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Nevin Scrimshaw

Nevin Scrimshaw 130x180Nevin Scrimshaw died in February 2013. His profile will remain posted here.

A Milwaukee native born in 1918, I earned a doctorate in physiology from Harvard in 1941 and a medical degree from the University of Rochester four years later. My contributions to human nutrition began during medical training, with studies of nutrition and pregnancy in Panama and Rochester, New York.

In recognition of this work, I was asked to establish the Institute of Nutrition of Central American and Panama (INCAP) in Guatemala. As founding director from 1949 to 1961, I led the development of this institution from an initial membership of three countries and no staff with advanced training, to a leader in the prevention of nutritional deficiencies. INCAP has remained a centre for nutrition and food science research, training, and application in Latin America and elsewhere in the world.

In the 1950s, I worked on the prevention of kwashiorkor. Characterised by apathy, anorexia, swelling, blackening of the skin, and hair loss, kwashiorkor affected children throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Typically, untreated children would die of the disease within weeks of diagnosis. Realising from studies at INCAP and elsewhere that the deficiency developed when breastmilk was no longer the sole source of food, I searched for an alternative protein source available to impoverished Central American families. At the time, the cost of one protein-rich egg or a glass of milk was equivalent to that of a meal for an entire family.

With my team at INCAP I led the development of Incaparina, a fortified mixture of local cotton-seed flour and lime-treated maize, which could be purchased at one-fifth of the cost of milk. By the 1990s this was being given to 80 per cent of Guatemalan children in their first year of life. During the 1967 famine in India, I helped to guide the development of a similar food, Balahar, from peanut and wheat flours. The principle of basing nutrition programmes on locally produced, lower-cost foods to ensure the prevention of malnutrition has been reproduced in many countries.

While at INCAP, my team also focused on endemic goiter, a result of iodine deficiency. Characterised by a swelling of the thyroid gland, it can lead to mental retardation, deafness, and dwarfism in children born to deficient mothers. I found that the European and North American technique of iodising salt with water-soluble potassium iodide was not applicable to lower-income countries where salt is a crude product often sold moist on a palm leaf.

We then learned of an .insoluble compound of iodine, potassium iodate, that might be used for iodising crude moist salt if its iodine was biologically available. Trials among school children in Guatemala and El Salvador, among whom goitre prevalence was approximately 60 percent, demonstrated that iodine was equally available and effective from either compound. Other studies showed that the iodine in potassium iodate enriched salt remained available, no matter how it was marketed. These results prompted me and my colleagues to work with governments of the region to require iodisation of all salt for human consumption.

At the time salt iodisation was introduced in Guatemala, national prevalence of endemic goitre was 38 per cent. Within two years, it had dropped to 14 per cent, and by the third year levels had fallen to virtually zero. Since then, this intervention has eliminated or diminished iodine deficiency as a public health problem in most lower-income countries.

Observations on the interactions of nutrition and infection led to the 1967 WHO monograph written with two colleagues, with this title. In the 1960s, I was instrumental in developing broad US support for high-priority research on nutrition problems in Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Visiting camps in India in 1971 in which 15 million persons had sought refuge from the civil war in Bangladesh, I was appalled by the high mortality among infants and young children. To counter it, I helped UNICEF obtain approval for the distribution of a special weaning food that saved the lives of many children.

I remain an active advocate of adequately feeding the world. I also remain an advisor in the field of food and nutrition to governments, international and national organisations. I advise and write on nutrition from my home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

In 1961, two years after earning my MPH at Harvard, I established the new department of nutrition and food science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I initiated research in 1981 on the functional consequences of iron deficiency, particularly impaired cognition, a field of study that continues to occupy me as coordinator of the Iron Deficiency Project Advisory Service, sponsored by the International Nutrition Foundation , which I founded in 1982 and led until 2009.While at MIT I convened international meetings on nutrition, learning and behaviour, and single cell protein for human consumption, that became major areas of research applicable to lower-income countries. I also developed an international food and nutrition programme at MIT. In 1975 I initiated and for two decades directed the World Hunger Programme of the United Nations University, and its successor, the Food, Nutrition Programme for Human and Social Development . I continue to advise the programme and edited its publications for many years.

I am professor emeritus at MIT and a visiting professor at Tufts University. More than 500 food and nutrition scientists have been educated and trained in programmes that I and colleagues have created, helping the most impoverished areas of the world identify and meet their most pressing nutritional personnel needs. In my 85th year I received a $US 5 million five-year foundation grant to continue the type of fellowship opportunities to which my life has been devoted

I have written or edited over 20 books and monographs and more than 650 articles on clinical nutrition, nutrition and infection, agricultural and food chemistry, food and nutrition policy, and public health nutrition. I continue to teach workshops internationally and recently completed research projects in Syria, Bangladesh and Ghana. I have received over 40 honorary degrees, honorary professorships and awards of merit and recognition from all over the world. In September 1988, I received the Bristol-Myers award for distinguished achievements in nutrition research. I became a Fellow of the American Institute of Nutrition in 1985. I have held the Joseph Goldberger Award in Clinical Nutrition, given by the American Medical Association, and the McCollum Award of the American Society for Clinical Nutrition. In 1991 I was the World Food Prize laureate. Awarded the Kellogg/ Society for International Nutrition Research International Prize in 2002, Have also been honoured by the UN for ‘a lifetime of achievement, and service to its Standing Committee on Nutrition’, I am a member of the US National Academy of Science, and a former president of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences. Association founder member.