Simmering the Bones off the History of Nutrition Science

by Molly Laas, MHS Short Term Fellow an dACLS/Mellon Public Fellow & Editor at Data & Society

One of the least exciting archival holdings I was set to check out at the Massachusetts Historical Society was a copy of Edward Atkinson’s 1892 book The Science of Nutrition. I am writing a history of the formation of nutrition science in the U.S., and Atkinson, a Boston businessman and self-taught economist, was very interested in food and diet. He cultivated close ties with both the newly minted home economics movement and the chemists and physiologists who were framing the central questions of nutrition science. Despite Atkinson’s proximity to the development of nutrition science in the U.S., his book merited only a quick glance from me because I had already read it, and found it bizarre and tedious. The book was not about science at all, but instead extolled the virtues of the Aladdin oven, a slow cooker of Atkinson’s own design, that purportedly would help workers live within their means by allowing them to stew dry beans and cheap, tough cuts of meat to palatable tenderness. If workers could control their own cost of living, boom, there would be no need for them to agitate for higher wages, and the labor problem would be solved.

However, The Science of Nutrition became more interesting to me as I sat in the MHS reading room to examine the circumstances of its launch into the world. Labor advocates, economists, and scientists of the day issued scathing critiques of Atkinson’s notion that controlling food costs would allow workers to live on a shockingly low salary, as little as $500 a year. Yet The Science of Nutrition can be found in nearly every academic library in the United States. Andrew Carnegie was a strong supporter of Atkinson’s diet and cost of living theories, and provided the funds to send copies to thousands of U.S. libraries.[1] The book’s prevalence got me thinking about how a science of daily life, like nutrition, is defined in the public mind.

At the turn of the century, professional scientists had a different view than Atkinson did about the purpose of nutrition science and what it could and could not achieve. One scientist, W.O. Atwater, thought of nutrition science as a means for improving health, and part of his aim was to set a high dietary standard that was ample enough to facilitate better health and strength for laborers. He took a dim view of the Aladdin oven and was far more cautious than Atkinson was about the question of wages and diet, noting in an 1886 letter to Atkinson that “there are a Scylla of labor agitation and a Charybdis of physiological considerations to sail between.”[2] Atkinson, as was his wont, powered his boat straight ahead into the controversy, with a series of incendiary speeches before labor unions about how they could live well on pennies using his oven.[3]

The controversy over The Science of Nutrition lays bare a central tension in the history of nutrition, between professional scientists and lay diet teachers of all stripes. Nutrition is not just a laboratory science producing a one-way flow of facts about diet; popular demands upon nutrition science deeply influence the kinds of questions scientists ask. In addition, professional scientists are just one, not always very loud or authoritative, voice in a raucous public discussion about diet and health.[4]

Which leads me, slowly and warmly, back to Atkinson’s The Science of Nutrition. What does its ubiquity in archives and libraries tell us about the way the public understood nutrition science in the late nineteenth century? For one thing, Atkinson’s lively public persona and taste for notoriety was an excellent way to spread his ideas. The public pushback that Atwater received from labor advocates cemented the notion that nutrition was a science of parsimony and limited diets, rather than one that aimed at ample nutrition and a high standard of living. One worker summed up this view in an open letter to Atkinson, writing that Atkinsons’s “cantankerous” state of mind was caused by his “great disappointment in seeing the laboring and producing classes suddenly rise up in a body and refuse to be starved.”[5]

[1] Atkinson to Theodore A. Havermeyer, Nov 20 1895, Atkinson to Thomas Egleston, March 9 1896, MHS archives.

[2] W.O. Atwater to Atkinson, Nov 6 1886. MHS.

[3] Atkinson, Addresses Upon the Labor Question (Boston: Franklin Press: Rand, Avery & Company, 1886). MHS.

[4] Rima D. Apple, Vitamania: Vitamins in American Culture (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996); Corinna Treitel, Eating Nature in Modern Germany: Food, Agriculture, and Environment, c.1870 to 2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[5] W.H. McLaughlin, “An Open Letter to Mr. Edward Atkinson,” Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922), September 3, 1896.