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Nevin S. Scrimshaw, pioneer in nutrition research, dies at 95

Institute Professor emeritus and recipient of the World Food Prize was the founder of MIT’s former Department of Nutrition and Food Science.
Institute Professor emeritus Nevin S. Scrimshaw came to MIT in 1961 as a professor of human nutrition.
Institute Professor emeritus Nevin S. Scrimshaw came to MIT in 1961 as a professor of human nutrition.

Institute Professor emeritus Nevin S. Scrimshaw, who founded MIT’s former Department of Nutrition and Food Science, died in Plymouth, N.H., on Friday, Feb. 8. He was 95 and died of congestive heart failure.

Scrimshaw dedicated his career of almost seven decades to the alleviation of hunger and malnutrition. His work substantially improved the lives of millions of people around the globe — efforts for which he was recognized with the 1991 World Food Prize. The prize committee cited Scrimshaw “for his revolutionary accomplishments over six decades, in fighting protein, iodide, and iron deficiencies, developing nutritional supplements, educating generations of experts, and building support for continued advances in food quality around the world.”

Scrimshaw came to MIT in 1961 as a professor of human nutrition. In 1974 he was selected for the Institute’s first James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award, and in 1976 he was appointed as an Institute Professor, a distinguished rank reserved for MIT scholars of special accomplishment. He retired from MIT in 1988.

Scrimshaw was the founder and honorary president of the Nevin Scrimshaw International Nutrition Foundation and founder of the World Hunger Program of the United Nations University. He also served as a visiting professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Nevin Stewart Scrimshaw was born Jan. 20, 1918, in Milwaukee, where his father, Stewart Scrimshaw, was a professor of economics at Marquette University. He received his PhD from Harvard University in 1941, and his MD from the University of Rochester in 1945.

He married Mary W. Goodrich, a biologist and nutritional anthropologist, in 1941; she worked closely with him throughout his career. The family, including five children, lived for many years in Guatemala, where Scrimshaw was the founding director of the Institute of Nutrition of Central American and Panama (INCAP). He led the early development of this institution from 1949 to 1961.

In the 1950s, in association with INCAP, Scrimshaw developed solutions for kwashiorkor, a deadly disease that strikes young children. Recognizing from studies at INCAP and elsewhere that the problem was one of protein deficiency, Scrimshaw searched for an affordable, indigenous protein source.

Using a mixture of cottonseed flour and maize, he developed Incaparina, which today is given to 80 percent of Guatemalan infants to combat protein deficiency. Later, during a 1967 famine in India, Scrimshaw guided the development of a similar food, Balahar, based on peanut flour and wheat. His approach to such nutritional supplements remains the basis for locally produced, lower-cost foods to prevent malnutrition in many developing countries. Scrimshaw also created extensive training programs in food and nutrition that have benefited more than 500 scientists from developing countries, helping those nations become more self-sufficient nutritionally.

While at INCAP, Scrimshaw also focused his attention on endemic goiter. He developed a method of iodizing a moist local salt with nonsoluble potassium iodate, reducing goiter prevalence in mothers and children both in Guatemala and worldwide. These results prompted Scrimshaw to work with various governments to require iodization of all salt for human consumption, alleviating endemic goiters in many countries throughout the world.

In the 1960s, Scrimshaw conducted pioneering work on the relationship between nutrition and infection — laying the foundation for much of today’s research on nutrition and infectious disease. He later initiated the World Hunger Program of the United Nations University in 1975, directing it and its successor, the Food and Nutrition Program for Human and Social Development, for the next two decades. He continued to advise the program and edit its publications for many years.

In 1982, Scrimshaw founded the Boston-based International Nutrition Foundation. The foundation, which awards fellowships and supports research projects around the world, aims “to build capacity in developing-country individuals and institutions in the areas of nutrition research, policy and programming so they can effectively address issues of food, nutrition and hunger in their countries.”

Scrimshaw said that during his decades on the MIT faculty, the Department of Nutrition and Food Science came to “serve as a model for other departments around the U.S. and the world,” with its graduates going on to serve as leaders of major international nutrition organizations and national institutes. “I’m grateful for the tremendous amount of support I received from MIT all those years,” he said in a 2008 interview. “For me, it was a very happy and productive time.”

Robert Langer, an Institute Professor who was recruited to the MIT faculty by Scrimshaw, says, “He was a great man and, in my opinion, he had a great life. He gave me my start at MIT, and he touched the lives of so many people. The world is a far better place for all that he did.”

Institute Professor emerita Mildred Dresselhaus says Scrimshaw was “an MIT icon regarding nutrition, and a professor who [made] MIT the place that it is.”

Scrimshaw wrote or edited more than 20 books and 650 papers on nutrition, food science and public health. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, where he and his daughter, Susan C. Scrimshaw — a public-health specialist who is now president of the Sage Colleges in Troy, N.Y. — became the first father-and-daughter members. His dozens of awards and honors included the designation “Hero of Public Health” by President Vicente Fox of Mexico; a knighthood from the King of Thailand; naming to the Order of Rodolfo Robles by the government of Guatemala; the Bolton L. Corson Medal from the Franklin Institute; and seven honorary doctorates.

Scrimshaw grew lilies, fruit and vegetables on his northern New Hampshire farm, and loved travel, visiting well over 100 countries in the course of his career. He used his knowledge of nutrition to create a regime of diet and exercise that he credited with helping to sustain his own good health. He maintained his longstanding love of hiking and downhill skiing well into his 90s, often in the company of some of his five children and eight grandchildren. Family members said that anyone riding a ski lift with him stood a good chance of learning more than they wished to know about their nutritional status and eating habits.

Scrimshaw lived for years in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with Mary, his wife of 71 years, who survives him. He is also survived by his five children — Susan C. Scrimshaw, Norman S. Scrimshaw, Nevin B. Scrimshaw, Steven W. Scrimshaw and Nathaniel L. Scrimshaw — as well as by eight grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. He was predeceased by his brother, Norman G. Scrimshaw, who was killed in action in France in 1944, during World War II.

A memorial service will be held in the Boston area on Saturday, April 20; contact Irwin Rosenberg for further information. A second service will be held in Plymouth, N.H., at a date still to be determined. The family requests that donations be made either to the Nevin Scrimshaw International Nutrition Foundation, or to the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation.

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