in lowering stress and reducing diarrhea in Ghana and in Bangladesh.

In 1991, he was awarded the World Food Prize in recognition of his tireless efforts and significant contributions to combating malnutrition in dozens of countries. Beginning in the 1950s, he did research on the causes of the protein-deficiency disease kwashiorkor, a deadly disease affecting children throughout the developing world. He came up with inexpensive, protein-rich nutritional supplements to combat the disease, in different formulas based on locally available produce, in many parts of the world, which remain in widespread use.

He has put his knowledge of nutrition to use to create a regime of diet and exercise that he credits with helping to sustain his own good health. "I had a wake-up call that I hadn't been getting either the diet or the exercise that I knew to be important," he says, when he ended up with a triple bypass operation 25 years ago. "I said this was not going to happen again," and besides a longstanding love of hiking and downhill skiing, he now has tri-weekly strength-training workouts and is careful about maintaining a nutritious diet and appropriate weight.

"The diets of people today are, by and large, not sufficiently varied: they're too calorically dense and portion sizes are too large," he says, which helps account for the epidemic of obesity and associated chronic diseases. Eating better doesn't require specialized knowledge, but it does require emphasizing vegetables and fruits along with seafood and poultry and minimizing red meat, fatty foods and high-calorie desserts, he says. "Common sense!"

He has written or edited more than 20 books and hundreds of papers on nutrition, food science and public health. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, he has received dozens of awards, including a gold medal as "Hero of Public Health" from president Vicente Fox of Mexico, and a knighthood from the king of Thailand.

Scrimshaw says that during his years at MIT, the Department of Nutrition and Food Science came to "serve as a model for other departments around the US and the world," and its graduates have become leaders of major international nutrition organizations and national institutes in many countries. "I'm grateful for the tremendous amount of support I received from MIT all those years," he says. "For me, it was a very happy and productive time."

Scrimshaw now lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with Mary, his wife of 67 years, and still enjoys skiing in the area, often in the company of some of his five children and eight grandchildren. He was out on the slopes four times in the past week, and plans to go out again on his birthday. One of his sons, also named Nevin, earned his Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT in 1985. And his daughter Susan C. Scrimshaw, also a renowned public health specialist (and a fellow recipient of Mexico's presidential gold medal), is the president of Simmons College in Boston.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 30, 2008 (download PDF).

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