‘Feeder of the Masses’ — Nevin Scrimshaw, 1918-2013

By Riley McDavid   Riley McDavid

Mrs. McD and I were reading last week — she, the New York Times;

 I, Golf Digest — when after many minutes of silence she said, “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. McD was still looking at  me.  I turned to see that indeed she was — “glaring” would have been a more accurate verb.

“You have no idea who Nevin Scrimshaw was, do you?” she said sharply.

“Of course I do.  He’s the Brit who wrote On the Beach.”

“That was Nevil Shute,” she replied even sharper.  (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? Even Meals on Wheels needs them. But so the world has one less nutritionist.  Is that so awful?”

Bad move.  Bad, bad thing to say.  You see, Mrs. McD studied nutrition in college.  Not just your ordinary how-many-calories-and-carbohydrates-a-day nutrition, but the nutrition of people in developing countries. Did your mom ever tell you to finish your meal because starving kids in poor countries would love to have the food you were passing up? Mrs. McD went light years beyond that.  She could actually tell you what those kids were eating — and more importantly, what they weren’t eating and why it was killing them. I soon realized that Dr. Scrimshaw was one of her heroes. So I spent the next hour or so 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 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 tirelessly to improve the health of millions of children in developing countries by creating low-cost vegetable-based foods for weaning infants. During the course of 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,” 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 we cite the late Dr. Robert Butler, the founder of gerontology, who said our goal shouldn’t be just to live to 90, “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.  If Age Well had a hall of fame, Dr. Scrimshaw would be a charter member.

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.”

After I finished this blog, Mrs. McD 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.

Coming up on the Age Well Calendar:

 Friday February 22: 6th Annual Senior Summit Clubhouse 3, Laguna Woods Village, 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Registration begins at 8 a.m. Complimentary breakfast and lunch. RSVP to (800) 510-2020 or (714) 567-7500.

Saturday, March 2: “The Captain’s Ball 2013. Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.  Cocktail reception and Silent Auction begin at 6 p.m., followed by dinner, live auction and dancing.

Monday, June 3: Clyde Wright Invitational Golf Tournament. Benefiting Meals on Wheels and other Senior Services. 11 a.m. shotgun start at the Aliso Viejo Country Club. Golf plus continental breakfast, box lunch, buffet dinner, plus prizes for contests.  For more info, call (949) 855-8033.

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