‘Feeder of the Masses’ — Nevin Scrimshaw

“If there were a pantheon in the field of international nutrition, he would be absolutely at the top.”

By Dave Riley

EVER HEAR OF Nevin Scrimshaw? Neither had I until two years ago. He was a doctor who not only lived a long life — almost a century — but spent most of it improving the lives of infants and children in other parts of the world.

I learned about him because one evening when Mrs. R. and I were reading, she said, after many minutes of silence, “Nevin Scrimshaw died.”

“Really?” I said. “That’s too bad.” I went on reading about how to add ten yards to my drives, but soon got the feeling Mrs. R was still looking at me. I turned to see that indeed she was — “glaring” would have been a more accurate verb.

“You probably think Nevin Scrimshaw is a character actor in a Coen brothers movie,” she said sharply.

“No, no. I know who he is. He’s the Aussie who wrote On the Beach.”

“That was Nevil Shute, and he was born in Great Britain, not Australia.” I think she resisted the urge to add the phrase “you dimwit.”

“Okay, who was he?”

“A pioneering nutritionist.”

“Nutritionists are good,” I said. “I mean we need them, right? But so the world has one less nutritionist. Is that so awful?”

Bad move. Bad thing to say. Mrs. R is a superb cook who does her darndest to prepare nutritionally sound meals. She likes to watch TV cooking shows, but doesn’t have much patience with chefs from what I refer to as the “two-slabs-of-butter-and-a-half-pound-of-salt” culinary school. One of her favorites is Ellie Kreiger, a registered dietitian with undergraduate and graduate degrees in nutrition from Cornell and Columbia. I soon realized that I had better respect the late Dr. Scrimshaw — or else. So I spent the next few days reading about him from several sources.

HE LIVED 95 YEARS from January 20, 1918, when he was born in Milwaukee, until February 8, 2013, when in died in Plymouth, New Hampshire. He earned a bachelors degree in biology at Ohio Wesleyan and a PhD in physiology from Harvard. He went to medical school in Rochester, New York, where he developed a keen interest in nutrition. When he was thirty-one, he relocated his family from New York to Guatemala, and eventually founded the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama.

At the time nutrition wasn’t one of those sexy fields that attracted hordes of young med students. “My professors thought I was throwing my career away,” he told the Boston Globe in 2008. Even his wife Mary, who is a

Dr. Scrimshaw and his wife Mary with young patients in Guatemala.

Dr. Scrimshaw and his wife Mary with young patients in Guatemala.

nutritional anthropologist. raised a caution flag. “If you do this, “ she told him, “you know you’re going to be identified with nutrition from now on. ”

But he brushed aside his professors’ concerns, and spent the next sixty-plus years working to improve the health of millions of children in developing countries by creating low-cost vegetable-based foods for weaning infants. During his long career he developed nutritional supplements for alleviating protein, iodine, and iron deficiencies in the developing world.

“To help protein-starved children in Central America, Dr. Scrimshaw created a gruel made of corn, sorghum and cottonseed flour that was nutritionally equivalent to milk,” Douglas Martin wrote in the New York Times obituary of Dr. Scrimshaw. “In India, he adapted the same principle to peanut flour and wheat. He then brought both products to market, where they sold for only pennies.

“Working in Central America, Dr. Scrimshaw also helped eliminate endemic goiter in children — a swelling of the thyroid gland that can lead to mental retardation, deafness and dwarfism. The ailment is caused by a mother’s iodine deficiency.”

Back in the states he founded the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In his work as a teacher and mentor at MIT, he “populated the world with first-rate scientists,” said Jean-Pierre Habicht, a professor emeritus of nutritional epidemiology at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology.

“IF THERE WERE A PANTHEON in the field of international nutrition, he would be absolutely at the top,” Dr. Irwin Rosenberg, a former dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and board member of the Nevin Scrimshaw International Nutrition Foundation, which Dr. Scrimshaw founded.

“There’s no one else who comes even close to having cast as much influence around the world: in Asia, in Central America, in Africa,” Dr. Rosenberg told the Globe. “I can’t even think of anyone in a close second-place.”

The Sydney (AUS) Morning Herald placed an elegantly simple headline over the announcement of his death: “Feeder of the Masses.”

At least once or twice a year I cite the late Dr. Robert Butler, one of the founders of gerontology, who said our goal shouldn’t be just to live to 90,

Nevin Scrimshaw at a youthful 80 years of age.

Nevin Scrimshaw at a youthful 80 years of age.

“but to make 90 a better 90.” Dr. Scrimshaw is the poster child for doing exactly that. He skied, hiked and worked out at a fitness center well into his tenth decade. In his late eighties he was still traveling to give workshops.

Five years before he passed away, he credited his longevity in part to — would you expect anything else? — “an optimal diet” and having lived a stress-free life.

“I have a wonderful marriage, the children and grandchildren are doing well, and I’ve received all the professional recognition that anybody could ask for. I’m very satisfied.”

Quantify his life’s work this way: There are hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions of people who not only didn’t die from a childhood malady but who enjoyed a quality of life far superior to what they would have had if it hadn’t been for Dr. Scrimshaw.   What an incredible legacy for him and for his wife, Mary, who passed away in 2014.

After I finished this blog, Mrs. R proofread it for me. “Not bad,” she said. “Not bad at all. But you left out an awful lot.”

I did indeed — there’s just so much space, you know. But if you Google Nevin Scrimshaw, you will discover even more about his remarkable life.

Photos courtesy of the Nevin Scrimshaw International Nutrition Foundation.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.