I grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and very early in life experienced the impact of public health nutrition policy by being on the receiving end of food rationing and supplements of cod liver oil, rose-hip syrup and concentrate orange juice (all delicious). Despite the limited number of foods available we were well provided for nutritionally. Herring was a prominent part of our childhood diet. Their decline around the coast of Scotland first made me aware of the wider picture of global changes in the availability of different foods sources.
My interest in science and also arts and crafts, as well as misrepresentation of the profession in a careers talk, led me to study dentistry in Edinburgh. By the second year I knew that this was not for me but I graduated as a dental surgeon. I then spent a research year in Paris where my horizons were broadened by meeting students from all over the world. It was there that I read the inspiring Geography of Hunger by the Brazilian physician, academic, member of parliament and activist, Josué de Castro, who had received the International Peace Prize in 1953, while chairman of the council of FAO.
I migrated to Berkeley in California in the late 1960s and became progressively politicised in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war ferment. I was offered a research post in the nutrition department to work on fish protein concentrate. This was one of the proposed means of ‘solving’ the current big issue, the ‘World Protein Gap’. However, people were concerned that the concentrate had excessive levels of fluoride. While researching this I also studied for a Masters in nutrition, so sliding from dentistry to broader themes. I then spent two years in Iran at the Institute of Nutrition in Teheran, my first practical experience of an economically developing country, with sharp contrasts between rich and poor and extensive severe malnutrition despite the riches. My work there included helping with Institute projects such as measuring the energy requirements of different sections of the population, and carrying out research on lactation failure as the field work for my PhD, and taking on consultancies on nutrition problems in remote areas. These were the foundations of my interest in public health nutrition.
Two years in Paris followed, working in the laboratory of Professor Jean Trémolières whose approach to nutrition was very different from the Anglo-Saxon reductionist approach into nutrients. He also emphasised the importance of the social aspects of food and its ‘voluptuousness’. Then back to Berkeley to finish the PhD.
I was then appointed lecturer in the University of London (Queen Elizabeth College, later merged with King’s College) to teach public health nutrition and food and nutrition policy, where I have remained ever since. My teaching and research later extended into other areas, including energy metabolism and obesity, and iron metabolism. And my experience of public health nutrition also extended, through consultancies and PhD students, to many countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. I also spent a sabbatical year as visiting professor in Cornell, with visits to China, helping to analyse data from the Cornell-Oxford-Beijing China Project that related aspects of nutrition to social and environmental factors.
Over the decades of my involvement in nutrition it has been fascinating to follow and participate in the development of the subject and the growth of interest in public health nutrition and policy. In the early 1970s the weaknesses of the nutrition system were highlighted first in Alan Berg’s seminal book The Nutrition Factor. Then followed Leonard Joy and Philip Payne’s national nutrition planning which was promoted by FAO and USDA and attempted by several countries. However at that time it often proved impracticable to take into account the many factors affecting nutrition because of the complexity of coordinating different sectors. It was also difficult to make rational choices between possible interventions as there were so few evaluations of their effectiveness.
Since then we know much more about what is effective, the ‘Protein Gap’ has been relegated to a myth, and we have learned from this experience how inappropriate policies can be made. With this increased knowledge, the recent pressures for improvements in the nutrition system, and the setting up of international and other agency collaborations, we are now in a much stronger position to act more effectively in public health nutrition.
Currently Professor Emerita of Human Nutrition, King’s College London and consultant in Human Nutrition. Previously visiting professor at MRC Human Nutrition Research and associate at Darwin College, Cambridge; Director of UK Higher Education Academy, Centre for Health Sciences and Practice; professor of Human Nutrition, King’s College London; head, division of health sciences, School of Health and Life Sciences, Kings College London; Head of department of Nutrition and Dietetics, Kings College London; visiting professor, Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University.
International consultancies and advisory bodies: World Bank; WHO; European Parliament; Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR); United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); Asian Development Bank; Parsconsult; FAO; International Livestock Centre for Africa; British Council. Publications: over 200 academic journal articles, research reports, reviews, book chapters and books including Geissler & Powers (eds) Human Nutrition, Elsevier (11th edition 2005, 12th edition 2010); Geissler & Powers, Fundamentals of Human Nutrition, Elsevier, 2009; Vaughan & Geissler, New Oxford Book of Food Plants (1st edition 1997, 2nd edition 2009).
Committee membership has included: Food Advisory Committee to UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) , subsequently to UK Food Standards Agency (FSA); British Nutrition Society Council; International and Public Health Group of Nutrition Society; Society for International Nutrition (AIN) executive committee; World Cancer Research Fund Grant Review Panel; UN Standing Committee for Nutrition (SCN) NGO/CSO advisory group.