Wilbur Olin Atwater
Best known for fathering modern nutrition in the United States, for pioneering nutrition research and education in the country, and for having developed the system of measuring energy in food that is used throughout the world today, a lesser known fact about USDA’s first chief of nutritional investigations Wilbur Olin Atwater was that he also fought for our right to enjoy a good stiff drink.
In the early 1880s, the US temperance movement was in full force and widely promoted the myth that alcoholic beverages were “poison,” destructive to families, and that drinking them served only to fill the greedy pockets of saloons and breweries. One of the most influential women in the movement was Mary Hunt, who in alliance with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had managed to convince politicians to pass laws that required physiology textbooks in schools to encourage complete abstinence of alcohol and its prohibition.
Vehemently protesting the measure was Atwater, arguing that alcohol was not “poison” and that children should only be taught the “simple facts” supported by science and that those facts be free of “exaggerated theories” and “errors.” But, for his position, he suffered personal criticism by Hunt, as well as attacks on his career and on his funding from the USDA, even his ability to publish scientific papers.
Biostatistician David Allison, professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and 2014 recipient of the W.O. Atwater Lectureship awarded by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), drew parallels between Atwater’s and some of his own experiences, such as his publications regarding the science of sugar-sweetened beverages, in fighting for rigorous research in obesity and nutrition.
In his lecture given on Tuesday, April 29, at Experimental Biology in San Diego, Dr. Allison said, “As you see, these things are repeating today. I think we need to try to try to learn those lessons from history, try to come out in favor of truthfulness in science, saying what we believe, and being able to engage in dialogue without trying to shut each other down.”
When we take the long view, Dr. Allison said, there has been positive progress made across the field of nutrition science at a practical level. For example, we have effectively eliminated lead and other toxins from our wine and foods. We have made many advances in agriculture and have come to understand much about nutrition, which has allowed us to radically reduce hunger and nutrient deficiencies in most of the developed world. Continue reading